How does Judaism define happiness?

While happiness is a value in Judaism, it is joy, or simcha, that is truly worthy. We tend to pursue happiness by trying to be wealthier or materialistic. By contrast, joy is the ability to celebrate life with security, to enjoy the presence of others, and to care for and give joy to others. This is the concept of simcha in Judaism, and it is a central part of what it means to be a Jew.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l wrote: “Jews have known suffering, isolation, hardship, and rejection, yet they never lacked the religious courage to rejoice. A people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.”

The importance of joy

Jewish tradition stresses the importance of joy and happiness in connection with serving God and observing the commandments. For example, the Talmud (Berakhot 31a) states,

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אֵין עוֹמְדִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְבוּת, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְלוּת, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שְׂחוֹק, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂיחָה, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ קַלּוּת רֹאשׁ, וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבָרִים בְּטֵלִים, אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה.

The Sages taught: One should not rise to pray amidst a state of sorrow, nor amidst slothfulness, nor amidst laughter, nor amidst chatter, nor amidst lightheadedness, nor amidst idle words, but rather amidst simcha shel mitzvah (joy associated with a mitzvah).

What is happiness? 

This is how Tehillim (Psalms) 1 describes it (v. 1-3):

אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃

כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתוֹרַ֥ת ה’ חֶ֫פְצ֥וֹ וּֽבְתוֹרָת֥וֹ יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃

וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֮ שָׁתוּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י־מָ֥יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר פִּרְי֨וֹ ׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּעִתּ֗וֹ וְעָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבּ֑וֹל וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיחַ׃

Happy (ashrei) is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners or sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers.

The difference between happiness and joy

Rabbi Sacks contrasted happiness (ashrei) and simcha (joy): 

“Happiness [ashrei] is the state of mind of an individual. Simcha in the Torah is never about individuals. It is always about something we share… The festivals as described in Deuteronomy are days of joy, precisely because they are occasions of collective celebration: ‘you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the strangers, the fatherless and the widows living among you’ (16:11). Simcha is joy shared. It is not something we experience in solitude.

Happiness is an attitude to life as a whole, while joy lives in the moment. As J. D. Salinger once said: ‘Happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid.’ Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.”

The golden mean of happiness

In the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot (Laws of Human Dispositions) 1:4, Rambam describes happiness as an ideal state in between two extremes:

וְלֹא יְהֵא מְהוֹלֵל וְשׂוֹחֵק וְלֹא עָצֵב וְאוֹנֵן אֶלָּא שָׂמֵחַ כָּל יָמָיו בְּנַחַת בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת.

One should not be overly elated and laugh, nor be sad and mournful, but rather one should be happy (sameach) at all times, with a friendly countenance.

Gratitude is a form of happiness

Pirkei Avot 4:1 states,

אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קכח) יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ, בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. וְטוֹב לָךְ, לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא.

Who is rich? One who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Tehillim 128:2). “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come.

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