Looking Beyond the Instant to Find Happiness

Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Mahattan Jewish Experience

NOW UP ON THE TIMES OF ISRAEL

By Rabbi Mark Wildes

Where the Happiest People Live

A new study surveying 20,000 young people from 20 different countries reveals a fascinating trend when it comes to people’s level of happiness. The study, conducted by the Varkey Foundation, called “Generation Z: Global Citizenship Survey – What the World’s Young People Think and Feel, reported that young people living in developing countries reported they were the happiest.

Indonesia emerged as the happiest, Nigeria came in second and India third place. Young people in developed and more prosperous nations like France, England, Australia and Japan ranked well down on the happiness scale with the United States somewhere in the middle.

How is it that people living in countries like Indonesia and Nigeria consider themselves happier than those living in the United States or England?

Factors That Determine Happiness

The simple answer is that prosperity and economic advancement are not factors which guarantee happiness.

Despite the opportunities and conveniences that science and technology has given our world, and despite the healthier, longer and more affluent lifestyles people in the West are thankfully living, our happiness levels, particularly amongst young people, have dropped. From my 20 years of working with young Jewish professionals, my strong sense is that this is due to our generation’s unfulfilled need for a lasting value system, like no generation before.

Freedoms That Trap Us

The instantaneous nature of the Western world today has paradoxically deprived us of the very activities and lifestyle that produce dedication and loyalty, values necessary for sustaining meaningful relationships. There are no longer constraints on the kind of mate we choose or how we date and pursue relationships. Moral relativism, now religiously taught on college campuses, has left us on our own in terms of how we make ethical decisions.

We do what feels right to us or simply adopt the ever-changing norms of society, but both leave us questioning whether our lives have any real guiding values or principles. We don’t want to be told what to do or what to believe in, but we know something is missing and we’re less happy.

In the West, and certainly in America, we are proud of the freedoms we enjoy and feel privileged to live in an open society, but because we lack a higher wisdom to tap into for moral and spiritual direction, we feel trapped. We’re trapped in the open with too many options, the only guiding value being our freedom to choose.

But what should we choose?

Living “Beyond the Instant”

What are the values and principles that will truly fill our lives with purpose and meaning, and enable us to lead happier and more fulfilled lives?

This question is precisely why I wrote my first book, Beyond the Instant: Jewish Wisdom for Lasting Happiness in a Fast Pace Social Media World.

Too many of us have relegated the wisdom of our religious faith to the past and locked it away. We view the Bible as a relic, an antiquated artifact that loses its relevance after one’s Confirmation or Bar/Bat-Mitzvah. I have spent the last 20 years reconnecting young men and women to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish Sages, and I have devoted myself to this enterprise because I believe these works provide timeless wisdom for the very issues young people, and really all of us, struggle with in our contemporary society.

It’s a unique kind of spiritual wisdom which brings about happiness beyond the instant, which can help sustain relationships for the long run. It’s an approach that I’ve seen build confidence, character, and sense of self like nothing else can.

To me, no value system is more relevant and helpful to the issues and challenges facing Americans and Westerners than the philosophy and heritage of Judaism.

Nothing speaks more to the modern issues of consumerism, materialism, lack of meaning, and fulfillment than does the Hebrew Bible and the wisdom of the Jewish Sages. Their principles and values can afford modern men and women not simply a way to worship, but a way to live.

Beyond the Instant represents my humble attempt to demonstrate how much contemporary relevance there is to Judaism and, ultimately, how its teachings, if studied and applied, can fill our lives with the kind of purpose and meaning so many of us seek. I have been privileged to personally witness the transformative impact Jewish values can have on people, and how its profound insight and wisdom give the kind of meaning and direction so many young people are looking for today.

Religion Can Be A Spiritual Guide

Ours is a generation skeptical of religion. Its teachings are viewed as primitive and outdated, and so we’ve turned to psychology and works of self-help to find a guide. There is certainly wisdom to be found there, but why not also consult a system that has withstood the test of time and from which the great monotheistic faiths have emerged? Why let our religious cynicism deny us a perspective that has provided meaning and direction for billions of people for close to four millennia?

Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork, one of the top start-up companies (worth $20 billion at the time of writing), attributes his happiness not to his financial success, but to his turn to Sabbath observance.

Mayim Bialik, the Emmy Award-winning actress on The Big Bang Theory (the highest ranked comedy on TV), blogs about how Jewish values and observances bring great meaning to her life.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, nominated by Al Gore for vice president in 2000, consults with rabbis and Jewish scholars for spiritual guidance on the most pressing issues of his life.

These high-profile individuals have found personal fulfillment and greater professional success by accessing the wisdom of the Torah, and so can all of us. Beyond the Instant draws upon Judaism’s unique reservoir of wisdom to answer questions like:

  • What produces sustained joy and happiness?
  • What should we be looking for in a potential mate and once we’ve found that person, how can we make the relationship last?
  • What is sex really supposed to be about?
  • How can we learn from our failures and take more control of our lives?
  • Do we have a mission in life and how can we choose values over popularity?
  • How can we be more present to enjoy life more and is real change truly possible?

The answers to these questions may not alone produce the kind of enlightening happiness our generation lacks, but I’m confident that applying Judaism’s tested values to one’s life can make a real difference. I’ve seen it with thousands of my students – the change is real and it’s the kind of change we need in our world today in order to live “Beyond the Instant.”

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