Dr. Leff’s Guide to Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy. America’s Declaration of Independence enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” as a core American value. I’ve written about “The Secret of Happiness” before – my conclusion then being that happiness is a result not a goal. Last week I read an article someone posted on Facebook about happiness: “The Way to Happiness: Remember the Four P’s.” At first I thought the suggestions all sounded reasonable enough. Have Purpose in your life, keep things in Perspective, People, as in friends, are important, and make time to Play.

But as I thought about the topic some more, I realized there’s a huge problem with all of these recommendations on how to find happiness, all based on the rapidly growing body of “happiness research.” Actually, I have two problems with the recommendations:

  1. No one else’s “guide” will work for you. Sure, research may say “80% of people who do “x” are happier than others.” But what if you’re one of the 20% for whom that doesn’t work? Besides, as anyone who has had an elementary college statistics class knows (and hopefully high school kids would have learned this as well) – correlation does not mean cause and effect.
  2. The other huge problem is with happiness itself. Happiness is ephemeral. Happiness is the opposite of sad, and both are feelings that come and go. Even if you live a wonderful, meaningful life, things will happen that leave you feeling sad. How happy or sad you tend to feel also is estimated to be 50% determined by genetics. So the biggest factor in whether or not you’ll feel happy is something you have no control over whatsoever. But just because you incline toward melancholy does not mean you cannot have a meaningful, good life. I invite those of you who suffer from depression to weigh in on this point. But it seems to me that society’s aversion to “sadness” and glorification of “happiness” has led to the explosion in the use of anti-depressants. Feel sad? Take a pill, it’ll go away.

Pursuing happiness is pursuing wind. Being happy because you take a pill to dispel darkness will not leave you feeling content with the life you are living. I’m not saying there is no place for anti-depressants – there certainly is. Some people get so overwhelmed by depression they cannot function. Many scientists believe that clinical depression – as opposed to merely a personality predisposition to melancholy – is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, so treating them with chemicals can make sense. But research indicates anti-depressants are wildly overprescribed.

So instead of “Dr. Leff’s Guide to Happiness” – since happiness is fleeting – how about “Rabbi Leff’s Guide to Contentment?”

We still have a problem. I would change what I said in the above mentioned article about the secret of happiness – instead of saying happiness is result, not a goal, I would saying a feeling of contentment – being able to say “I’ve lived a good life” – is an outcome, a result, and not a goal. Live a good life, and you’ll feel content. But actively pursuing “contentment” is likely as doomed to failure as actively pursuing “happiness.” The point is, “live a good life – a feeling of contentment will follow.”

So let’s try one more time. Instead of offering Dr. Leff’s Guide to Happiness, or Rabbi Leff’s Guide to Contentment, here’s “Barry’s Guide to Living a Good Life.”

First of all, everyone’s idea of a good life will be different. Figure out what’s yours. If you’re living it, great. If not, well, why not? I’m not bragging or anything, but maybe my 58 years on the planet has given me a little bit of wisdom. I feel reasonably content. If I got hit by a car tomorrow, God forbid, I’d be able to take leave of the world saying “it was a good life.” So here’s what has worked for me.

  1. Preventive maintenance. Probably the single most important piece of advice I have is “take care of yourself.” Physically, spiritually, intellectually. If you are pain, if you can’t move, if your brain hasn’t been used in ages, etc., it will be hard to feel content.
    1. Exercise. Do something. Even if it’s just a walk around the block, get your body moving and your blood pumping. I do something physically strenuous on average 5 days a week.
    2. Learning. Never stop. Try and make some time every day to read something that will expand your horizons.
    3. Take care of your soul. Whatever works for you. For me it’s been a combination of prayer/meditation. Sometimes I get a “two-fer” because exercise can also feel like a form of meditation to me. Whatever activity does it for you, make time to take care of your soul.
  2. Go for it. As I said above, if you’re not living what you believe is a “good life,” why not? The attitude of “go for it” has been central to my being. It does not necessarily mean fulfilling “lifelong dreams.” I never did become a cop or an astronaut. If you told my 15-year-old self that someday he’d be a rabbi living in Israel, I’m sure he would have thought you were on drugs. At different times I’ve wanted to do different things. I have always at least tried doing different things – getting married, having kids, flying planes, SCUBA Diving, martial arts, starting a company, becoming a rabbi, running the Israel Trail.

    Part and parcel of a “go for it” attitude is don’t be afraid of failure. I think that’s what stops a lot of people from “going for it.” What if I can’t do it? Hell, I’ve had a lot of failure: failed relationships, failed marriages, I was fired from a company I started, I got my ass kicked in Tae Kwon Do tournaments. I wanted to be a Naval Flight Officer and was disqualified for a physical issue, so I signed up to be an Air Intelligence Officer instead and dropped out. But at least I tried. And if you try enough things, you’ll succeed at some. Failure is a learning experience. There are studies that say one of the reasons America is the world’s innovation engine is that the culture accepts “failure.” In Silicon Valley failing in a startup is not a sign of shame. It’s part of “earning your stripes.” You pick yourself up and go to the next one. Not long ago I posted a picture to my FB page “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes I think I’ll make some more.” It got a lot of likes.

  3. Meaning. I find doing SOMETHING meaningful, either professionally or as a volunteer, is important. You can feel better about yourself if you feel like your presence on the planet is contributing to its improvement.
  4. People. Some people can be content living alone in a cabin in the woods or by themselves in a studio apartment in the city. If you’re one of them, good for you, you don’t need this part of the happiness guide. Me, I need to have people around. Advice guides talk about the importance of having friends, but for most people a solid “primary relationship” is more important. If your love life is a soap opera it can be difficult to get other things done or to enjoy other things in life. It’s good to have a partner. And for those times when your love life IS a soap opera, it’s good to have friends whose shoulders you can cry on.
  5. Time. It’s always been important to me to make time for the things that are important. For me, there are four particular times that are important:
    1. Early morning. Time for me, especially for getting exercise. I find if I don’t do it first thing in the morning, it doesn’t happen.
    2. Cocktail Hour. I’m not suggesting you need alcohol, although I enjoy relaxing with a bit of single malt Scotch at cocktail hour and some red wine with dinner. But cocktail hour is symbolically important for me – it helps set a boundary between work and the rest of my life.
    3. Date night. If you’re in a relationship, quality time with your partner is important.
    4. Shabbat. One of God’s better ideas. I go 24×6, but not 24×7: even God took a day off. Whether or not you’re Jewish, make time for the things you say are important. Recharge your batteries. Talk about things that matter. Unplug from your bleeping devices at least once a week.
  6. Attitude. If all it took to be happy was to have the right attitude, we would only have needed one self-help book on the topic and we could have been done. I think there are several attitudes I have that have contributed to my feeling of living a good life:
    1. I like to have fun, and I make time and spend money doing so.
    2. Spend more money on doing things than buying things. But if you love collecting stuff, maybe that’s what works for you. Doesn’t do it for me.
    3. Prepare for the future, but don’t obsess over it.
    4. Don’t be a schmuck.
    5. Make your default answer “yes.” It’s OK to say no if there are reasons. But I’ve always found being open to new experiences, to spending time with friends, whatever, has contributed to my enjoyment of life.

So there you have it. My ideas for what goes into making a “good life.” Now go make your own guide, live you own good life, and let me know what you come up with. We can compare notes! J


Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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