For many years, the most popular undergraduate class at Harvard University was Intro to Economics. Students likely assumed that this class would teach them financial literacy and help them amass wealth, so there is little surprise that they attended in droves. But in 2006, a different course superseded the science of money. Tal Ben-Shahar, an Israeli-born psychologist, taught Positive Psychology, a course that offered psychological insights into daily joy and life fulfillment. More than 800 students attended, making it the most popular course ever taught at the university. It was so popular that students’ parents and a handful of grandparents started showing up as well. This serves as one of many examples that there is a thirst these days to study and learn about human happiness.
There is well known Jewish tale about a poor man who lived with his wife and children in a tiny one-room house. They were always getting in each other’s way in their cramped and crowded quarters and, needless to say, no one was very happy.
Finally the man could take it no longer, and upon his wife’s urging he went to see the wise old rabbi. The rabbi welcomed him warmly and after exchanging pleasantries asked him what was troubling him. And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with his whole family eating and living and sleeping in one room. He told the rabbi how they even started yelling and fighting with one another. Life couldn’t be worse. After pondering deeply about the poor man’s problem the rabbi lifted his head and said: “You must do exactly what I tell you. If you do than things will begin to get better.” The poor man promised he would.
“Do you own any animals?” asked the rabbi. The poor man thought it an odd question, but he answered in the affirmative. “I have one goat, one cow, and some chickens.”
“Very well,” said the rabbi. “When you get home, bring all the animals into your house to live with you.”
The poor man was dumbfounded by this peculiar advice, but he had promised to do precisely what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the animals into his small one-room home.
The next morning the poor man ran back to the rabbi in exasperation. “What have you done to me, Rabbi?” he cried. “It’s dreadful. I did exactly what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!”
The rabbi listened and said wisely stroked his long white beard. “Now go back home and take the chickens back outside. But only the chickens” The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back yet again the next morning. “I took the chickens out Rabbi, but the goat!” he whines. “The goat is destroying all the furniture and chewing everything in sight!”
The wise old rabbi said, “Go home and remove the goat as well, and may G-d bless you.”
So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But it was not long before came running back, crying and wailing, to see the rabbi again. “What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! I feel like I’m living in a stable! Can a human being live with a cow like this?”
The rabbi said softy, “My sweet friend, you are right. G-d bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house.” And the poor man hurried home and took the cow out of the house.
The next day he was back at the rabbi again. “Oh Rabbi,” he said, his face beaming with happiness, “life is so good now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and spacious! What a joy!”
This silly old tale may be just that, but it also contains a small precious kernel of truth: to be happy, one can either change the world, or change their perspective.
What is happiness? Why, despite it being the pursuit of mankind since the dawn of humanity, does it remain so elusive? What is the self-concept that yields happiness?
How can I turn my good fortune -Good fortune, wealth, beauty, genius, or power- into happiness? How can we rise above the everyday worries and frustrations? What can help us cope through difficult moments of grief? How can spirituality and meaning help you take your happiness to greater heights?
These are just some of the topics and ideas we will touch upon in our brand new course that can change your reality: How Happiness Thinks.
Join us for 6 classes, beginning Tuesday, Nov. 4th, 7:30pm at the St. Paul JCC. Visit Spchabad.com/JLI for more information and to register.
Drawing upon Jewish and mystical teachings and contrasting 3000 years of Jewish wisdom on happiness with the latest observations and discoveries in positive psychology, this course will present you with a deeper understanding of yourself, and give practical advice which, when implemented, will radically enhance the happiness quotient of your life.
Prepared in partnership between JLI and the Washington School of Psychiatry, the course offers up to 15 American Psychological Association (APA) continuing education credits.
Check out our Minneapolis affiliate here.