The Secret of Happiness

by Chana Klein

What is the secret to happiness? How many of us do things, begin new programs, spend a lot of money, etc. all so that we may find happiness.

As a life-coach I get calls from people who are not happy with their lives. Some are even depressed.

So what do the people who are not depressed, the people who are happy, what do they do or think that those who are depressed don't?

What is the secret to happiness?

It says in the Torah that we are created in G-d's image- Tzelem Elokeem. So if that is the image in which we are created, wouldn't we be most fulfilled and happy when we are doing what our creator does. After all, we're created in His image.

But how can we find out what God does?

There is a paragraph in the Standing Prayer (the Amidah) that we say three times each day that tells us what G-d really does. It tells us that G-d:

M'chalkel chayim b'chesed
sustains the living with kindness
m'chayeh metim b'rachamim rabim
resurrects the dead with overflowing compassion
How many of us know people who are dead in some way?
somech nof'lim
lifts up the fallen,
Have you ever fallen in some way?
v'rofe cholim
and heals the sick,
u'matir asurim
He releases captives
How many or us are captives to things like video games,
to tv or even food?
um'kayem emunato lishenei afar
and is faithful to those who fall asleep in the dust -
Are those the people who most of us would feel like judging -
those who sleep (unaware of what they are doing in the dust -
but to whom G-d is faithful?

So what does all this mean? What is the essence of what G-d does? And what can we do to be like Him? There lies the secret of happiness. But what is that secret really?

I got my biggest lesson on how to be happy and what happiness is when I lived in a third world country, Ensenada, Mexico.

I went there originally to improve my Spanish, to learn the language better so that I may pass the Los Angeles School District exam as a bilingual teacher. But I learned a much more valuable life lesson - I learned about how to be happy.

Let me tell you about the people in Ensenada. They were what we would call poverty-stricken. Yet, they were the happiest people I have ever met.

They were my teachers of how to be happy.

I lived there with a family, a young couple. Their house had walls and a roof. But only one room had flooring, the kitchen. The rest of the floors were of a kind of hard, rocky, soil material. There was a washing machine outside the back door which had to be cranked around and around and around in order to wash the clothes. The bathroom was located in the backyard which was tough at night for me because there were dogs barking and walking around all night. Thank God for ear plugs. In the sunlight I could see the dog's ribs sticking out of their skin. It was clear that they were starving. There were so many of them, probably too many, for the already impoverished people to feed.

None of the houses in Ensenada owned a telephone. When a person wanted to talk to someone, there was no phone to pick up and then hang up and then be alone when the conversation finished, like we do here in the US...

There, when we wanted to speak with someone, we had to leave our house and go to that person's house. But on the way to that house, we would meet people we knew in the streets who also were going to another person's house. Having run into each other, we would stand there on the street talking and laughing and laughing and talking. And then if we still remembered why we were there in the first place, we would go to the person's house whom we had planned to visit.

Contrast that with how we live today in say, New Jersey. We don't even call people so quickly. It's too intrusive. It is more proper to email a person first or if we know them well, to IM (Instant Message) them. If it's so intrusive to call on the telephone without emailing first, then what can we say about actually visiting someone unannounced? - Heaven forbid that we infringe on privacy. I'm all for privacy, I like it myself. But I must admit that it is not a source of happiness as could be the visit of a friend and the sight of a human face who wants to spend some time with me.

The fact that there really weren't any phones to be found in Mexico, forced me to have to go to El Centro (the main town) to call my two older kids who were in a sleep away camp. I had my 9-month old son with me and without a baby carriage, El Centro was too far away for us to walk. People advised me to take a cab. Great, no problem, I thought. There were specific streets on which to wait for a cab. I waited. A cab passed but it was already occupied. I waited for another - occupied! And another, and another. All occupied.

I asked a young woman with a baby carriage how I can get a cab to get to El Centro because all of the cabs are occupied. She explained to me that I should just get into an occupied cab. I did. When I went in to the cab, people were friendly. I quickly came to realize that these people were not traveling together and each was going to a different place. They just all traveled in one cab. That cab ride had all of us talking to each other and helping each other with whatever we might have needed at the moment. My little son was happy with all of the attention he got and I was glad not to be alone in a foreign country.

The evening entertainment in Mexico was also not what I was used to - we all would sit in a little cafe where the night entertainment was a man playing his banjo and making up songs on the spot that made fun of each of the people in the audience. Everyone spent the evening laughing and laughing and drinking soft drinks. It didn't cost much money. Yet, it made us all so happy.

But the biggest awakening for me was my trip to El Segundo (a place for second hand items.) The lady of the house was bringing me with her to buy a second-hand baby carriage. She was pregnant and this was her first baby. She had a large red purse filled with pesos in her hand and had to put it down to try out the baby carriage for fit. She put the zippered purse down on an ice cream cart and walked away from it to try out some baby carriages.

I tried to tell her to take her purse with her. But there was too much noise for her to even hear me. So, I stepped back, with big eyes and I watched the people passing by the crowed pathway watching to see who will take that purse and rob my hostess. I'm a New Yorker. In NY, you don't ever leave a purse. You don't even wear a purse on top of your clothes. You don't let anyone know you even have one with you. And here I am at el Segundo and my hostess' red purse is sitting on a cart waiting to be taken. I watched and watched. I saw some eyes quickly glancing at the purse. But no hands reaching. No one touched the purse or even gestured to take it.

My hostess returned, picked up her purse with her hand and we were on our way. My mouth hung open for about two hours after that. But the memory of it has lasted forever for me. I never forgot it. An impoverished city with no crime? No one took the purse. The most incredulous thing to me was that the woman apparently knew that no one would. Who are these people? How do they know the secret to happiness, to trust, to how to make another feel comfortable?

What did these people do that created their joy in the midst of great poverty? What I saw is that these people were there for each other. They didn't have phones, they did not have computers they didn't even have floors or indoor bathrooms. They didn't have anything. But whatever they did, they had to leave the house and go out and see each other and to talk to each other. When people talk to each other they end up listening to each other and hearing each other and giving each other help with whatever they need.

Barking dogs, outdoor bathrooms, dirt floors, crowded cabs, no phones, no computers, no nothing - nothing but knowing that they won't be hurt by their neighbor and knowing that they are really never alone. They were always there for each other.

Is that what it is talking about in the Amidah prayer when it says that G-d supports the fallen, heals the sick, and revives the dead. Living in such an atmosphere, how many of us would even avoid many of the maladies that we have.

The secret of happiness for me was hidden only to be found in the most impoverished place I have ever experienced. The most impoverished place became for me the richest.

The secret of happiness is hidden too in the Amidah in the description of what God does. I challenge you to try doing some of those things and seeing if you don't feel wonderful. Try talking to a person who really could use a smiling face to look at or try being there for a person in need and see if you too don't get really happy.

Try acting as a Tzelem Elokeem (God's image) and see if you too don't feel amazing.

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