How Does Judaism Make Us Happy?

July 18, 2012

How does Judaism promote happiness? Jewish living is meant to be a positive, emotionally enriching experience–but how so?

Karl Marx famously called religion a mass-market opiate. In other words, religion is drug. Blind faith faith casts upon us a spell of synthetic security. And that, said Marx, is what makes it so alluring to humans.

In a similar vein, Sigmund Freud considered religion to be a mechanism of defense that we semi-consciously employ to combat the demons of death-anxiety, and existential emptiness. Religion, argued Freud, is like a psychological pacifier, cushioning life with meaning where there is futility, order where the is chaos, safety where there is dread.

But those of us on the inside see through the smoke of such skepticism. Because whatever security or reassurance Judaism may offer, it comes with a price, and that price entails commitment and struggle. So what kind of happiness does Judaism provide? How, given its rules and regulations, does it provide happiness at all? What is the psychology behind this sacred system?

Sweetener and Shocker

A close look at our original reception of the Torah reveals a perplexing picture to ponder. God deposits His divine doctrine – not in one fell swoop, but in several gradual installments.

Deposit #1: The Sweetening Torah

Shortly upon our release from Egyptian bondage, we began to complain about the bitter taste in our water supply, only to have it sweetened – not by Splenda, but by a piece of wood. Go figure.

It is here that we get our first taste of Torah, and it is here that God warmly reminds us of His healing powers: “I am your God, your DOCTOR.” This was the first “down-payment” deposit of Torah. It was a heavenly healing agent with no hidden side-effects. Sweet.

And then came…

Deposit #2: The Shocking Torah

We eventually arrive at the famous “Mount Sinai” where the overwhelming shock of our collective encounter with G-d quickly segues into a scary scene of mass-destruction. We are overcome with awe, to the extent of utter annihilation.

What happened to the sweetener? Where’s our Healer? We seem to be dealing with two drastically different genres of “Torah.” One sweetens, the other shocks. One sustains, the other overwhelms. How are we to understand this overt clash in the Torah’s own self-portrait?

Going With the Flow

There is fascinating, relatively new, concept in psychology known as “flow.” Flow refers to a powerful sense of self-actualization, when we feel most engrossed, engaged, and intensely infused with the magic of the moment.

What creates these “in the zone” sort of experiences? Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points to two essential ingredients which absolutely must combine for the creation of flow: interest and challenge.

Interest without challenge will not generate much satisfaction. That’s why video games keep players moving up the ladder of multiple levels. We need to feel continually challenged to sustain our interest.

But challenge without interest will feel heavy and overbearing. A teenager cramming for her chemistry final knows this all too well. It is only when interest and challenge converge that we tap into the experience of flow, and thereby lose ourselves in the richness of this highly stimulated state of being.

Torah is a sweetener. It interests and fulfills us. But Torah is also a shocker. It challenges us. Sometimes it tells us “no.” If we solely seek the sweetness of religion, while avoiding its challenges and struggles, we are in for a rude awakening.

It has become a grossly popular trend for speakers and authors to promise simple bite-size steps to serenity and easy shortcuts to perpetual peace. These promises do wonders for selling books, but they are also selling us lies. I’ve naively bought bundles of both: the books and the lies. There’s no shortcut to inner peace.

Quite the contrary – we humans seem to thrive most not in spite, but in light, of our deepest dilemmas. And by encouraging us to find the balance between sweetness and struggle, purpose and pain, our Torah paves a meaningful path for this bittersweet story called life.

Everyone struggles. Everyone suffers. The questions is not how to escape struggle but how to embrace it. The Torah will not remove our personal obstacles; it will, in fact accentuate our obstacles, but will infuse them with a higher purpose. And when it does, our religion transforms into spirituality.

Religion is not here to numb our pain or pacify our anxiety Religion challenges us to be all that we can be, in G-d’s army. If we meet this challenge with interest, we just may tap into flow. And it is in that flow that we feel most fulfilled.

Doni Joszef LMSW is a cognitive psychotherapist practicing with adolescents and young adults in Cedarhurst. He is a member of the DRS Guidance Department, and is available by appointment. Contact Doni by cell: (516)316-2246 or email:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.