Cracking the Happiness Code
In Kabbalah—the science of happiness—happiness stops being a mystery. This elusive notion can be broken down into component parts and understood. And just like e=mc2, there’s a formula for lasting happiness
“Quick: think about what would make you really, really happy.”
This was the opening line of the cover story in the May, 2007 issue of Newsweek, dedicated to the subject of happiness. Top international psychologists, sociologists, biologists and economists tried to answer the eternal question: “What is the secret of happiness?” or more precisely, “What would it take to make us happy?”
The Dollar Is Always Greener on the Other Side
“Maybe money?” the researchers asked. “If I had the money,” claims the typical happiness fantasizer, “I could have, or do, anything I want: travel around the world, buy anything I please, be independent, and take charge of my life... In short, money is bound to make me happy, isn’t it?”
Surprisingly (or not), many recent studies show that once we have enough to meet our basic needs, money ceases to make us happier. One famous study showed that even lottery winners who were very, very happy when they won soon lost their euphoria. After a while, their moods were exactly the same as they had been before their big win.
In fact, once we have more money than we need for our basic needs, our ability to enjoy it becomes overshadowed by questions like, “Am I keeping up with the Joneses?” because no matter how much we earn, it always seems as if our neighbor’s dollar is a shade or two greener.
What about free time? If we worked less and rested more, would we have our longed for happiness?
The happiness researchers flatly dismiss this hypothesis as well. On the “World Map of Happiness,” recently published by the school of psychology at England’s Leicester University, the hard-working USA takes a whooping 23rd place, while vacationing France staggers behind in 62nd place.
One by one, the happiness researchers revoked the most common theories about the road to happiness. They concluded that in the long run, things like a successful career, a happy marriage, and even good health will not make us happy.
So what would make us happy? That’s precisely the question that leaves researchers dumbfounded. Somehow, it’s easier to identify the factors that do not make us happy, than to offer a practical formula for true happiness.
“Happiness is everywhere—on the best-seller lists, in the minds of policymakers, and front and center for economists—yet it remains elusive,” concludes Rana Foroohar, Newsweek’s senior economics writer.
So how do we grab hold of that fleeting happiness?
The Mechanics of Happiness
To crack the happiness code, we must start by realizing who we really are, what our nature is. And that is something very simple: we are the desire to be happy. In other words, we all want to receive pleasure, to enjoy, or as Kabbalah calls it, we are “the will to receive.”
“... The will to receive pleasure constitutes the entire matter of Creation, from its beginning to its end. … all the myriad types of creatures and their varieties are but rates and modified values of the will to receive.”
Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam),
“Preface to the Wisdom of Kabbalah”
Perhaps this sounds like something you already knew. But our nature, the will to receive, is more sophisticated than what we might think. It’s not just a constant desire that’s always nudging us to find happiness. This will to receive actually motivates everything we do, down to the smallest actions we make, and even every thought we have.
The will to receive seeks satisfaction every at moment and makes sure that we don’t rest until we fulfill its demands. It also constantly determines how we feel: if we satisfy it, we’re happy, we feel good, life’s a song; if we don’t, we become frustrated, angry, depressed, and even violent or suicidal.
Perhaps you also guessed this. But the thing that so often escapes our notice—and the key to cracking the happiness code—is the fact that once our “will to receive” is fulfilled, the pleasure we feel disappears.
The great Irish author, Oscar Wilde, certainly knew about this when he wrote, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy.”
Kabbalah explains the mechanics of this process: initially, we want something and make efforts to acquire it. The moment we get what we fervently desired, we feel pleasure, joy and delight. Or, in Kabbalah’s language, the first encounter between the desire and its filling is the peak of the pleasure.
So far so good—but the process isn’t finished yet. The moment we get the thing we wanted, the desire abates. In other words, we gradually stop wanting what we attained, and as a result, our pleasure starts fading… until it disappears completely.
For example, you know what it’s like when you’re really hungry: you could eat a steak so big it needs its own area code (vegetarians: consider that a tofu loaf). But what happens when you start eating?
The first bite is pure ecstasy, and the next bite is wonderful. The next bite is good, and the next bite is… okay, and the next is whatever it is. And the next one is: “not another bite, I’m gonna be sick...”
This happens with everything, not just food. We can spend years dreaming about a fancy sports car and when we finally get it, we’re thrilled—well, at least for a few moments or days. But soon we find ourselves enjoying it less and less until it stops giving us any pleasure. And then every time we look at the car, the only thing we feel is the weight of the gigantic loan we have to pay back for the next ten years!
Economics Professor Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California, a pioneer of happiness research, calls this phenomenon “hedonic adaptation,” which means, “We get a new car, and we get used to it. We get new clothes, and we get used to it again... We adjust very quickly to the pleasure we get...”
But that can’t be the end of the story, can it? After all, even as we describe this, we all long for lasting pleasure. Did Nature place us in this vicious circle to remain forever unhappy? Could happiness be just a fairy tale, a Santa Claus story that will never come true?
The (Secret) Happiness Formula
Thankfully, Kabbalah explains that Nature is not cruel at all; in fact, its only desire is to bring us the happiness we seek. If our aspiration for happiness was not meant to be realized, we wouldn’t have it to begin with. Nature’s purpose is to let us independently attain a feeling of complete and total happiness—not “sort-of” happiness or “most of the time” kind of happiness, but the kind that is absolute, perfect, and eternal.
And we’re actually closer to it than we think. In fact, the recent trend of happiness research and our growing realization that we are never satisfied have actually brought us closer to true happiness. We are beginning to identify the pattern: happiness has nothing to do with how much money we make or how good our marriage is—in fact, it has nothing to do with any other kind of pleasure we try to receive. We’re starting to uncover the fundamental fact that happiness can only be felt using a different principle of enjoyment.
At this point, Kabbalah helps us solve the happiness problem at its root. We’ve already explained why we never feel lasting pleasure from anything: because the minute the pleasure meets the desire, the desire becomes neutralized. And since our desire is neutralized, we can no longer enjoy the pleasure.
So the secret of happiness, Kabbalah explains, is to add another ingredient to this process, the ingredient of “intention.” This means that we keep wanting just like before, only we put a different spin on our desire: we direct it outward, as if we are giving to someone else. In other words, this intention turns our desire into a “passageway” for the pleasure. Thus, the pleasure we feel won’t stop; it will keep going through our desire, following our intention. And our desire will be able to keep receiving continuously, without ever being quenched.
And that’s the formula for endless pleasure, or lasting happiness. When a person applies this formula, he actually goes through a profound transition and begins to feel different kinds of pleasures. Kabbalah calls them “spiritual,” and precisely they are endless.
In Conclusion—a Short Summary
What is happiness?
It’s what we feel when we fulfill our “will to receive.”
Why does it go away?
Because the pleasure neutralizes our desire, and without a desire, we can’t feel pleasure.
What’s the formula for feeling endless pleasure?
Adding an “intention of giving” to our “will to receive,” so the pleasure will keep flowing through our desire, endlessly.
True happiness is just around the corner, waiting for us to learn how to feel it, how to add an intention to our desire. Studying Kabbalah, we naturally acquire this new, spiritual intention and start receiving the way Nature wants us to—perfectly. This is why “Kabbalah” is Hebrew for “reception”—it’s the wisdom that teaches us how to receive.