Jewish thinkers focus on happiness as the quality of life as a whole, not a few moments in the accrual of pleasure or money. So said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson in her talk “Judaism and the Contemporary Pursuit of Happiness” on Jan. 13 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The Irving and Miriam Lowe Professor of Modern Judaism and director of Jewish studies at Arizona State University, Tirosh-Samuelson was born in Israel, grew up on Kibbutz Afikim and served in the Israeli army.
“Can Jews really be happy?” asked J. Edward Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, introducing this Shaol and Louis Pozez Memorial Lecture. Laughter arose in the audience of more than 100 attendees, but Tirosh-Samuelson referred often to the seriousness of the quest for happiness in modern society. “It’s not a trivial thing,” the intellectual historian affirmed. She recommended books, noting that exploring happiness requires knowledge of 2,500 years of history, as philosopher Sissela Bok explains in “Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science” (Yale University Press, 2011).
A real problem today, said Tirosh-Samuelson, is that “most people in universities don’t know the philosophers. In Jewish culture there’s a strong intellectual bias. We must revive a commitment to learning for its own sake.”
Key questions about the meaning of life and what it means to be a full human being require an interdisciplinary approach that includes philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology and political science, she said.
Her latest book, “Happiness in Premodern Judaism: Virtue, Knowledge and Well-Being in Premodern Judaism” (Hebrew Union College Press, 2003), ends in the 17th century. “I’ve wanted to take it to the present,” she said. “Today we talk about the science of happiness,” which studies the roles of faith, family, community and work.
Tirosh-Samuelson discussed a personal experience of happiness: About 10 months ago she was in a severe car accident. She was in the hospital flat on her back for three months. “I felt happy,” she said. “Even in such difficult circumstances I had faith, the support of family and friends. I knew I would get better and I would find meaning in it. In the big scheme of things, happiness is the result of reflection.”
In addition to her interest in happiness, Tirosh-Samuelson studies the intersection of Jewish culture and science, as well as women and gender in Jewish philosophy. “Women are very important in history in thinking about happiness,” she said. “Male philosophers believed happiness was about thought. If women had written about it, it would be more about emotions and passions.
“Judaism teaches how to express your nature. Jews believed the Torah was the best recipe for the good life,” she said, adding that Psalm 1 describes the righteous person who has the ability to withstand the difficulties of life and stays away from evil individuals and fools.
The study of positive psychology in its approach to happiness is “really in vogue today,” said Tirosh-Samuelson. “It started in 1984 with Jewish psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman. It’s now possible to measure objectively how you feel.”
Plus, she said, “Happiness is an activity.” Seligman is the director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is “Flourish” (Atria Books, 2012). Seligman defines himself as a child of the Depression and the Holocaust, though he never mentions Judaism, said Tirosh-Samuelson. Being grateful is a key component of happiness, according to Seligman, who suggests that happiness can be taught.
Our levels of happiness are “determined by genetic make-up, voluntary activities and the conditions of our lives,” explained Tirosh-Samuelson. “Up to a point, money is important. More religious people are happier. Love, work and a connection to something larger are important. You have to get these conditions right for happiness and then wait.”
Tirosh-Samuelson also referred to former Harvard University president Derek Bok’s book, “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being” (Princeton University Press, 2011). Bok, she said, “wants to educate children differently so they can learn to be happy.”
“Happiness is the ultimate end of human life,” said Tirosh-Samuelson. “‘Did I live up to my full potential?’ goes back to Aristotle.”