ENCINO, Calif., Nov. 23 (JTA) — Does Chanukah make us happy?
“Watching the candles burn makes me happy,” says my son Gabe, 12. “Especially on the last night.”
“I like the story of the Maccabees,” says Danny, 8.
“Getting eight presents makes me happy,” says Jeremy, 10, unabashedly.
But according to the National Opinion Research Center, even without the anticipation of a holiday, six out of 10 Americans already consider ourselves “pretty happy.” Three out of 10 are “very happy,” and only one in 10 is “not too happy.”
But what do we mean by happy?
The Random House Dictionary defines happiness as good fortune, pleasure, contentment or joy. The Jewish thinker Dennis Prager says that happiness is a serious problem. Proverbial wisdom claims that ignorance is bliss. And the Apocrypha warns, “Count no man happy till he dies.”
We can’t agree on what constitutes happiness. On whether it’s episodic or cumulative. On whether it’s attainable in this life, the next life or in no life. But we can agree that happiness is universally desired and seasonally solicited.
But definitions aside, what makes us happy?
The ancient rabbis claim that the study of Torah is the greatest source of happiness — and the purpose for our existence. Psalm 128 says, “Happy is every one that feareth the Lord, that walketh in His ways.”
Starbucks Coffee insists that eating the pastry du jour induces happiness.
Psychologists, who customarily focus on anxiety, alienation and aberrant behavior, can, unsurprisingly, specify what doesn’t make us happy.
For starters, money. Yes, money can’t buy us love. And it can’t buy us happiness either. A chunk of Chanukah gelt — Yiddish for money — will certainly elicit a gush of glee, but, alas, a temporary one. Studies show that as long as our basic needs are met, money doesn’t increase happiness, even though we think it does.
How about climate? Are those of us lighting menorahs in Southern California more sanguine than those of you in South Dakota? Nope. It’s a false perception that we Californians are happier.
And here are five other factors that psychologists claim absolutely do not affect happiness levels: age, race, gender, educational achievement and children — or the lack of them.
So why are we standing in long lines, stressed and crazed, tensely tracking down elusive Furby Babies, Millennium Barbies or Pokemon cards, watching our tolerance levels go down and our credit charges go up? To give our children, relatives, friends, coworkers and mail carrier a temporary boost of bliss? And to receive, if we’re lucky, a perfunctory thank you?
Gift-giving, in Judaism, has little historical basis. The Bible, in Nehemiah 8:10, tells us that gift-giving was part of our early Rosh Hashanah celebration: “Send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared.”
We also give gifts on Purim — mishloach manot, the sending of portions, usually fruit and sweets, to at least one friend and, as a form of tzedakah, or charity, donations of food or money to at least two poor people.
The custom of giving Chanukah gelt to children can be traced to 18th-century Eastern Europe, and maybe earlier. For many, gelt was traditionally distributed on the fifth night of Chanukah, and many sources claim it rewarded children for studying Torah.
Our modern custom of exchanging Chanukah gifts is primarily an American Jewish phenomenon, stemming from the Christian tradition of giving holiday gifts, which itself comes from the Romans’ celebration of the Saturnalia and from other winter solstice holidays in Northern Europe.
Only since World War II, with the rise of our materialistic culture, has gift-giving become so lavish, so harried and, ultimately, so impersonal.
“Chanukah is only a minor holiday,” says Zack, 15. “I don’t understand the fuss.”
Gifts clearly do not bring lasting happiness. While psychologists can’t tell us what does, they can enumerate the characteristics that happy people share. According to psychologist David Myers, these include confidence, optimism and extroversion, close friendships or a satisfying marriage, absorbing work and leisure activities, and a meaningful religious faith.
Of course, no one knows whether these characteristics create happiness or merely result from a happy disposition. Either way, this insight gives us two cues for creating Chanukah happiness.
One is to spend Chanukah with family, friends and relatives. To eat latkes, play dreidel and perform mitzvahs. To sing and celebrate. And, yes, even to exchange gifts that are proper, personal and thoughtful.
“Most of us can just go out and buy whatever we want,” says my husband, Larry. “But a gift from the heart, especially something individually created or selected, something that shows some caring, is a totally different story.”
The second cue is to focus on the true meaning of the holiday. To ponder, discuss and debate the miracle of the oil or the astounding victory of a small band of Jews over the Syrian-Greek army. To rededicate ourselves to a Jewish life within our assimilated world.
But if family togetherness and significant religious themes don’t ultimately enhance our happiness, here’s something else to consider.
Happiness researchers, including Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, now hypothesize that happiness may be no more than a physiological phenomenon: namely, an active left prefrontal brain cortex. Studies show, in fact, that people with more synapses firing in this area of the brain are smiling more often.
As Americans, we are politically free to relentlessly seek happiness, no matter how elusive, subjective and indefinable. The Declaration of Independence announces that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As Jews, the First Book of Maccabees commands us to celebrate the eight days of Chanukah, which it calls the dedication of the altar, “with mirth and gladness.” And, as Judah and his brothers would undoubtedly advocate today, “an active left prefrontal cortex.” Happy Chanukah!
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.