A wise teacher once explained to me that analyzing the roots of words often helps us shed light on societal perspectives regarding the meaning of the word. Consider the word “Happiness.” Its root, he said, is the word “Happen.” This is as though to imply that happiness is an experience arrived at through happenstance, as when something good happens to you-regardless of your own decision or influence.
Looking at common reasons for unhappiness around us, I have come to realize how accurately this describes many people’s experience of happiness. How many people do you know whose happiness relies on landing that great job, dating that perfect partner or arriving at that next life milestone? Many blame their unhappiness on a long list of let downs- God, their family, their friends…and the list goes on and on. They surrender as victims of circumstance, sometimes donning that crown of self pity and other times just simply crawling into a dark corner.
What results are statistics: according to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control, 8% of individuals ages 12 and older reported current depression. An estimated 1 in 8 people will develop depression in their lifetime, irrespective of education, ethnicity or income. Many more will be classified as Dysthymic-not fully meeting diagnostic criteria for depression, but being in a perpetually sad mood. The statistics point to-very literally-a sad reality. What I hope to explore is a very different understanding of happiness. What I want you to consider is Happiness-not as a result of what happens to you in life-but rather, as a choice you can make each and every day.
Before exploring happiness as a choice, we must take the science of happiness-and depression-into consideration. There are several theories on the pathophysiology and development of depression. One of the popular theories, the Monoamine Hypothesis, suggests that depression is related to a deficit of neurotransmitters (monoamines )such as norepinephrine and serotonin at critical brain synapses. Indeed, most antidepressants work to enhance and prolong the effects of norepinephrine and/or serotonin in the brain. There is no denying the neuroscience of depression; in comparison to the depressed, happy individuals have generally higher amounts of neurotransmitters at the same critical synapses. In light of this, how can one decide to be happy?
To understand the choice of happiness we can look at teaching from the school of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)-a clinically efficacious treatment modality used to treat a variety of mental illnesses from anxiety to addiction and depression. The premise of CBT is the triad of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists teach that these three components of our lives are intimately connected so that in order to make changes in one realm, we need to modify the other two.
Here’s a popular example: Let’s go back to analyzing the root of words, this time in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for love is “Ahava” with a root of “hav,” which means “give.” This ancient language is infused with deep wisdom as it teaches us that the only way to develop feelings of love for someone is through behavior: you must give to that person! Probably unbeknownst to them, the CBT therapists are echoing ancient biblical knowledge: we can arrive at a certain emotional state-in this case, something as powerful as love-through our behaviors! This is a truly life changing concept, especially when applied to our topic of happiness. Simply put, our emotions (i.e. our feelings of happiness) can be controlled through our behavior and, as we’ll soon see, our thoughts. This important realization brings us closer to seeing that happiness is indeed a decision.
Can my thoughts really affect my happiness? The answer is absolutely, yes.
Let’s go through some common cognitive distortions that many people carry with them through life. Going through the list, it becomes clear how all of them-especially when applied for years and years-can lead to a state of unhappiness and general dissatisfaction; in fact, these patterns of thinking are pervasive in people with depression and anxiety disorders. Below is a list of ten common cognitive distortions (Cognitive Therapy of Depression, Beck, 1987):
- Filtering-This refers to the magnification of negative details and minimization of positive details.
- Black or white thinking-This refers to thinking that things are either perfect or completely failed; it’s a rigid perception of reality, with little regard for a middle ground.
- Jumping to conclusions-This refers to the tendency of drawing negative conclusions with little or no evidence for them.
- Catastrophizing-This refers to an expectation of a disastrous outcome no matter what the circumstances.
- Overgeneralization-This refers to coming to a general conclusion based on a single experience or a single incident.
- Control fallacies-This is a belief that I am a helpless victim of fate and externally
controlled; it’s the belief that my life is not at all within my control.
- Fallacy of being right-This is a belief that being wrong is unthinkable, and I am continually on the quest to demonstrate rightness.
- Fallacy of change-This refers to the belief that other people will change and become what I want them to become if I pressure them enough.
- Heaven’s Reward Fallacy-This refers to thinking that all my sacrifice and self-denial will pay off, as if someone is keeping score.
- Blaming-This is the belief that others are completely responsible for my pain.
Most of us will find some of these patterns to be familiar once we gain more awareness of our thinking process. A critical step in the decision to be happy is learning to listen to our thoughts and replace unhealthy thought patterns.
Are my behaviors tied to my happiness? The answer, as you might have already guessed, is absolutely yes!
The insightful Sefer Ha-chinuch, or “Book of Education,” a 13th Century work enumerating the Jewish commandments, highlights the importance of human behavior: “Know that a person is ruled by his actions. His heart and all his thoughts are influenced by the actions that he is involved in… (Sefer Ha-chinuch, chapter 16).” The Chinuch clearly emphasizes the influence of behavior on a person’s emotions. Again, think about the CBT triad: we have already seen how thoughts influence our happiness; now we will explore how to choose happiness through our behavior. Simply put, we can become happy through filling our days with behaviors that evoke joy; even one pleasurable activity a day can make a difference! For some that might mean spending time with friends, while for others it’s about avoiding places (and people) that induce stress. Fill your schedule with hobbies and activities that leave you feeling productive and fulfilled. For a culturally relatable reference, let’s boil it down to T-E-A! T-E-A, in this case, is a small list of things you can do which are scientifically proven to boost your happiness levels:
- Therapy: make an appointment to speak to someone that can help you identify and replace detrimental thought patterns and build a repertoire of positive behaviors.
- Exercise: the American heart association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. This will keep your heart healthy and is proven to make you happier. In fact, the physiological effect of exercise on your body mimics the effect of psychotropic medication!
- Altruism: current research shows a strong association between helping behaviors and overall well-being and mental health. Find a cause you are passionate about and help out!
Seen through the cognitive behavioral lens, happiness becomes the opposite of a happenstance. Happiness is fostered and cultivated through our daily choice of actions and thoughts. Now that we can recognize happiness as a daily decision, let us take things one step further and realize how happiness becomes the most important decision we will ever make. We know that happy people live longer and more productive lives. The physiological implications of happiness are astounding; in fact, the study of positive psychology focuses on ways we can boost our immune system by increasing our positive emotions; happy people are healthier! Research also indicates that happy people may have the best chance of getting married, and happy people are more likely to have happy marriages. As such, the implications of happiness are huge; choosing happiness can improve our physical health and provide the sturdy permanent framework for our most intimate relationships. Happiness is indeed a decision dependent upon our daily choice of thoughts and actions. Considering the vast ramifications of happiness, the decision to be happy is the most important decision you will ever make.
Colors of Morocco
Morocco, a country of distinct culture and boundless color, a place where customs of East and West converge, has been a land of ageless history, architecture, and intrigue. Named Travel & Leisure’s 2015 “Travel Destination of the Year”, Morocco holds more than meets the eye as each city is personified by a distinct color and character. While Morocco in its entirety is fascinating, the story of Jewish lineage is particularly so. Having had the exceptional opportunity to travel within Morocco this past year, I delved into the three-thousand-year-old history and traditions of ancient Moroccan Jewry.
The country that holds prolific inspiration for writers, artisans, and philosophers has been called home by generations of a tight-knit Jewish community. Until the past half century, a once bustling population of more than 300,000 Jews now remains a scattered 3,000. Although small, the Jewish community continues to be strong and vibrant. Dating back roughly 2,500 years ago, the Jewish population in Morocco was the largest in the Arab world. Under the reign of King Mohammed V (1927-1961) and subsequently his son, King Hassan II (1961–1999), Jews enjoyed living freely alongside their Muslim counterparts. As King Mohammed II was once famously quoted, “I do not have Muslim citizens, nor do I have Jewish citizens. I have Moroccan citizens”. A solid sense of patriotism is held within the gates of Morocco for Jews and Muslims alike. It became evident as I inquired with locals about living under their current and past monarchs – they are confident and proud. Despite being a minute community, many Jews compare their relationships to their Muslim neighbors as “brothers” and “close friends.” They show an equal sense of pride for both their Jewish and Moroccan roots. Paradoxically, a country nestled in between the most intolerable of regions shows a strong sense of camaraderie and acceptance.
As a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Los Angeles, my childhood was constantly showered with stories of my parents’ upbringing in the Middle East. I learned of their homes near the most ornate age-old mosques and their relationships with the neighboring Muslim communities, but it was only until I entered Morocco that these stories finally came to life.
Upon arriving into Fès, the blue imperial city, the essence of the old Jewish community is near palpable as you are greeted by the grandeur of the Bab Boujloud gates, guarding what used to be the walls of the mellah, or Jewish quarter. Walking through the centuries-old mellah, which once held the largest of Jewish populations, it was as if the stories of my father’s adolescence had been painted before my eyes. The narrow cobblestoned paths were scattered with donkeys carrying freshly dyed leathers from nearby tanneries and local Moroccans sporting the traditional djellaba robe. It was evident that not only the architecture, but the day-to-day way of life remained unchanged throughout the decades. Still, the only traces of Jewish life remain within the stories of the city’s cobalt blue walls.
The 17th century Ibn Danan Synagogue is adorned by a wealth of traditional Moroccan mosaic tile work, or zellij in Arabic. The striking patterns of the traditional Moroccan starburst motif, testir, in an array of forms makes evident how Arabesque architecture and culture have beautifully permeated the Jewish sphere. Within its rich turquoise walls, the strength the Jewish community once held was undeniable, as both Torah scrolls were seemingly untouched. As beautiful as this sight was, the real treasure lay hidden. As I followed a short dark corridor down three stone stairs, a dim light reflected a small pool of water in front of me—I soon realized it was the original mikveh of the synagogue, laying tranquil, unscathed. Still filled with water, it reminded me of what I once heard, “where there is water, there is life”, and this centuries-old mikveh had once been a witness to prayer and miracles—the beating heart of Jewish life.
Driving through the lush pastures of Meknès, the city of green, into the capital, Rahbat, we were greeted warmly by natives of the Jewish community with two kisses on the cheek and offered aromatic mint tea. Over a beautiful dinner table adorned with traditional dishes of tajine, pastilla, couscous, and an array of spicy harissa, the locals were charming and warm as they conversed in a mélange of Arabic, French, and English. They were quick to express their delight in meeting fresh, young Jewish faces—something that has become a scarcity as most families have made aliyah since the formation of Israel. Nonetheless, they expressed the love and pride they hold for their native hometown, Morocco.
As I reach the rose-colored walls of Marrakech, the city of red, I am immediately drawn in by the warm sandstone glow the city emanates. Passing through the medina into the souk, or Arab baazar, my senses are heightened by the endless sparks of color; uninterrupted arrays of turmeric yellow, jade green, paprika red, and cobalt blue. The scents of spices seem all too familiar—coriander, saffron, cumin, and turmeric. An odd sense of familiarly and sentiments of home are felt as it seemed that my heart had a yearning to connect to my deeply embedded Sephardic roots.
My exploration of the Jewish community of Morocco proved to be an experience of intrigue and connection. I felt fulfilled as I was finally able to perceive first hand, the history, the struggle, and the ultimate resilience of my Sephardic roots. It taught me lessons of diversity, acceptance, and the promise to pass onto future generations what makes us who we are and has kept us resilient amongst our adversities–our Jewish legacy.
Similar to the interwoven patterns of the zellij, Jews each with a unique story require both an individuality and interconnectedness in order to create an intricate pattern—one cannot discover where one lineage ends and the other begins.
SCARED SINGLE – PART ONE ‘Love’ on Demand: Keeping Your Options Open
The Scared Single series is a glimpse into modern dating and the hurdles millennials face on their road to the chuppah.
Marriage continues to be a milestone most people aim for. Ask the previous generation about its take on our generation’s dating and you’ll be greeted with gasps, prayers, and an overarching sense of flabbergast.
“Why are you so picky?”
Events such as fundraisers and charity events are teeming with eligible singles, ironically complaining at the event that there’s no one to date in this community. They seem to be waiting around for something better – someone new – at the next event, perhaps? And if you’ve outgrown the “low-tech” approach to finding someone, a plethora of “high-tech” mobile dating apps gives you a flood of new faces, along with the freedom of indicating interest without the fear of rejection.
In an age of instant gratification centered on customization of just about everything material, that mentality starts to impact our mindset in our pursuit of a successful, meaningful relationship. Though our generation’s experience with customizability has been pretty pleasant – we get everything we want, and nothing we don’t – we inherently know that our human experiences (personal and professional) should be fluid constructs centered around qualities that need to persist beyond the here and now.
Timeless adages passed on to us such as “no one is perfect” and “marriage is full of compromises” may sound like deeply wise and grounded hindsight, but access to love on demand puts us in the driver’s seat, swipe-chasing that perfect, uncompromising fantasy person. And that chase can quickly turn into an aimless, seemingly endless pursuit – it leads us to objectify, and ultimately talk our way out of, the prospects that are the basis of our motivation for attending that event or downloading that app in the first place.
Think about your relationship role model. The cornerstones of that relationship likely were traits of longevity: commitment, loyalty, devotion, mutual respect, partnership, etc. The struggle in our generation lies in whether we have the ability to determine who is the best life partner for us. And even if we clear that hurdle, the next hurdle is whether we have the fortitude to commit, since there’s the everflowing temptation to look behind door number 2, and to customize just a little bit more.
The never-before-seen wave of the cropped social media image gives the average single person access to thousands of highlights of other people’s relationships, which begin to flood our own relationship psyche, setting and resetting standards for what we desire. We know those images aren’t exactly real – the heartwarming anniversary tweets, the perfect proposals, the emotional thank you videos – largely taken out of the greater context of that poster’s life – but we consciously and subconsciously internalize them anyway.
Dating against the backdrop, and dare I say threat, of cropped imagery and instant gratification seems to run counter to the development of an authentic relationship – and the need to account for the now and later. There’s this intense pressure to continue cropping that JSwipe profile, be a little flashier at the event, in the hopes of grabbing attention of prospects in that split second swiping window, in that surveying of the ballroom.
How can you attract a partner and develop a relationship which evolves in line with the greatest relationships you have witnessed when you know the person on the other side may still itch to access love on demand? How can you act naturally, be yourself safely, showing real and raw dimensions the other person may not really want to see but are part and parcel to who you are, in a culture of cropping?
Along with the freedoms not afforded to previous generations, our generation has the freedom of self-discovery, which theoretically gives us a shot at ultimate choice and happiness. Instead, in a culture of cropping and comparing, I think we’ve swapped the freedom to know and be ourselves with the freedom to swipe. There’s no doubt that losing that freedom generates fear.
That fear stems from what we can’t seem to understand, get a hold of, and quite frankly communicate to our elders – we can’t gain the confidence to make choices to start that journey towards our very own elusive model relationship.
Maybe our answer to those prodding and indicting pickiness questions should reflect the new era of instant gratification we choose to live in: “Honestly, I really enjoy the thrill of keeping my options open.”
Imagining giving that shame-laced answer, we may invariably stumble across the naked truth…that we may not be more free, that we may not be better off and that we are ultimately scared single because we live in the age of love on demand.
Overcoming Addiction: My Personal Success Story
I am an example of a success story. But this is only the first chapter.
I grew up with everything a girl could ask for. But there was always this emptiness—a longing for something, anything, to lead me out of the darkness by which I was encumbered. I felt alone in my world. When I was eleven, I found out I was adopted and that my brother was not my twin. My already unbalanced world was flipped upside down, and everything looked like a lie. That was the beginning of what became my twenty-one year long battle with addiction. My addictive behavior would end up bleeding into every area of my life, taking with it every meaningful relationship, any semblance of self-respect I once had, all my money, and my sanity. I would end up in the hospital at thirty-two with a failing liver and eight days of detox—and who knows what else—to look forward to. I never would have thought Judaism would play a role in saving me. I never thought it would change me.
I was raised half Jewish and half Christian, and not a fraction of it made any sense to me. Neither of my parents were religious, and the exposure my brother and I had to either faith was in little sprinkles here and there during the “important” holidays. At fourteen, my religious practices changed almost immediately once my father hooked up with my soon-to-be, Jewish stepmother. As much as I welcomed the change, and as hard as I tried to embrace the Judaism surrounding me—I saw myself as an imposter who didn’t fit in. Where on earth did I come from? Where did I fit?
As the years went on, my addiction grew worse, and the further I drifted from any kind of faith in anything. The more lost I became, the more alone I felt. Alcohol was both my G-d, and my only friend, and drinking was my light through the dark. When my father died when I was twenty-seven, I turned to my reliable, toxic friend to take away my pain. But I wore the mask of someone who was just fine, and moved on with my life. All I was actually doing was slowly fading away.
I would stay up every night in a cold sweat, trembling and panicking and incapable of sleep. I was just waiting to die—believing I had no chance of overcoming my addiction. And even if I could muster up enough courage to ask for help, I would forever be labeled, “an addict,” and live the rest of my life with that stigma. What would my family think? Will I ever be hireable? What man would ever want to marry me? There was too much shame in admitting my problem, I thought. But the pain I felt… the all-consuming mental and physical pain was too much to bear. I knew things couldn’t possibly get worse as long as I was still alive, so when my brother asked me if I was willing to get treatment, I told him, “I have the will if you have a way to get me there.” The next day, he took me to the hospital to detox, and a week later, to rehab—a Jewish rehab called Beit T’Shuvah, which translates to: The House of Return. Needless to say, I was apprehensive. I didn’t have a G-d. I didn’t have any faith. Surely they would find out and send me home. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I came to Beit T’Shuvah, I had no idea how to tackle my social anxiety or make friends. My shyness was crippling, and my only solution to that in the past was a round of drinks (each one for me). After some time going to meetings and process groups with the other residents, and attending services in our sanctuary, things started to get easier. I, someone who never considered herself to be spiritual, found myself looking at spirituality through a different lens. What I learned at Beit T’Shuvah is that spirituality has a different meaning to everyone. To me, it’s human connection. It’s spending time with my father in my dreams. It’s writing poetry, and listening to the music that moves my heart and gives me chills. I discovered those things in sobriety.
I had heard horror stories about other rehabs—how some of them were cold and sterile, and military like. I realized how lucky I was to be where I was. I kept hearing, “Beit T’Shuvah is a community,” but I didn’t get it at first. But it is just that. It’s a microcosm of the world, with all the same moving parts, unique personalities, suffering, and hard work. You have neighbors and responsibilities, friends, foes, and teachers. There it was—the thing I wanted most but was always hiding from. Connection. And it came in the form of a community that accepted me for me, and told me that I matter. I wouldn’t have survived without that.
“Hold on” and “you matter” are two of the many sayings at Beit T’Shuvah. As simple as each is, the mere utterance of those four words can be more powerful than any meeting, or any book. I learned the meaning of T’Shuvah in the house that bares the same name—return. I could see the importance of taking responsibility for my life, and arriving at a place of acceptance of my past. I look at my life now, and I feel grateful. I have a job I love, doing something I love, and I am free in every sense of the word. In looking ahead to the New Year, I look back at my life. I ask for forgiveness. I forgive myself. I enter the New Year as if it were my first.
How To Thrive On Yom Kippur: Three Tips For An Easier Fast
IsraAID is launching the Humanitarian Professionals Network (IHPN) in Los Angeles and Bay Area
Nothing Matters More Than This
New Initiative Launched to Restore Memories and a Legacy
The Honorable Mensch’n: Shanel Melamed
Israel5 years ago
The Man Who Invented The Iron Dome
Community2 years ago
Gambling Addiction: It’s Not About The Money
Culture4 years ago
Colors of Morocco
Community3 years ago
Modern Royalty: The Balancing Act of Being a Persian-American Woman
Dating & Relationships5 years ago
The Importance of Being Selfish
Community5 years ago
The Honorable Mensch’n: Ariel Kasheri
Future Issue5 years ago
Community5 years ago
Giving Ten Percent of Yourself