About a decade ago, a friend and I read “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert, a book she described as portraying most humans as too stupid to understand what would make them happy. I saw the book in a more positive light since it helped me learn more about my own path to happiness. I soon read more on the topic, particularly works by Martin E. P. Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who is one of the founders of the Positive Psychology Movement. The university’s website describes the field as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.” I read several of Seligman’s works and found them helpful in overcoming some of my natural pessimism.
So, when I heard about “Positive Judaism: For a Life of Well-Being and Happiness” by Rabbi Darren Levine (Behrman House), I immediately asked for a review copy. I was curious about the combination of Judaism and positive psychology since the other works I read didn’t focus on religion. Levine came to positive psychology after an automobile accident and a major life change. When reading one of Seligman’s books, he discovered what he wanted from life: “happiness, positivity, and fulfilment.” Months later, Levine had a sudden realization: “The virtues of authentic happiness had already been living in me but in a different language. They were in my Jewish heart and mind and had been growing there since childhood.”
Levine notes that by happiness he doesn’t mean the “fleeting or selfish pleasure” we often seek, but “a profound state of wholeness, a deep sense of well-being.” To achieve happiness, he believes we must concentrate on five different areas of our lives: relationships, health, community, money and work. The author bolsters his thoughts with discussions of scientific theories on how best to achieve happiness. One important aspect discussed is the way people have different strengths and weaknesses with which to work. These strengths are clues to what paths people should follow to make their lives more meaningful. The idea is not that people need to change themselves, but use the strengths they already have in themselves to improve their lives. (The appendix contains surveys to help people discover their current level of well-being and to determine their signature strengths.)
The book then focuses on the Jewish virtues and well-being practices, which serve as the foundation for Positive Judaism. Levine sees seven principles that define the Jewish connection to positive psychology:
“Every person is created in the divine image and deserves to live well.”
People should be part of “caring, loving, and trusting relationships.”
People need to connect to the larger Jewish community.
People should find meaningful work.
People should use their money to create well-being for themselves and others.
People should find ways to increase “human flourishing, life satisfaction, and happiness as a pathway to Jewish continuity.”
The last two sections of the book focus on 10 Jewish happiness virtues and 10 Jewish well-being practices that may help people improve their lives or deal with times of pain and suffering. Each of the remaining chapters speaks to a specific area of life, including the five areas of well-being mentioned above and five times “when living hurts,” which focuses on divorce, illness, loneliness, job loss and financial difficulties. Levine uses specific virtues and well-being practices to show how Judaism can help readers facing these issues. The chapters include a mix of biblical stories and real-life examples that portray a particular problem. They end with questions for reflection that offer ways to use analyze one’s own life based on what was read.
One example is how the gift of resilience (ko’ach) can be used to build strong relationships. Levine defines resilience as “the ability to remain active, energetic, focused, and flexible no matter the situation.” This ability helps one deal with the ups and downs that come with any relationship, and also encourages people to use methods that will increase their connections. Levine notes that research has shown that couple who have more positive interactions than negative ones are more likely to stay together. His chapter includes six activities to help people improve that ratio. His Jewish well-being practice for relationships is observing Shabbat. Not only can Shabbat give couples and families time to be together and experience positive emotions, the break allows people to recharge their strengths and use them to make greater connections.
“Positive Judaism” is easy to read. One need not have any previous experience with Judaism or the Positive Psychology Movement in order to understand his work. While Levine does include some information about the research done in the field, he just touches on the topic. Readers may have more specific questions about positive psychology, which was not a problem for me since I was already familiar with the movement. The author hopes that the Positive Psychology Movement will reach past the individual and the Jewish community to all faith communities. He sees his work as a first step to raising “the well-being and happiness of humanity in our time.” That’s a large goal; most readers may be satisfied with finding ways to improve their own lives through Jewish practice.
Readers interested in learning more about the Positive Psychology Movement can visit www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ and https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/.