In My Own Words: Happiness, according to Adam Gopnik

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Years ago, I developed my own definition of happiness. The reason behind defining the term was that, at that time, many people were talking about their search for happiness, as if happiness were some object they could find if they only looked hard enough. For me, happiness is the byproduct of our actions. That includes our interactions with other people. It doesn’t have to be something major. Some of the most happiest, contented times in my life occurred during quiet moments, whether sitting with friends, walking in nature, listening to music or reading a wonderful book.

My personal thoughts about happiness were why I was interested to learn about Adam Gopnik’s “All That Happiness Is: Some Words on What Matters” (Liveright Publication Corporation) and agreed to see a review copy. His work is a short (62 pages) essay in book form that seeks to challenge how we look at our lives. Gopnik, who is Jewish, focuses on the difference between achievement, which he calls a “completion of the task imposed from outside,” and an accomplishment, which he sees as “the end point of an engulfing activity one engages in for its own sake.” For Gopnik, contemporary society demands we focus on achievements, which, in the long run, are not satisfying because once finished, they demand that we quickly move on to the next achievement, something that continues with no end in sight. Happiness, on the other hand, comes from a sense of accomplishment – the things we work hard to do even if we will never make money from them or are even very good at them. The sense of satisfaction we get from the process is its own reward and, according to Gopnik, the key to happiness.

Gopnik’s and my ideas overlap a bit, but his essay also shows how working hard on something that is not directly connected to our finances – whether it’s learning to play an instrument, dance or box – plays a larger role in our personal lives and society. He writes of scientists who feel a sense of satisfaction from playing the violin or painting that is as large as what they receive from their achievements, which may be rewarded with money or awards. Yet, what they learn from their accomplishments may make it possible for them to increase the number of their achievements. As for the social role played by our accomplishments, Gopnik believes that “we become better citizens when we become musicians, because musicians play in bands and magicians can only work in clubs. A tuba player is of necessity a citizen of the orchestra. Mutual pleasure teaches us mutual reliance.” He even includes playing a sport or rooting for a sports team as a way to make larger connections.

While I’m not sure I completely agree with Gopnik (to be honest, I rarely completely agree with anyone), his discussion of achievement and accomplishment is something that made me think about my own life. Once I began writing for The Reporter, I stopped writing short stories and poetry. The draft of my third attempt at a novel was never finished. Was the act of writing something, anything, enough to give me a sense of accomplishment, or did writing turn into an achievement? Is what was once a pleasure now only work? I know that’s not true: my favorite part of this job is writing, but I don’t feel compelled to write anything once the work day ends. I still enjoy writing a sermon or a speech (for example, my annual Temple Concord Sisterhood book review), but, unless I’m doing something for a specific event, I don’t write for sheer pleasure anymore – meaning writing even if I know no one will read it.

The question becomes whether there are other things that can bring us happiness, including activities where achievement and accomplishment overlap. Take Torah study on Saturday morning: I am not there as a paid professional, but I enjoy when I lead the study and when I’m just a participant. Yet, in some ways, I am always a professional since I’m a rabbi. I’ve had wonderful moments of contentment at my chaplaincy work, which is paid work, but no one would call those moments achievements. I admit that making a connection with someone new or helping someone with a problem gives me great satisfaction. Is that the same as happiness? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. There is so much else on which that feeling depends. 

Gopnik’s work spoke to me because it made me analyze my own life. It helps that I like periodically challenging myself: there is almost always something new to learn. I also think that Gopnik is right to suggest that people should focus on what makes them happy, rather than on achievements they don’t find particularly meaningful. Yet, my ultimate take from his book is that finding true happiness in life comes from each person finding the balance between achievements and accomplishments that works for them.