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How to be happy at a funeral

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DEVON MOGG

Yet, we are also privileged to live in a time of unprecedented wealth, unparalleled medical advances, and extraordinary advances in technology that are making our lives easier by the day. So why are we also the most depressed and unfulfilled generation in history? Why are we so desperately unhappy?

Dr David Pelcovitz, Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva University and the author of several best-selling books on emotional well-being, has a few answers.

It begins with what he considers a huge, society-wide misconception of the meaning of “happiness”.

“An inherent problem we have with our conceptualisation of happiness is the word itself,” says Pelcovitz. “Happiness, etymologically, is related to the term ‘hap’, as in ‘happenstance’, ‘mishap’, and so on. In other words, luck.”

The entire foundation of the way that we think about happiness, explains Pelcovitz, at least in the English-speaking world, leads us to believe that true happiness is sheer, dumb luck.

“In this paradigm, the only way to be happy is to have all our external circumstances align in just the right fashion. It is out of our control. We say, ‘he is lucky to have his health’, ‘she has been blessed with good fortune’, ‘they were just in the right place at the right time’.”

We are unhappy, says Pelcovitz, because our notion of happiness is rooted in a notion of self-gratification born of external factors that we have no control over.

So how should we think about happiness?

Pelcovitz draws out a definition of happiness from the Hebrew word, simcha.

Simcha can be broken down into two words, sham-moach – literally, where your brain is.”

According to this definition, with its echoes of the more modern concept of “mindfulness”, happiness is about presence of mind, a sense of being in the moment. With this in mind, we can understand why being wealthy doesn’t equate to being happy.

“Once basic needs are met, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness,” says Pelcovitz. “In fact, many wealthy people are distinctly unhappy. Since being truly happy is really more about a state of mindfulness.”

Are there any specific states of mind that lend themselves to happiness? Pelcovitz talks at length about what he calls “the three Fs” – family, friends, and faith.

“When we are present, living in the moment, with the people we love and the people that love us, we are at our happiest. Psychological research bears this out.”

In terms of the third “F” – faith – Pelcovitz says that intellectual recognition of G-d’s existence as the omnipotent and benevolent creator is a source of profound joy.

“The great Chazon Ish put it succinctly: ‘For he who knows the light of truth there is no sadness in the world’.”

But in a more general way, he explains, being happy, sameach, sham-moach, is about living in the present while maintaining a serene, non-judgemental outlook.

“You need to feel that you are in a place of flow with the inner essence of yourself. This should be done without judgement, and in a way that you are not harried by the constant rush of life.”

Pelcovitz explains that achieving this state of sham-moach is really dependant on acknowledging that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing in any given moment.

A fascinating outcome of this approach to happiness is that one can actually be in a state of simcha even during some of life’s most tragic or sombre occasions – a funeral, for example. A funeral might be precisely where you need to be at some given moment.

Going back to the “3 Fs” – comforting friends and family who have just experienced a tragedy, and having faith that there is a purely benevolent creator of the universe who oversees everything and has everyone’s best interests at heart, can lead one to a state of deep simcha.

It goes without saying that one does not feel joy at a funeral but one can feel a sense of purpose and even fulfilment – a state of sham-moach.

  • Catch Dr David Pelcovitz at Sinai Indaba (2-3 March) at the Sandton Convention Centre, where he will be presenting talks on “Dealing with anxiety” and “Parenting in the age of pornography”.

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