There is enormous wisdom for people of all faiths as well as those who are unaffiliated, skeptical, or atheists in Rabbi Evan Moffic's new book, The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today. He begins each day with an ancient prayer, but could just as easily be called meditation or a mindfulness exercise. It is just a way to connect to essential elements for happiness: purpose, meaning, direction, and gratitude. The prayer calls on us to honor our parents, to keep learning, to comfort others, and to recognize the sources of joy in our lives, and the book is filled with stories and insight.
Rabbi Moffic answered some of my questions about the purpose of prayer and what truly makes us happy.
Do we pray to ask God for particular outcomes?
Sometimes we do, but the deeper focus of prayer is help us become the people God wants us to be. Prayer reminds of us what values are most important.
What made you decide to try the Happiness prayer?
I needed it. I was overwhelmed and stressed and knew I needed to serve my congregation. I also began to see that underlying many of the frustrations my congregants were experiencing was a search for meaning in a confusing world. The happiness prayer helped me see what actions people could take and profound wisdom Judaism held.
Do you have to be Jewish to try it?
Absolutely not. The practices are for everyone. At its best, Jewish tradition teaches the world.
Do other faith traditions have similar prayers?
I’m not sure. Jewish tradition has such a focus on actions rather than beliefs, and this prayer reflects that.
What is happiness and how does it differ from pleasure?
Pleasure is what makes us feel good in the short term, like a piece of cake or a massage. Happiness is satisfaction our lives as a whole.
You tell a story in the book about how adult children “honor” a mother who deserted them. How is honoring different from loving?
Honoring is about certain behaviors. Loving is a feeling. Now love does involve behaviors as well, but honoring is feelings-neutral.
How can we forgive someone who has not apologized or changed the behavior? Why should we?
In these cases, forgiving is moving on. It’s not letting the past hold the future hostage.
It is so hard to know what to say when someone has experienced a terrible loss. What can help? What does not help?
The most important thing is to be present. You don’t need to say anything if the mourner knows you are there and that you care.
How does learning something new create happiness?
It expands our brains and capacity to empathize. We can see more and feel more.
Why are some people afraid to be happy?
We can get addicted to stress and victimhood. Happiness is a choice we have to make, and it takes certain actions. For some people it’s easier to do nothing and then complain life is unfair. Yes, life is not fair and we all experience tragedy, but we can make the choice to seek happiness, and this prayer gives us a time-tested way to do so.