It has become abundantly clear that science and technology have given us undreamed-of conveniences—but not happiness. Nothing is guaranteed to bring happiness, yet we relentlessly pursue it. Shall we conclude that happiness is a delusion beyond our reach? Is it possible that some human beings have a condition that prevents them from being happy?
As with the treatment of any condition, we are not going to solve the happiness problem until we make a proper diagnosis. A patient with a thyroid deficiency has no chance of recovery without thyroid hormones. A person with iron-deficiency anemia will not improve with all the vitamins in the world unless iron is prescribed. This is just as true of human beings who are deficient in happiness.
I have come to believe that the root cause of this condition is what I have termed Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome (SDS).
As Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen explains in My Grandfather’s Blessings: Perhaps the root cause of stress is not overbearing bosses, ill-behaved children, or the breakdown of relationships. It is the loss of a sense of our soul. If so, all the ways in which we have attempted to ease stress cannot heal it at the deepest level. Stress may heal only through the recognition that we cannot betray our spiritual nature without paying a great price. It is not that we have a soul but that we are a soul.
What Dr. Remen calls “soul,” I call the human “spirit.” And I believe that the neglect of the human spirit is not only the cause of stress, but also of enduring unhappiness. Just as a lack of essential bodily nutrients results in a deficiency condition, failure to provide the spirit with its essential nutrients results in Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome, whose primary symptom is chronic discontent.
That leads us to the core question: What is essential to the human spirit? Within the answer lies the key to happiness.
To me, the human spirit is an integral part of being human. The human body makes its needs known dramatically through hunger, thirst, anger, sex drive, pain, weariness, and more. The human spirit, however, is intangible. We cannot see nor touch it, and it is much less emphatic about what it needs.
Still, it is present in these attributes:
- The ability to be self-aware. We as human beings can be introspective, analyze our psychological composition, know our strengths and weaknesses, work to develop desirable traits, and seek to eliminate the undesirable ones.
- The ability to be humble. We as human beings can know truths about our knowledge, skills, and talents, yet not think of ourselves as superior to or more worthy than others.
- The ability to choose. We as human beings can defy gratifying a desire when we believe it to be morally wrong.
- The ability to be patient. We as human beings can control our urges.
- The ability to make the most out of circumstances. We as human beings can come to adjust to the vicissitudes of life, and look for the silver linings in adversities.
- The ability to improve. We as human beings can acquire knowledge and become wise. We can also learn to control our anger and to be considerate of others.
- The ability to be compassionate. We as human beings can identify with others’ suffering, and try to alleviate it.
- The ability to have perspective. We as human beings can plan ahead, and consider the consequences of our actions.
- The ability to have purpose. We as human beings can dedicate ourselves to an ultimate goal, asking “What do I want to accomplish with my life?”
- The ability to search for truth. We as human beings can dedicate ourselves to dealing honestly in the world.
- The ability to change. “A leopard cannot change its spots,” but we human beings with strong selfish desires or a “short fuse” can make changes in our character.
I propose that the sum total of all of these traits constitutes the human spirit.
Even if each one of us does not possess every one of these traits, all human beings have the ability to develop them, once we’ve realized their importance.
This brings us full circle back to the question of happiness. When we develop our human spirits to the fullest, when we feel we are being the best we can be, we not only avoid the chronic discontent of Spiritual Deficiency Syndrome, we can achieve true and enduring happiness.
Often, it seems, the meanings of the terms religion and spirituality are confused as being the same. They are not. Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion. And we can learn a great deal about spirituality from each other.
One morning a patient of mine, Nora*, arrived for her psychotherapy appointment bubbling with happiness. She was eight months’ sober and beginning to reap some of sobriety’s rewards. Her son was attending school all day; she had found a full-time job (albeit at minimum wage) as well as a suitable, inexpensive apartment for the two of them; and she thought she might be able to save enough money to get her car fixed.
“What’s wrong with your car?” I asked.
“There’s no reverse,” she said. “The reverse gear is broken.”
“How can you drive without a reverse gear?” I asked.
“Oh, you have to plan things out,” she said, “like how to park so you can get out without backing up. But I must remember that some people don’t even have a car.”
Unlike Nora, on that morning I was in an irritable mood. I’d had car problems, too—the cruise control on my new automobile was inaccurate, fluctuating five miles per hour. I would have to take it back to the dealer for an adjustment, which would cost half a day. Nora, in contrast, was happy with a car that didn’t have a reverse gear.
Nora taught me an important spiritual lesson: Happiness is not having the most, but needing the least.
Nora also demonstrated spiritual happiness through giving back. Years earlier she had undergone chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment and lost all her hair. Now she regularly visits her oncologist’s office to uplift other cancer patients. She shows them a picture of her bald head when she was on chemo and says, “Look at me now! My hair is thicker than ever! Chemotherapy was the greatest thing to happen to my hair!”
Nora is a spiritual person.
Another personal story, my own:
After serving as a rabbi for several years, I went to medical school. It was a financial challenge; I had a wife and two children to support. My congregation was not wealthy, but the membership helped me with tuition. Still, in my third year I was in arrears of two trimesters’ tuition, and I asked the administration to be patient with me.
One Sunday I called home at lunchtime and my wife said, “What would you do if you had $4,000?”
I said, “We’d take a trip around the world, but I don’t have time for fantasy now.”
“Well, you’ve got $4,000 from Danny Thomas,” she said.
“Who is Danny Thomas?” I asked.
“You know, the television comedian,” she said. I did not know. The medical school curriculum did not provide time for watching TV.
“Listen to this item in today’s paper: At a meeting with officials of Marquette University, Danny Thomas was told about a young rabbi who is struggling to get through medical school. ‘How much does your rabbi need to finish?’ Danny Thomas asked. ‘About $4,000,’ the officials said. ‘Tell your rabbi he’s got it.’”
Danny Thomas made good on his offer. Moreover, a few days later he sent me a letter apologizing for the item appearing in the paper. “There was a reporter at our meeting, but it didn’t occur to me that he would publish this. I’m sorry if it caused you embarrassment.”
A year later I met Danny Thomas in the TV studio. I told him there was no reason for an apology. “The papers always print the bad things that happen. Why shouldn’t they print the good things, too?”
Danny shook his head. “We in the entertainment industry make our living by publicity and there are many things we do for publicity. This was something I wanted to do because it felt right and I did not want it to be a publicity stunt.”
Danny Thomas also dedicated himself to developing the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis for research and treatment of children’s malignancies.
Danny Thomas was a spiritual person.
Now for the other side.
Brian consulted me because he was contemplating suicide. “My father is crazy. He is 84 and has built up a billion-dollar empire. If he lived for 1,000 years, he could not consume a fraction of his wealth. Yet he goes to the office every day to make more money. What for?
“My share of the business is beyond what I will ever need. I have one condo on the West Coast and another one on the Riviera. I have a stable full of horses. I don’t want to make more money. What’s the point?
“When I get into a plane, it’s not to go anywhere, but to get away from where I am. I see no point in continuing with my life.”
“But with all your extra money,” I said, “just think of how much good you can do! Think of how many hungry people you could feed, and how much valuable medical research you could sponsor. You would even have good reason to generate more money for worthy causes.”
Brian looked at me with a bewildered expression. “Give away my money? Why would I want to do that?”
Brian was not a spiritual person, and he was bitterly discontented.
Many people have some spirituality, but not enough to satisfy the spirit. Rather, we need to have what Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen calls “faithfulness to life:”
We are a culture that values mastery and control, that cultivates self-sufficiency, competence, independence. But in the shadow of these values lies a profound rejection of our human wholeness….In a highly technological world, we may forget our own goodness and place value instead on our skills and our expertise. But it is not our expertise that will restore the world. The future may depend less on our expertise than on our faithfulness in life. —My Grandfather’s Blessings
“Faithfulness to life” means faithfulness to being the persons we were created to be. When we are continually engaged in the process of living our potential to the best of our abilities, we will find true happiness.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski is a psychiatrist and author of 60+ books. This article is adapted from Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be © 2007 by Abraham Twerski. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT.