Did your parents ever say to you, “We only want you to be happy”? Did they get their wish? Are you happy? All the time? Occasionally? What if shoplifting makes you happy? Would your parents still stand by their sentiment?
Happiness is a perplexing concept. We use the word all the time. Engaged couple—I’m so happy to be marrying you! Business leader—I’m not happy about this situation. Our first First Lady—“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy…”
It even shows up early in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. It’s the 107th word—“…the pursuit of Happiness…” But none of this really reveals the essence of the word. We’ve all got a pretty good sense of the word from common usage and from our life experiences, but how do we achieve true happiness?
The Biblical word for happy/happiness in the original Hebrew is SaMeaCH.
Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that we should scrutinize the very first time a word is used in Scripture because something about the word is revealed there. The first time the Hebrew word for happy is used is enigmatic. It is used by one of the real rogues of the Hebrew Bible, Lavan, the man who is both Jacob’s uncle and his father-in-law.
Why have you fled secretly, and concealed from me, and not told me? I would have sent you away in happiness and with song… – (Genesis 31:27)
One thing we know for sure is that Lavan did not love Jacob. He had consistently behaved towards Jacob quite abominably. What is more, he knew that Jacob knew that he was no friend, which is why Jacob snuck away to avoid giving Lavan any new opportunities to rob him. Yet Lavan claims that he would have sent him away with a big farewell party in happiness and song. Whether he really would have done this or not, we shall never know. But what we do know is that it was perfectly possible for someone who felt no happiness nonetheless to act in a way signifying happiness. And this is ancient Jewish wisdom’s first lesson on happiness. You don’t necessarily have to feel happiness to express it.
Lesson number two on happiness is that it is a commandment. I may bathe only when I feel like it and I may eat steak only when I feel like it, but God expects me to express happiness even when I don’t feel like it.
…and you shall be happy before the Lord your God…
(Deuteronomy 12:12; 12:18; 16:11)
In the Hebrew, the commandment is clear. There is an obligation to be happy. In fact, in a frightening passage, God indicates that terrible things befall us:
…because you did not serve the Lord, your God with happiness…
Lesson number three is that happiness involves other people. You can be happy alone, but never in loneliness. Adding to the happiness of others is one of the best ways to bring you happiness.
…he shall be home for one year and make happy the wife he married.
Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that the surest way for a husband to become happy is by making his wife happy. Furthermore, we should recognize that the first year of marriage is a vital time for inculcating those characteristics that will make for a happy couple throughout their lives.
Martha Washington understood Hebrew’s insights on happiness as evidenced by her entire quote:
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy, in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.”
Wishing the blessing of a happy marriage on as many people as possible is the reason we carry the book, I Only Want to Get Married Once: Dating Secrets to Getting It Right the First Time in our bookstore. The book provides ten vital questions that helps people make a wise choice, making being happy that much easier.