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Congregation Beth HaTephila

An Engaging, Inclusive, Reform Congregation in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Between You and Me - January 2022

What makes for happiness and well-being?  According to psychologists who’ve made happiness their life’s work, we now know that 44-52% of our well-being is genetically determined.  In other words, a significant portion of our experience of happiness is beyond our control.  We come into the world with a pre-programmed happiness set-point. 

Circumstances are a second factor determining our wellbeing.  The good and bad that moves through all of our lives can account for as little as 10 percent or as much as 40 percent of our overall sense of happiness.  But even when it seems to us that our circumstances are playing a big role in whether we feel happy in a given moment, most scholars believe the effects of circumstances don’t count for much because circumstances change.  After the dust settles in the wake of peak experiences or heartbreak, people’s sense of wellbeing typically returns to their genetically programmed baseline. 

Since we cannot change our genes and circumstantial wellbeing is fleeting and also often beyond our control, there is a third important factor that we can productively turn our focus towards that can make for lasting happiness: our habits.  Here we are not talking about exercise or eating well, though those habits are important to our physical wellbeing.  In a recent article in the Atlantic*, Arthur Brooks distilled hundreds of studies about habits that cultivate happiness into a simple formula: Habits = Family + Friends + Work + Faith. 

People with meaningful family connections and, some argue even more importantly, deep friendships, thrive and live longer.  Happiness is found through loving.  It is as simple as that. 

It may be surprising that work is also a primary source of wellbeing.  Sometimes work gets blamed for interfering with our ability to be happy and do the things that increase our happiness.  Or one may argue that not all kinds of work can elicit enduring happiness.  Social scientists disagree.  What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but in the felt sense that we are earning our success and serving others. 

Not surprisingly, I’m most interested in the final habit in Brooks’ happiness formula: faith.  In our recent engagement survey, 40% of you responded saying you hadn’t returned to services because you are “out of the habit.”  If that might be true for you, consider that having a structure in your life through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others has been found to be a primary component of increasing your happiness.  And that’s exactly what we are up to at Temple. 

Over the last two years, the pandemic has caused us to recalibrate and recommit only to our deepest commitments.  At the same time, it robbed us of our ability to pursue core aspects of our wellbeing.  The secular New Year is typically a time we make resolutions to new habits and ways of being.  We all want to be happy.  I pray we will endeavor to look in all the right places to find it.  Your temple is here.


Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784