Vayechi 5772

January 7, 2012

A happiness pill?

If you could take a pill that would make you happy all the time, would you take it?

An Israeli neuroscientist, Moran Cerf, has discovered how to trigger different areas of the brain to elicit emotions without any external stimulus. In an article in Haaretz he said, “The purpose of the research is to understand what happens when you become happy, why you can’t stay happy all the time…” He plans to do research on how to create a “happiness pill” so that you COULD stay happy all the time.

Would that be a good idea?

A lesson related to this week’s Torah portion explains why NOT.

Kedushat Levi (R. Yitzchak Levi of Berditchev, 18th century Ukraine) asks why, in this week’s parsha, does Jacob choose to bless Ephraim before Menashe (his grandsons via his son Joseph), even though Menashe is the first-born son, and traditionally he should take precedence in the blessing? He says to understand this we first turn to a teaching from the Talmud.

In tractate Megillah, there’s a teaching that the ways of God are not like the ways of man: man first prepares the pot, and then puts the water in it. God first gets the water, and then prepares the pot around it. In a similar way, when people are sick, they then seek a cure. God prepares the cure first.

Kedushat Levi says this explains the suffering of the chasidim (in his days, chasidim suffered a lot, both from pogroms from Gentiles, and from opposition of others in the Jewish community, the mitnagdim). The suffering is just a preparation to make them able to receive God’s blessings. Without suffering, our “pot” or “vessel” is small, and can’t receive much in the way of blessing from God. Just as if you have a small vessel you may have to break it to make it bigger, the suffering increases our capacity to receive the flow of God’s blessings. But the blessings were the original purpose. So in this way, God creates the cure before the illness, and this explains why Ephraim precedes Menashe. Menashe is connected to Joseph’s suffering at the hands of his brothers, and his troubles in the early days in Egypt – it means “forget,” he has forgotten the troubles and put them behind him. Ephraim, on the other hand, refers to blessings – it’s based on the word “pri,” fruitful,” and praises God for making him fruitful. So in keeping with the teaching that the blessing precedes illness, Jacob puts Ephraim first.

What Kedushat Levi does with the teaching from the Talmud is to tell us if we want to be able to receive the blessings, we need to be prepared by way of the suffering. Without experiencing the suffering we do not have the capacity to receive the abundant blessing. So therefore, a “happiness” pill would be counterproductive. Your personal growth would be stunted. Your ability to receive blessings would be limited if you never experiences the “down” emotions.

When I asked the question about whether you would take a pill that made you happy all the time at lunch today, even my kids were smart enough to say “no.” One of my daughters said it would be boring. You’d never know what happiness is if it was the only emotion you felt. It would just be “normal,” it wouldn’t be happy.

Existentialist philosophers have pointed out the same thing: you can’t experience highs without experiencing the lows. David N. Elkins, professor emeritus of psychology at Pepperdine put it well in his book “Beyond Religion:”

“If someone told me that I could live my life again free of depression provided I was willing to give up the gifts depression has given me–the depth of awareness, the expanded consciousness, the increased sensitivity, the awareness of limitation, the tenderness of love, the meaning of friendship, the appreciation of life, the joy of a passionate heart–I would say, ‘This is a Faustian bargain! Give me my depressions. Let the darkness descend. But do not take away the gifts that depression, with the help of some unseen hand, has dredged up from the deep ocean of my soul and strewn along the shores of my life. I can endure darkness if I must; but I cannot live without these gifts. I cannot live without my soul.'”

I know my own personal experience is that the most painful experiences in my life – a failed marriage, getting fired from a company I started, the loss of my mother – were also my greatest growth experiences. It really is true that the suffering I have experienced has opened my heart – as Kedushat Levi would put it, made the vessel bigger, able to receive more blessings and good.

Approximately one in ten American women are taking anti-depressant drugs. There is no doubt that these drugs do a lot of good, and prevent many suicides. There is a limit to how much suffering a person can endure, and someone who is clinically depressed, who is no longer capable of functioning normally for an extended period of time, or who is in danger of committing suicide, clearly should take medication to get back on track.

But could that possibly be one in ten American women? It seems very likely to me that many of those women are just trying to avoid feeling sad because they are frustrated with the drudgery of their lives, their marriages, or feel overworked and/or under-loved.

But perhaps the “happy pills” are letting them get away with avoiding dealing with the root cause of their unhappiness.

If I didn’t feel bad when life sucked, I’d never get off my rear to do something about it. The anguished times have indeed expanded my consciousness, increased my sensitivity, and given me a much greater appreciation for meaningful work, love, friendship and family. Not only am I more capable of appreciating the many blessings in my life thanks to the pain I have felt, I’m also a better person.

A pill that would make me happy all the time?

No thanks.

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One Response to Vayechi 5772

  1. Jeff Eyges on January 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    The suffering is just a preparation to make them able to receive God’s blessings. Without suffering, our “pot” or “vessel” is small, and can’t receive much in the way of blessing from God.

    Frankly, Rabbi, I would rather not have the blessing.

    I agree with Margaret Mead; this business of suffering being a prerequisite for growth or creativity is a reflection of humanity’s (what I believe she described as) inherent bloody-mindedness.

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