The beginning of a new year is a moment for wild celebration.
In New York’s Times Square, hundreds of thousands of people gather in freezing weather to see the ball drop at precisely midnight. In Berlin, Germany, fireworks light up the entire city for hours. Even up in Springbrook, Wisconsin, population 500, we put on party hats and toasted with champagne, although we had set the clocks ahead two hours so the little kids and the old folks would still be awake.
New Year’s is also a time for reflection. People make lists of the 10 greatest things about the year just gone by. We also think about the worst things in our immediate past and resolve to fix them, even though we all know that New Year’s resolutions are as likely to be kept as campaign promises.
Rather than make futile resolutions, I have been thinking about happiness. If I know what makes me happy, perhaps I can find more happiness this coming year.
I am happy to be an American. That doesn’t mean that I think that Americans are better than anyone else, or that America is the greatest nation in history. The unique tolerance for nonconformity, the encouragement to create our own lives, the openness to change and renewal offer me possibilities that seem closed in the older European societies from which my ancestors came. I have lived in other countries, but I fit best in America.
I am happy to be a Jew. That doesn’t mean that I think that Judaism is a better religion or that Jews are better people. I am often sad about the repeated persecution that my family has suffered, persecution which brought my relatives to America from Russia and Austria.
But mainly I am happy to have been raised in that peculiarly cosmopolitan culture, which laughs a lot, mainly at itself, which reveres books and learning, which urges us to do good deeds, called mitzvahs, for those around us.
I am happy to live in Jacksonville, Illinois. That doesn’t mean that I think that Jacksonville is better than Beardstown or Springfield or any other place. But for me it is a good place, a place with friends, with beautiful homes, with a rich history based in education.
I am happy to have a job. Many people I know don’t have jobs, including friends and relatives. Not all jobs are good jobs, but especially in these difficult times, a job means more than money. It means being part of something bigger than myself, having colleagues who share my goals, having people who depend on my work and on whose work I depend. It means having a place to go in the morning with a purpose, accomplishing big projects one day at a time, building a career over a lifetime.
I am happy to be a teacher. I don’t know everything, or even everything about what I teach.
I love to learn new things and tell students about them, to help young people gain insight into the world around them and acquire skills to influence that world. Teachers are paid less than most other people who have made a similar investment in their education, but I feel rich beyond measure when a new student’s eyes light up with new knowledge, or when an old student remembers our mutual efforts to teach and learn.
I am happy to be part of my family. Except for my wife, I didn’t choose my relatives, nevertheless I feel happiest among them. My life was shaped by a heritage over which I had no control, by generations of ancestors who died before I was born. I tried to control who my children became, but I am happiest to be surprised by their independence, their individuality, their differences from me.
Many things I have tried have not worked out well. I have flaws I can’t control and desires I will never satisfy. But regrets do not contribute to happiness and we rarely get a chance to right the wrongs we have done. I could resolve to be a better person, but I doubt I could keep such a resolution. Instead, I’ll just keep remembering what makes me happy, and then try to share that joy with others. Happiness, like sadness or anger, is infectious. It can be spread to those around us. It just takes a word, a glance, a smile.
Happy new year.