In 2006 an Israeli post-doc, Tal Ben Shahar, broke Harvard University's record for having the most popular undergraduate course in its history. His topic: positive psychology, the science of happiness.
Though he is not an observant Jew, Ben Shahar spent significant time studying Torah material, explaining that, "Many of the ideas quote-unquote 'discovered' by modern psychologists, had actually been present for thousands of years in traditional Jewish sources."
Achieving happiness is the deepest single drive humans have. It is the reason we do almost everything we do, from buying clothes to working hard, to giving charity and just about everything in between. Yet achieving true happiness and deep fulfilment often seems elusive.
In the Jewish calendar there is a time of year dedicated to learning the key lessons of lasting happiness. "The time of rejoicing" encompasses two consecutive festivals: Succot and its eighth day, Shemini Atzeret.
For seven days we leave the comfort of our homes and enter a succah, a temporary structure with a feeble roof. Yet any child who has experienced the succah knows it to be a time of deep joy.
Giving and trusting turn out to be more rewarding than taking and controlling
There are at least three counterintuitive lessons that the succah provides.
One is that it is not what we possess that makes us happy, but the level of gratitude we feel. On Succot we leave our possessions and make do with less. Yet we decorate and beautify the succah, appreciating the little shelter it provides.
The second is that true fulfilment usually requires stepping out of the comfort zone, refusing to stand still and to engage in a journey of self-development and discovery. Succot reminds us of the time we were on a national journey from the depths of slavery to the heights of Mount Sinai. It reminds us to ensure that our lives are about journeying and becoming ever greater people.
The third is that a God-centred life is vastly more fulfilling than a self-centred one. No matter how hard we try to control everyone and everything, the world never fully conforms to our desires. The result is a regular stream of resentments and frustrations.
The succah relives the journey in which God was at the centre. A God-centred life is one in which we stop trying to run the show and hand the world into the care of its loving Creator. Instead we ask ourselves daily what God wants from us; how we can be of service to others around us. Giving and trusting turn out to be vastly more rewarding than controlling and taking.
Succot, then, teaches some of the most counterintuitive, but critical lessons in the study of happiness.
But then comes the day we leave the succah- marked by a very different kind of festival, Shemini Atzeret. Yet it too is called "the time of our rejoicing". What message does it provide?The secret lies in the - literally an eighth-day climax.
The Babylonians loved the number six because it was so divisible. It can be easily divided into either two or three. It describes the six sides of a cube.
Israel loves the number seven because it is indivisible. It describes the centre-point of any structure, around which the sides are arranged.
For six days we work in the world of division. On the seventh we enter the world of unity.
On Succot, too, we leave behind the material world and touch a space where we are at one with each other and at one with God. For seven days we take seven plants (three myrtle leaves, two willow, palm branch and etrog) and walk around the synagogue. Happiness is not found in the material world of the number six but the inner dimension that we encounter over Succot.
The Hebrew word for seven, sheva, also spells the letters of the word for satisfaction sova. But the next number eight, shemona, also spells the word for expansiveness, shmena. For seven days of Succot we retreat from the material world, learning a new dimension of life. On the eighth day we take those inner messages and bring them back to every part of our lives.
Our newfound appreciation should allow us to be sensitive to every blessing that we have. We should be able to see in each possession a tool to help us grow. And we should be able to ask how God wants us to utilise all that we have to better serve the world.
Every day of Succot, the Torah is brought to the centre of the synagogue and we circle it. Torah is that seventh inner point. But on Shemini Atzeret, the climactic rejoicing, the Torah expands out of the centre and joins us in the surrounding ring. Our dance becomes Simchat Torah rejoicing with the Torah. For Torah cannot be left separated from the world. The true joy is when it pervades every aspect of our lives.
Throughout Succot we step back from the world, to learn some of life's deepest lessons. Through Shemini Atzeret we learn how to bring the succah-perspective into everything we do.
Together they can help answer our elusive quest for happiness, and apply their millennia-old secrets to our everyday lives.