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Q: I am a mother of 3 who has a happy marriage and little financial stress. Still, I find that I’m not happy and feel like something is missing in my life. I stay at home with my kids, unlike many of my friends who have careers, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do. When I discuss this with my friends or family, they tell me to just focus on all the good in my life and to realize that others have it much worse. I am trying to do that, but it doesn’t seem to be working. What do you suggest?

A: Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches Harvard University’s most popular class, which can draw close to 1000 students per semester. It is course number 1504 and the name of the class is Positive Psychology; that is, he teaches his students how to be happy. I think it’s fair to say that happiness is the most sought after commodity in the world. Perhaps every other want or need is in service of trying to make ourselves happy. We frequently find though that what we originally thought we needed to be happy wasn’t in fact what we were searching for. Some people seem to attribute their happiness in direct correlation with the amount of money they have. Others focus on their relationships as the source of their happiness. And yet others believe that the only true path to happiness is through religion and God. (As an aside, it was once explained to me that while religion can increase and deepen a person’s happiness, we cannot rely on that for the initial foundation). Of course, the list goes on, but we do see that people have different views on what’s most important for the joy in their lives.

Ben-Shahar’s class covers a number of topics including;

  1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.
  2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.
  3. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.
  4. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savor the wonderful things in life, from people to food, to nature or even a smile.

Without knowing more specifics I would like to share a few thoughts that might be helpful.

When did you start feeling this way? Do you think you were unhappy before your marriage? Did something happen recently that triggered this? When you have felt happy in the past, what was the source? Is your husband happy? All these questions may help clarify what direction you need to go in to address this.

You mentioned, “I stay at home with my kids unlike many of my friends who have careers, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do.” Is it possible that while this is something that has always been important to you, you still resent that you are “stuck” at home? There are many women in the frum world who have chosen to pursue careers in place of being a stay at home mom aside for financial reasons. While some may judge them as being neglectful to their kids, we need to consider that forcing one to stay at home when they don’t feel comfortable can cause more harm than good. Perhaps a full-time job wouldn’t interest you, but what about spending part of the time at home while another part working. It is important to consider that your unhappiness might have a stronger impact on your children than being away from home at times.

Another thought is, have you discussed this with your husband, parents, or close friends and what were their suggestions? An outside view of someone close to us can shed some light where we may feel blind. And finally, if you feel you have exhausted all options, I would encourage you to consider meeting with a therapist. He or she can help you further explore possible causes and support in making the changes that can help.

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