Purim: The Upside-Down Way to Find Happiness

Do you want to be happy?

Then here’s my advice: don’t try to be happy.

That idea comes from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book 
The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
. He tells us that significant research suggests that many of the ways we try to get happy (“Set a goal! Think positive thoughts! Imagine the life you want!”) are actually counter-productive.

Instead, he argues, we should realize that we may not achieve our goals, that negative thoughts and feelings are part of life, and that scary things happen.

Why? Because

…[]t]he notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. Or, to quote [philosopher Alan] Watts, “when you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float,” and that “insecurity is the result of trying to be secure…” (8)

He calls this method “the backwards law,” and it’s a perfect message for Purim. which is the day when “everything gets turned upside down.”

On one hand, Purim is clearly a fun holiday. We wear masks and costumes. We hold parties. We have carnivals and celebrations. We let our hair out.

One the other hand, the Purim story itself is filled with tremendous anxiety and uncertainty. Will Esther be brave enough to speak to King Ahashuerus, even though it might mean she’d be killed? What would have happened if Mordechai hadn’t overheard the plot to kill the king, or if his courtiers hadn’t realized that Mordechai needed to be rewarded? Most of all, will the Jews survive Haman’s murderous plot?

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the word “Purim” comes from the word “pur,” meaning “lot” — as in “lottery.” Purim, at its core, reminds us that life is uncertain, scary and often gets turned upside-down.

Yet it’s that very lack of security that can lead us to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. As Burkeman explains,

…[t]o seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,” [Alan] Watts writes, “I am wanting to be separate from life.” Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity…

“The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing,” concludes Watts. “To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest, in which everyone is taut as a drum as as purple as a beet.” Even if we temporarily and partially achieve the feeling of security, he adds, it doesn’t feel good…”We discover [not only] that there is no safery, [and] that seeking it is painful, [but] that when we imagine we have found it, we don’t like it.” (146-147)

Ultimately, Purim reminds us that we don’t have complete control over our lives, and in fact, trying to desperately hold onto safety makes us deeply unhappy, since we are not truly living life to its fullest. Instead, if we can embrace the fact that life can be scary and unpredictable, we can then be totally present in moments of joy.

In other words, to truly be happy, we need to turn our ideas of happiness upside-down.

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