What’s the secret to a happy life?

Nearly 1,000 Jewish New Yorkers came together on Tuesday evening to learn the answer from Tal Ben-Shahar, noted author and lecturer. Tal taught Harvard’s most popular class ever — “Positive Psychology.” Or what we might call “Happiness 101.”

The composition of the audience spoke to the universality of the topic; there were people of all ages representing 70 synagogues from across the spectrum of Jewish life taking part in UJA’s third CommUnity Conversation. We convene these annual gatherings as one of the many ways we foster connections between diverse segments of the Jewish community. (Our prior two CommUnity Conversation speakers were David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell.)

So, what is the secret to happiness?

Some are relatively intuitive: Build meaningful relationships. Spend time with family and friends. Feel gratitude for what you have. Take regular work breaks and at least an hour a day to disconnect from technology. Go on vacations. Get a good night’s sleep. Exercise regularly.

Perhaps less intuitive and equally important: Give to others.

Tal described a study of two groups of people whose happiness levels were measured. The first group was then given money to spend on themselves. Following the spending spree, happiness levels were measured again and they were elevated. However, when happiness levels were tested the following day, they had already dropped back to the pre-spending spree level. The second group was given money to spend on others. This time, the happiness levels were again elevated after the spending, but stayed elevated the following day.

Science proves it — giving does a person good.

Many people share the assumption that simply having more money will make them happier. Tal noted that, beyond a certain level allowing for basic needs to be met, that’s generally not true. Indeed, last week’s news of two widely admired, successful people taking their own lives was a heartbreaking reminder of this reality.

Finally, Tal told us that there is a happiness index for countries. The countries ranked highest on the happiness index are those with the greatest percentage of people engaged in meaningful relationships who are also part of giving communities.

So happiness comes from connecting to one another and giving. In other words, our UJA community may have already learned the secret to a happy life.

Shabbat shalom