For some, happiness and well-being is a goal in life. For Torah Jews, this is in a sense a preoccupation with the ' self' and that happiness and well-being should rather be viewed as a vehicle for becoming greater, kinder and more compassionate human beings. Dr Richard Davidson says that neuroscientists show that we can change our brains –due to the plasticity of the brain – by creating more, new and stronger neural circuits by using the keys or skills for well- being in a deep and emotional way. The 4 keys are Resilience, Outlook, Attention and Generosity. It seems that Aaron the High Priest is the Torah's role model for these well-being keys.
Resilience – Resilience is the rapidity with which people recover from adversity. People who show a more rapid recovery in key neural circuits have higher levels of well-being. The problem is that our brains have a negativity bias to cope with threats and avoid danger. The brain sucks in negative interactions and their impact on the brain is said to be 5 times more powerful than positive experiences. We don't only suffer from negative experiences, but we tend to self –inflict, brood over it for the rest of the day, becoming more negativistic, stressed out, depressive, pessimistic and self- critical. Self-compassion is a skill that helps people recover and get back on track. People who see mistakes, falling and failure as opportunities for growth turn these negative experiences into positive experiences and when they repent and do Teshuva they can transform negative actions into positive actions. Aaron lost his 2 sons during the inauguration ceremony of the Tabernacle. Moses consoled Aaron and Aaron's response was to accept the Divine decree and remain silent- וידם אהרן. In order to deal with painful situations, we have to first accept the new reality. This liberates us emotionally – and instead of fighting reality, we are now in a position to be creative in handling the new situation.
Outlook – This refers to the ability to see the positive in others, their innate basic goodness, the positive side of situations and events and the ability to take positive facts and convert them into deep emotional experiences which people savor and enjoy. We also see the ' hidden miracles ' in our personal and national worlds as the Ramban explains – the great and open miracles particularly those from the exodus from Egypt teach us to look for the hidden miracles in our lives. Aaron had a compassionate approach to people. He had the ability to see the good in each person, convey it to others and also ascribe more positive attributes and motives to people's negative actions. In this way, he was able to resolve conflict, make peace between people and in this way he engaged people during Golden calf episode.
Attention. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Instead of being mindful, connected and attentive, a large amount of people's waking life is spent not paying attention, going through physical motions in an automatic way, doing things just to get something else - reach a milestone or pass a test as there is nothing intrinsically valuable in what we are doing, and therefore we are not connected to what we are doing etc.,. The Mitzvoth we do become – מצוות אנשים מלומדה - without any emotional input, automatic and in a rote manner. When it comes to our personal interactions we should focus on deep listening and being present with the other person, and also read their non-verbal messages. Paying attention and being mindful are skills that were never taught to people. But what makes the situation worse is routine and doing things out of habit. Aaron is warned – ואל יבוא בכל עת אל הקודש – not to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur at all times of the day but only when he carries out the sacrificial service of the day. The Divine spirit rests there and Aaron should not make entering there, a habit, but be mindful of the holiness of the place and the presence of the Divine spirit. The same idea is expressed by the commandment that on the festivals people should not leave temple using the gate that they entered the temple. Familiarity breeds contempt if we are not careful to invest in relationships and quality of our actions.
Generosity –When individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way they would respond to other positive incentives such as winning a game or earning a prize. The Rambam says something similar -– we experience true joy and happiness, when we act in a generous and altruistic way and have needy people at our festive meals. Aaron not only promoted peaceful relationships between people, but was very generous in the way he approached and received people, which changed their self-worth and self-esteem.
When we interact with our children, we should be aware that we are building the neural circuits for well –being or enhancing neural structures that are negative and aggressive. By giving our kids the 4 well-being keys Resilience, Outlook, Attention and Generosity we are helping them to become better and happier people who are also concerned with the happiness and well-being of others.