What defines happiness?
Stern College positive psychology professor, Dr. Aharon Fried, played the documentary “Dancing Under the Gallows.” The film depicted the eternal optimism of the oldest known Holocaust Survivor in the world, Alice Sommer. Now, at 108 years old, Alice loves playing the piano, socializing with her friends, and meeting new people. Looking back on the last 70 years, Alice recalls how playing the piano for the Nazi’s in Germany had saved her life in the Theresienstadt concentration camp—a propaganda camp made to deceive the world of the true conditions the Jews faced in concentration camps. Alice was sent to Theresienstadt with her husband and son. Alice’s husband and twin sister were killed in different camps. Though she survived, she suffered from cancer in 1986, and her only son died in 2001. However, despite her painful life, her outlook on life is, surprisingly, HAPPY.
“I never hate,” explains Alice. “Hatred only brings hate.” True to her word, Alice doesn’t hate anyone. She does not speak of revenge, regrets, sorrow, or loss. She speaks about her music, friends, and being optimistic in life. She continues to explain, “I was born with a very good optimism and this helps you when you are optimistic, when you are not complaining. When you look at the good side of life, everybody loves you.”
Is optimism an innately born trait? Has Alice been able to withstand her life’s hardships because she has such an optimistic view on life? She might think so. Alice explains, “my sister was always the pessimist, I was the optimist.” While being optimistic is extremely important, I think there is more than just optimism that has kept Alice alive. She has found meaning and purpose in her life through music. Alice says that “Music is God” for her. Playing music every day is how she has learned to instill purpose and pleasure in her life. By knowing what makes Alice happy¾ her passion for music, friends, and love¾Alice looks forward to waking up cheerfully every morning. She says, “In every day life is beautiful. Every day we can speak about anything, its beautiful.”
Discovering what makes one truly happy is something that most people struggle with. As college students, we are constantly trying to decide what to do for the rest of our lives. We question if we chose the right major, we will be successful in our careers, we will have a family, and if we will be truly happy. At this point, we cannot really foresee the success that will come in our lives; only time and enough life experience can give us that knowledge. Still, Alice has exemplified a few key aspects to living a life of happiness that we can attempt to achieve in our own lives.
What can we learn from Alice and others like her? That finding happiness and success simply means doing what you love and not caring about what others think or say you should be doing. As Steve Jobs said, “you need to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing…if you don’t love it, you are going to fail.” Finding what motivates you and wakes you up every day is a challenge. Alice looked at her own struggles in life and chose to focus on the good and what she loves to do. Though it is not easy, Alice has turned away from a life of hatred.
So, what defines happiness? The perpetual question, but I think with such a simple answer: Stop doing what you hate and start doing what you love. Let us all wish Alice a “Happy 109th Birthday,” please G-d, on November 26th!
The Mental Health Column is brought to you by Orly Benaderet. As a senior at Stern College for Women, Orly is passionate about improving the mental health field and educating the student body about various areas of mental health. Happy reading.