Happiness the Jewish Way: Interview with Olga Gilburd

Happiness the Jewish Way by Olga Gilburd

Happiness the Jewish Way: A Practical Guide to Happiness Through the Lens of Jewish Wisdom is at once a contemplative and practical guide to happiness and an introduction to the zestful and resilient Jewish culture. It combines the genres of practical non-fiction, self-help, philosophy, and Jewish studies. It offers a unique combination of secular and traditional wisdom with fairy tales, poignant stories from Holocaust survivors, as well as lessons from the mystic teachings of Kabbalah. Today we meet the author of Happiness the Jewish Way, Olga Gilburd.

Q: Why did you write about happiness?

A: It seems to me that living happily is what everyone wants for themselves and their loved ones, but not nearly everyone finds themselves in this state of being. It’s so important, but it is not taught as a skill. Often we don’t even think about it as a skill, as something that we can work on and improve. However, ancient wisdom and modern science insist that we are able to. I couldn’t find a comprehensive practical manual that combined many different approaches in an interesting way and offered easy and effective instructions. So I decided to write it.

Q: Why did you decide to discuss happiness “through the lens of Jewish wisdom”?

A: Some time ago I saw the results of a major wellbeing survey, which stated that out of all religions and ethnicities, the Jewish people rank the happiest in the United States! That finding surprised and intrigued me, and it spurred my curiosity to learn how the Jewish religion and culture teach about happiness. I read a lot of books and articles, I went to classes and seminars on this topic, and I was humbled at how much I didn’t know about my own culture. I find that Jewish heritage is not often associated with joy and happiness. I wanted to share what I found out with readers.

Q: Does it mean the book is not relevant to non-Jewish readers?

A: Although the book is written with examples from the Jewish culture, happiness is a universal concept, and the practical exercises are for everyone.  I was glad to receive reviews from non-Jewish readers about how interesting the stories and the end-of chapter activities were to them.

Author and speaker Olga Gilburd. Photo courtesy of the author.

Q: What does it mean to you to be happy?

A: I am a strong believer that the state of continuous happiness is achieved not by moment-to-moment elation and exaltation, but rather by achieving contentment – by being satisfied with ourselves and the world around us. This can be achieved with different approaches, which became separate chapters in my book, such as self-esteem, kindness, attitude adjustment, mindfulness, and many more.

Q: How did you come up with your ideas?

A: It all started when I was trying to deal with my kids’ spells of bad mood. I asked myself, can I teach them how to be happier, or are they and all of us destined to go through life with a level of joy preordained by their intrinsic temperament? And if it’s possible to teach, then what should I teach? What is happiness made of? That’s how I thought about contentment.

I did a LOT of research, and some of my ideas evolved, and, others, strengthened. When I started looking into the Jewish heritage, I wanted to explore every facet of it, so I looked at religious sources: the Torah, Kabbalah, teachings of rabbis and mystics. I also read secular sources: Jewish fairy tales, joke books, history facts, biographies and interviews with prominent Jewish persons. On top of all that I studied positive psychology which, as it turned out, supports many ancient concepts with modern scientific study of happiness.

Since I pulled information and wisdom from so many different sources, oftentimes I felt like a silkworm, ingesting lots of different material, processing it all through my own perspective, mixing it in a meaningful way, condensing it to something beautiful and useful.

Q: You talk about teaching kids how to be happy. Do your kids teach anything to you?

A: Everyone invariably affects everyone else around them. My two girls teach me about how to be a better parent and a better person every day. Among other things, I learn with them how to be patient 🙂 I also learned lots about Harry Potter. I get to learn different things as they grow up.

Q: Is it ever too late to learn and start practicing happiness skills?

A: Of course not! Like the sages teach us, we don’t even have to practice happiness all the time, we only need to do it right now. Age doesn’t matter. Besides, as Regina Spektor – a Russian-born American singer – points out in her lyrics, “today we’re younger than we are ever gonna be”!

Q: Do children need to learn to be happy differently than adults?

A: In some ways, I believe they do. Adults are better at abstract ideas, so we can make efforts to change our behavior based on just understanding that it’s good for us and everyone around us. Kids mostly follow the example their parents set out for them and later, that of the society around them.

“Heart” by Jean David (20th century) (via WikiArt)

Q: Does school need to have responsibility of teaching happiness, or is it primarily the job of the family?

A: That is a difficult question that involves value system and financial restrictions of the educational system, among other considerations. Some people say that values should be taught at home. For example, different households will disagree on the definitions of kindness vs weakness, contentment vs laziness, or self-esteem vs arrogance. But I would love to see specific happiness and character-building skills added to school curriculum. There are schools in England, Australia, India and other countries that already do that and report great results not only in students’ wellbeing but academics as well.

Q: Are FSU families missing the concept of teaching happiness?

A: Every family is different. However, I do encounter a sort of incredulity about teaching happiness from some FSU parents. It goes along the lines of “so, is it ok for my kids to not strive and get a good education, if it doesn’t make them happy?” I think it stems from mixing the notions of achievement and happiness. Conventional success and happiness are not an “either/or” proposition. We can strive for success, fail, try harder, achieve our goals, go on to other goals, and so on, while still experiencing gratitude and joy.

Q: Are your own daughters receptive to these ideas?

A: I try to always point out to them the positive side of things. Sometimes they agree, other times they don’t. But it seeps in. I remember the first time I noticed it: I was telling someone several years ago that we had a hard week because we were all sick, and one of my daughters told me, “But it was still good, because we weren’t sick for two weeks!”, which was an echo of something I pointed out to her earlier.

Q: This is your first book. How did the writing process feel?

A: Sometimes it was literally a pleasure! I loved the process of writing – typing up my ideas, witnessing them shape from general, sometimes ambiguous notions to very specific and structured chapters. Other times it was pure anxiety. I had a deadline and I had to learn very quickly about the publishing process that I know nothing about. At the end, it was and it continues to be very gratifying. The whole process took nine months. Sometimes I joke that writing and publishing this book was like giving birth to another child.

Q: What did you do since the book was published?

A: I give talks and workshops about happiness and the Jewish perspective on it. I was honored to give an ELI Talk on stage in Chicago, IL. It is available at  https://elitalks.org/happiness-and-jewish-identity. I am proud to say that as of the date of this interview, my talk is in the top 30 most popular talks! I am a recurrent guest of Russian Television Network (RTN) program. I write articles for newspapers and my blog. And of course I sell my book – paper and electronic versions – on amazon.com.

A lot of what I do is on my website www.olgagilburd.com

Q: What do you enjoy doing in free time?

A: I took up figure skating recently and I find that I love it! Now I encourage all my friends to give it a try. I also like reading absorbing books and crocheting.

Q: Has your life changed since writing the book , and if so, how?

A: In terms of my own inner world, I think I am more mindful during everyday routine of what is most important, and that changes my perspective and behavior. I know that I’ve touched other people’s lives when I get feedback from readers and that is an incredible feeling.

Olga Gilburd is based in New York. You can learn more about Olga on www.olgagilburd.com, Facebook (www.facebook.com/HappinessTheJewishWay) and her blog at http://www.olgarythm.blogspot.com. Her book Happiness the Jewish Way is available on amazon.com (http://goo.gl/LNLUrd)

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