IT’S ONE OF the most essential words in the Jewish vocabulary: Shalom. It’s our greeting to one another—particularly on the weekly holy day of Shabbat. It’s a recurring theme in prayer and sacred texts. And it’s the final word to our most cherished blessing from G-d found in the Torah: “May God grant you shalom” (Num. 6:26).
More than peace shalom means welfare and well-being. Shalom means safety and prosperity. Shalom means wholeness, completeness and fullness.
Yet, how can we achieve this most precious of Jewish blessings in our lives—for our loved ones and for ourselves?
Judaism and the science of human flourishing come together to offer us a possible answer. With the help of current social scientific research and our time-tested Jewish teachings and values, Shalom—well-being and fulfillment—can be spelled P-E-R-M-A. PERMA is an acronym for five pathways to well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.
By exploring and cultivating these five ways, we just might realize shalom in our lives. Here’s how each works:
“Serve God with joy,” wrote the psalmist (Ps. 100:2). Positive emotions such as joy, love, gratitude, hope, awe and inspiration are essential to Jewish living and the practice of mitzvot. Science now confirms their many benefits. Research suggests that positive emotions enhance your energy and creativity, strengthen your immune system, build better relationships, promote higher productivity at work, and even contribute to a longer life.
Our Jewish holy days and festivals such as Shabbat, Sukkot, Purim, Hanukkah, and Passover are intended to be infused with positive emotions. The Chasidic tradition elevated joy—to name but one positive emotion—to a primary aspect of Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov went so far as to say, “Always remember: Joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.” Judaism guides us to cultivate more positive emotions (whenever appropriate) to enrich our lives.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked a student of another Chasidic rabbi after his death, “What was most important to your teacher?” The disciple thought and then replied, “Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.” That rabbi sounds like he was a Zen master! Such a level of engagement and absorption in the present moment—which we all can achieve—clearly involves bringing one’s curiosity and full attention to the task at hand, all the while using one’s talents, skills, interests, and strengths to engage at the deepest of levels.
Certain strengths of character have been well researched in social science and identified as powerful contributors to engagement and fulfillment. Most if not all of these character strengths are highly valued in Judaism—strengths and virtues such as wisdom, courage, love, justice, kindness, forgiveness, humility, gratitude, awe and transcendence. Using these strengths every day or most days of our lives has been demonstrated to lastingly increase happiness and well-being.
Perhaps no pathway to human fulfillment is more greatly valued in Judaism and the modern science of flourishing than relationships. Dr. Christopher Peterson, one of the main figures in the field, once wrote that positive psychology could be summed up in three words: other people matter. Indeed, as social creatures, we crave relationship and belonging with others.
The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber made relationships the centerpiece of his understanding of Judaism and human nature. Echoing the opening words of the Torah, Buber wrote: “In the beginning is relation.” The Torah itself reveals this fundamental, inescapable truth about the human condition. Immediately after creating Adam, G-d says, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him” (Gen. 2:18).
Our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even strangers are perennial subjects of Jewish teaching and practice. Six of the Ten Commandments involve how to treat other people, as do hundreds more mitzvot and teachings of the Talmud. By cultivating nourishing relationships and making strong personal connections, research reveals that we will be happier, healthier, more resilient, more successful, and more fulfilled.
Surviving the Nazi death camps, Jewish psychotherapist Viktor Frankl shared with the world his hard-won wisdom that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life … Man [and woman’s] main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his [or her] life.”
Exploring this vital human concern, positive psychology writer Emily Esfahani Smith focuses on four main areas of meaning in our lives today: belonging to others, having a sense of purpose, describing our personal identities with redemptive stories about overcoming adversity, and having transcendent experiences that fill us with awe and wonder. Satisfying a sense of meaning in our lives ultimately involves connecting and contributing to something larger than the self.
Judaism wholeheartedly supports this transcendent endeavor by cultivating deep connections to the Divine, to others, and to the world, through an abundance of meaning-making spiritual practices. Perhaps no practice in Judaism is more overarching for meaning than the concept of tikkun olam—the idea developed almost 450 years ago by the Jewish mystic Isaac Luria that it is our task as G-d’s partners to help repair this sometimes-broken world through our benevolent actions. Each of us can participate in this act of tikkun and find ways to achieve profound meaning in our lives.
“All that you find to do, do it with all of your strength,” advises the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 9:10). Two social psychologists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, posit that we all have a core need to feel competent. We need to feel that our actions in the world can be effective and successful, particularly regarding things that we personally value. Without such a sense of mastery, our lives are greatly diminished.
When we use our character strengths, skills, interests, and G-d-given talents and abilities to make a positive contribution to our corner of the world—however big or small—lasting fulfillment can be achieved. By living a values-based life, committing to and pursuing life goals that are aligned with our deepest values informed by our understanding of Judaism, we can discover a wellspring of meaningful accomplishment and contribution.
These five pathways of flourishing, represented by the acronym PERMA, are surely not the only routes to human well-being. However, they offer us a wise and well-researched point of departure on our Jewish journey to realizing G-d’s promise and blessing of shalom—wholeness and fulfillment in our lives and in the lives of others.
Rabbi Rick Schechter is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Glendale, Calif. He has studied the field of positive psychology extensively for more than 15 years, completed 200 hours of training and certification in applied positive psychology, and teaches classes in Judaism and positive psychology for adults and teens.