Moral education can help instill happiness in children

Moral and ethical education teaches our children to focus on the bigger picture, on being kind and giving to others. To combat today’s pandemic of depression and hopelessness, we need to take that message to heart.

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Other-focused happiness is the positive feeling you get when you visit a sick relative, when you give charity, when you ensure others do not feel excluded socially, writes Rabbi Meir Moscowitz.

Other-focused happiness is the positive feeling you get when you visit a sick relative, when you give charity, when you ensure others do not feel excluded socially, writes Rabbi Meir Moscowitz.

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This week marks Passover, a holiday centered around storytelling and education. We tell the story of how the Jewish people left Egypt, and the joy and meaning they experienced as free people who were able to experience divine relation at Mount Sinai. In this day and age, however, finding meaning, purpose and happiness in life can be elusive for many.

Young people are increasingly finding it harder to feel hopeful and optimistic amid the chaos that recent years have brought. Today’s teenagers are about twice as likely as older Americans to find happiness and hopefulness difficult to attain.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of increasing happiness, and it’s generally agreed that the way to do so is by engaging in happiness-enhancing activities. Simply put, you should spend more time doing things that bring you joy.

Generally speaking, there are two types of activities that can bring you joy: self-focused activities and other-focused activities. Self-focused activities describe the happiness you feel when you buy a new car, or when your favorite team wins a championship. It’s great while it lasts, but cars tend to get dented and the Cubs sometimes like to wait 108 years between World Series wins.

Self-focused happiness, in other words, tends to be fleeting.

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But there’s another type of happiness. It’s the happiness you feel when you do something kind, something righteous and just. It’s the happiness you get when you visit a sick relative, when you give charity, when you ensure others do not feel excluded socially. This is other-focused happiness, and it’s been shown that activities that enhance it consistently outperform those that are self-focused.

We need to place greater emphasis on ensuring that our young people are engaged in those activities that are most likely to bring them happiness and fulfillment.

This is where education comes in. Classroom education can also be divided into self-focused and other-focused education. Self-focused education focuses on skills that are most likely to help the student attain success in life: reading, writing, math and science — subjects that will help the student make a living and be able to afford that new car or those tickets for the next time the Cubs make it to the World Series.

Then there is other-focused education. Teaching our young people morals and ethics; teaching them that there is more to life than the acquisition of knowledge, of possessions, of accolades and honors. Moral and ethical education teaches our children to focus on the bigger picture, on being kind and giving to others.

And it is this form of education that is the most likely to help our students feel fulfilled, hopeful and happy.

As a parent, educator and community leader, helping our young people find a sense of purpose and happiness by being kind to others is constantly at the forefront of my efforts, because that is the example I saw growing up.

My grandfather, Ephraim Moscowitz, of blessed memory, was a teacher and then principal in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 30 years. Many of the students he taught came from broken homes, and often saw the adults in their lives seek happiness in some of the most damaging forms of self-focused activities: addiction and abuse.

Mr. Moscowitz — or Zeyde, as we affectionately referred to him — treated every student in his school with dignity and respect. This way of treating people rubbed off on them, and years later, his former students still wax poetic on how he inspired them to seek fulfillment in helping others, in making the world a better place.

It is this model of moral and ethical education, of teaching kindness and respect, that is at the core of Education and Sharing Day, which was observed on Sunday, April 2. It honors the Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the most influential rabbi in modern history — who championed the idea that “Education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, or, in common parlance, ‘to make a better living.’ … The educational system must, therefore, pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values.”

The messages of Passover and Education Day reinforce what educators decades ago understood, which is that the path to fulfillment is through moral and ethical education. To combat today’s pandemic of depression and hopelessness, we need to take that message to heart.

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz is the regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and rabbi of Chabad of Northbrook.

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