Sukkot and the Secret of Happiness

Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.

Sukkot, known as “Time of our Happiness,” marks the crescendo of the Jewish year. Throughout the seven day festival, Jews have a Divine mandate to be completely and exclusively joyous (Deut. 16:15). That’s quite a tall order! Sure, we’d all love to be happy for seven straight days — but how?

There is much we can learn about Sukkot and the secret of happiness from Dr. James H. Clark, a man who has probably never even heard of the holiday. Jim, as his friends call him, is an entrepreneurial genius and a self-made billionaire. In 1981, he left his prestigious position as a professor of computer science at Stanford University to establish his first company, Silicon Graphics. Academia was nice, but he wanted something more. At the time he said that a fortune of $10 million would make him happy.

“Once I have more than Larry Ellison, I’ll be satisfied.”

Silicon Graphics became the undisputed world leader in computer graphics technology. Things were looking good for Jim — he had attained his ten-million-dollar dream. But somehow he wasn’t satisfied. In 1994, he invested $5 million to create Netscape, an interface to access the nascent World Wide Web. At the time he said a fortune of $100 million would make him happy.

Netscape was a roaring success. Within months the company went public with an IPO price of $28 per share and closed at $75 on the first day of trading — almost the all-time record for a first-day gain. Revenue doubled every quarter in 1995. Jim Clark was riding a wave of success few have ever experienced. But Jim wanted more. In 1998, before founding his next company, Healtheon, he said it would take $1 billion to make him happy.

Healtheon became another billion-dollar company, but didn’t quite get Jim into the billionaire-club. On the bright side, by 1999 Netscape did. In fact, it raised his net worth to $2 billion! That was exciting, but for some reason, Jim Clark wasn’t quite satisfied after all. He left Netscape to found MyCFO. Why? Well, as he put it, “Once I have more than Larry Ellison, I’ll be satisfied.”

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The last time James H. Clark was on the Forbes list of billionaires was in 2007, when he was ranked the 840th richest person in the world. Unfortunately for him, Larry Ellison was ranked eleventh then, and has since risen to #5. I’m sure this all has been quite disappointing for Jim.

The good news is that he apparently found himself other ambitions. In 2006, he divorced his third wife of 15 years and began dating an Australian model 36 years his junior. In 2009 she became wife number four. I certainly hope he will now be happy, but I have a sneaking suspicion he isn’t. As Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say, “If you’re not happy with what you have, you’ll never be happy with what you get!”

“If you’re not happy with what you have, you’ll never be happy with what you get!”

I recall reading Eliyahu Goldratt’s classic, “The Goal” in business school. One of the book’s points was that one should always be mindful of ultimate goals, which in the case of a business is to make money. While that may be true about a firm, as human beings, we should never consider money as an ultimate goal. Money is just a means to an end, and we would be well advised to avoid the mistake Jim Clark made by ignoring the millennia-old biblical warning: “One who loves money will never be satisfied by it (Ecclesiastes 5:9).”

We all want happiness, but often make the mistake of confusing happiness with success. Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get. As the Sages taught, Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot (Avot 4:1). Happiness is not something that happens to us. It’s a decision we must make, and we can each be as happy as we decide to be.

Since our mandate on Sukkot is to be “completely joyous,” we are obliged to make that decision, which requires us to take a view on one of life’s great paradoxes: On the one hand, whoever you are, by virtue of being alive, your cup truly does “runneth over.” But on the other hand, you could always have a bigger cup. Choose to take pleasure in what you do have, and — voilà! — you’ve stumbled onto the secret of happiness. Choose instead to focus on the pursuit of a bigger cup, and you are forever left wanting.

Not only is this the secret to happiness, but it’s also the central message of the Sukkot holiday —named for the sukkah, the sparsely roofed temporary structure in which we dwell for the seven days of the holiday. This year, in a repeat of what we have done for more than 100 generations, Jews the world over will abandon their homes and creature comforts to seek happiness in flimsy huts furnished with little more than plastic chairs and foam mattresses. What better place could there be to remind ourselves that true happiness comes not from all the stuff we have, but from what we still have when stripped of all our stuff?

This year as we rejoice in our sukkot beneath the stars, may God continue to bless us all — and may we continue to appreciate all of is blessings.

by Rabbi Joel Padowitz