Finding happiness and self-worth in life is a difficult trait in times in which routine and materialism pervade our daily activities. Many people go through life without knowing or understanding their purpose in life, and individuals often find themselves depressed. Rabbi Twerski discusses a person’s need for happiness with Israel National Radio’s Tovia Singer (December 2007).

Tovia Singer: How can a person find true happiness?

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski: A person cannot truly be happy unless he is complete. For example, if someone is lacking in iron, he will have iron deficiency and symptoms of illness. Now, a person is more than a body. There is something that makes us human other than the fact that we walk on two legs.

The things that make us human are a number of unique traits that animals do not have. We are the only living things that have the ability to be humble. We are the only living things that can make ethical and moral choices, even in defiance of our bodily drives. We have the ability to improve ourselves, to be compassionate, to have perspective for the future, to search for truth, and to have a goal in life. All of these make us into human beings.

If we do not use these traits, we are incomplete, and incomplete human beings cannot be happy. When we lack these character traits and have this chronic unhappiness, we desperately look for things that will make us feel better. One may find comfort in alcohol, the other seeks it in drugs, gambling, lust, food, pursuit of money, etc. We look for many things to get rid of chronic unhappiness, but our chronic unhappiness is due to our being deficient in key areas.

Now please note that even though I am a rabbi, and even though I have taught religion, I am now functioning as a psychiatrist and I am talking about being spiritual. I don’t ask a patient about his religion. That is a private thing. However, as a physician, I want to make sure they have all the necessary nutrients for their bodies that makes them human beings, which I refer to as a spirit. The spirit is not a religious concept. That’s why I say that happiness depends on developing the qualities of the human spirit.

TS: Correct me if I am wrong, but the word “spiritual” is thrown around often. One can’t be spiritual without a personal relationship with God; is that right?

AJT: I think one cannot be religious without a personal relationship with God. I have said that religion must have spirituality;

otherwise, it is just superficial rituals. The way I define spirituality is that a person can be spiritual even if he does not have a personal relationship with God, as long as he utilizes all of the traits that a human being has.

One of the things that I point out is that a unique human trait is the ability to look for a purpose in life. I write often about self-esteem. A person without a purpose in life cannot have positive self-esteem.

Now, how can a person have purpose in life if he views the whole world as being purposeless? If a person does not believe that there is a God, who created the world for a purpose, and that the world happened out of some big bang out of a freak accident, then what kind of sense does it make to look for a personal purpose in a world that is purposeless?

Therefore, if a person is going to be spiritual and will utilize character traits of spirituality, he is going to come to a point at which if he looks for purpose in life, he is going to have to find a religious idea of God. Spirituality should lead to a religious belief. But at the same time, a purpose can be spiritual as long as a person fulfills the human traits.

TS: You speak about self-esteem. That is a very important message in all your work. What does that really mean? Let’s say there are folks who are listening to the show right now who sometimes feel this sense of depression inside. They feel worthless. Is that the trapping of what brings people into a life without coping and happiness?

AJT: I have gone on record as saying that if mental illnesses and emotional problems that are due to chemical imbalances are excluded, all the rest can be traced to the fact that people lack self-esteem. A person should have a true self-awareness.

What is unfortunate is that most people underestimate themselves. They have negative feelings about themselves. I wrote so much about this because for thirty-eight years of my life, I suffered because I was not aware of myself. I lacked self-esteem, and I did not give myself the credit I was due.

I pointed out in my books that having self-esteem does not mean being vain. In fact, I quote Rabbeinu Yonah, one of the great ethicists of a thousand years ago. He says that vanity is simply a desperate defense by a person who feels worthless to give himself some kind of good feeling.

I believe that we should come to a true self-awareness. As I have said, a person without a purpose can’t have too much self-esteem because of the things that we value. We value things either because of their function or because of their aesthetic value. Not many people have an aesthetic value. We’re not all that good looking. Our selfish being has to be based on our function. What is our function? If our function is merely to go through a day’s work, kick off our shoes, and sit in front of the TV with a couple of bottles of beer, that is not any kind of edifying function. We can’t get self-esteem from that.

Self-esteem means developing a purpose in life, living our life to the fullest and not like an animal. Animals are not motivated by anything other than self-gratification. Animals, other than pet dogs, do not know how to get out of their skin. What makes us human beings — and this is why our forefather Abraham emphasized chesed [kindness] so much — is that to be a true human being, one has to be able to do chesed to get out of himself. He needs to do kind things for other people. A person can be a mensch — a spiritual being — but not with animal traits.

TS: I know this, Rabbi. We have listeners around the world who are hanging on to your every word, and I am understanding the balance that the difference between self-esteem and vanity, which is emptiness and worthless, is destructive.

Somebody that is listening now might be saying, “Part of self-esteem is that I have to have goals. But I don’t know what my goal is, and I don’t know what I am supposed to do with my life. I want to have that purpose, but I don’t know how to focus myself.” In this case, Rabbi, what do you suggest?

AJT: First of all, I think that a person who thinks that way is halfway there. The problem with the majority of people is that they get so involved in day-to-day living that they don’t take enough time to think about whether they have a purpose and what that purpose is.

Once a person is looking for a purpose, there are things he can do and people he can talk to in order to investigate his purpose in life. I believe that a person does not become a complete person when he fulfills his traits, but he does when he works toward them. It is not the end product, but the process of getting there that counts. If people will begin looking for a purpose in life, they may not find it in a day or a week, but they will eventually find a real purpose over and above seeking pleasure. Pleasure is fine, and I don’t deny anybody the pleasures of life, but I don’t think that we were created simply to have pleasure. We were created to find our purpose.

TS: Is there any place for someone who does not suffer from physical ailment — like bipolar disorder or another ailment that must be addressed by medication — to utilize Xanax? Is there any place for medication to help folks cope through, or is this something you are completely against?

AJT: Well, first, as you mentioned, there are some physical disorders, like bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, that can be helped by medication because they are due to some physical or hormonal imbalance. Medications are important there.

Now, when you talk about medications such as tranquilizers — they are essentially the same as alcohol. They give you relief from feeling because they are anesthetics. They numb you. They may have a purpose for temporary use under certain stress conditions. The problem is when people begin to rely on tranquilizers, they lose their potency. The person becomes desensitized to them, and then they need to increase the dose.

So I have had patients who upped their dose of five milligrams of Valium a day to 500 milligrams. Some have been taking enough that would kill an elephant, and yet their body is able to withstand that. It makes them totally dysfunctional.

So it is with other medications and antidepressants, they can be used in certain situations, but with tranquilizers, they must be used only with extreme caution.

TS: Now, as a rabbi, is there part of Tanach, sacred scripture, that you encourage folks to study to read to ponder over, to meditate on, when they are in search of self-esteem and their goals?

AJT: First of all, I believe that if one studies Tehillim properly, with good commentaries and especially with a good teacher, one can get some very good messages out of it.

There are other parts of the Prophets that are very edifying, but I think that to really build self-esteem and happiness, we can find some excellent guidelines in some of the chassidic works and in some of the mussar [spiritual advice] writers. These are people that have profound understanding of human psychology.

They provide some good guidelines. Again, we need to know how to study them because sometimes we can distort what they say. But with a good teacher, we can develop a happiness in life by developing oneself fully and developing one’s potential to be the best person one can be.