These people apparently know something about life that many others don’t
A newly published study on the topic of happiness examined the responses of 44,000 adult Americans to the question — answered between the years 1972 to 2016 — of whether they are “very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy.” The study’s authors report that among adults over age 30, money, education, and prestige were all factors associated with more happiness.
And in contrast to other studies, this one found that happiness did not taper off after reaching a certain high level of income. Adults in the top 10 percent of household income, for example, were 5 percent more likely to be “very happy” than those in the second-to-highest 10 percent of income.
What are we to make of a study like this one? At first blush, many people might consider its finding — that more money correlates with more happiness — as posing a challenge to what the Torah teaches regarding the purpose of life in This World.
Yet thinking about the people who answered these questions can actually be intellectually clarifying and spiritually enriching. We assume, perhaps reflexively, that the goal of life is to be happy. And if, as Torah teaches, man is essentially a spiritual being placed in This World for a spiritual purpose, one would think that happiness in this existence would be driven by spiritual rather than material attainments.
But what if it’s not true that Hashem fashioned human life with the overriding goal to be happy? What if we are here to live lives full of meaning, but not necessarily of maximal happiness, in the sense that this study uses the term?
There has been a lot of research in recent years addressing the ways in which a meaningful life and happy life are not nearly the same thing. In a 2013 article summarizing the work being done in the popular area of happiness research, writer Emily Esfahani Smith focused on a representative study by University of Pennsylvania psychologists concluding that
happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others…. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study….
In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life, “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote over nine days in 1946, based on the insights he discovered during three years as prisoner number 119104 in Nazi concentration camps (and which was named by the Library of Congress as one of the most influential books of the 20th century), he writes that “being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
That, in turn, is almost a precise echo of what Rav Yitzchok Volozhiner writes, in his introduction to Nefesh HaChaim, that his father, Rav Chaim, would always tell him: “That the sum total of a person’s life is that he was created not for himself but to help and give to others in every way possible.”
Elaborating the Penn study findings further, Esfahani Smith writes:
People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future…. Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose.
One by one, these findings sound like they’ve been lifted straight from some of Judaism’s classic hashkafah works. By clarifying that happiness and meaning are two very different things, they provide a response to the challenge posed by the apparent correlation between money and happiness, without ever contradicting that conclusion.
But even more, these findings take quite a bit of the luster off the pursuit of happiness. If, after all, what people call happiness results from feeding rather than transcending the self, in ways that even animals engage in, and if happiness connotes superficial, fleeting good feelings rather than deep, enduring ones, then maybe happy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We also gain a newfound appreciation for the 21 percent of respondents in the study who, despite being in the lowest 10 percent of income, described themselves as “very happy.” Now, why would that be? Perhaps they’ve endured difficulties — even including their economic ones — that made them reflect on and internalize what is truly important in life, or caused them to really count their blessings. Maybe they are people who focus more on giving than on taking, or have dedicated their lives to a cause larger than themselves. These people apparently know something about life that many others don’t.
If there are any baalei bitachon among those who responded that they were “very happy,” they know that the trust in G-d they possess is worth infinitely more than all the money that led the folks in the top 10 percent of income (or at least, 45 percent of them) to profess feelings of happiness. The Brisker Rav explains that when Dovid Hamelech says (Tehillim 27:14), “Hope to Hashem, be strong and He will give you courage, and hope to Hashem,” it means that the only possible reward Hashem can give one who relies on Him is to enable him to reach even higher levels of such reliance. Anything else He might grant him, be it even all the money in the world, can’t match the feeling of security and peace of mind of one infused with bitachon.
Whatever it is that has given rise to the “very happy” feelings of the lowest-income 21 percent, those feelings are likely to be deep and enduring. And no matter what challenges life sends their way, those feelings will enable them to live meaningfully ever after.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 818. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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