The Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence acknowledged that mankind is endowed with a number of “unalienable rights,” among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” While the first two rights are generally understood in both general and specific forms – government cannot capriciously take another person’s life or encroach on his liberty – it is the third that has proved most vexing to define, categorize, quantify and achieve.  Note, as many have, that there is no guaranteed right to happiness; rather the right is defined as the pursuit of happiness – each person in his/her own way.  And therein lies the hoary problem: if it is a pursuit, how do we know where to find it? In what direction do we turn in order to commence our pursuit of happiness, and at what point do we say that we have found it?

A traditional Torah definition – happiness is the state of satisfaction of a being fulfilling the purpose for which it was created – is both provocative and accurate, but also requires additional explication.  Fortunately, modern man quantifies, analyzes, measures and concludes from an inordinate amount of hard date – even in the realm of happiness – that leaves us capable of finding appropriate guidance.  Thus, for the last 45 years, almost a third of Americans have consistently defined themselves as “very happy,” and despite great fluctuations during this time in income, social trends, and national stability (1972-30%; 1982-31%; 1993-32%; and 2004-31%).  It is remarkably consistent.

These are the findings of a recent book by Syracuse University economics professor Arthur C. Brooks, entitled “Gross National Happiness.” Of course, the most critically important data delineate exactly what each person should want to know – what makes happy people happy? In what realms should we seek to find happiness, and what aspects of life should be enhanced? His conclusions are illuminating, at first glance somewhat surprising, and, upon reflection, most comforting to the Torah Jew.

For example, political conservatives have always polled significantly higher than political liberals on the “very happy” chart – averaging between 10-15% points higher, with the two groups only intersecting in 1974 and 1985.  Equal percentages of secular liberals say they are “very happy” and “not too happy” (22%), whereas religious conservatives are ten times more likely to say they are “very happy” than “not too happy” (50%-5%).  These statistics transcend ethnic groups and income levels.  Religious liberals say they are as happy as secular conservatives (33%).

There are a number of reasons for this, all instructive.  Conservatives generally value the role of the individual in society, and place much more emphasis on individual initiative and personal responsibility.  Liberals tend to focus on the collective.  Conservatives, thus, usually donate more money to charity than do liberals, volunteer more, and even donate more blood.  Liberals generally support government solutions to social problems (health

coverage reform, anyone?), and therefore see their primary role as inducing government to act on behalf of the less fortunate.  What is relevant here is not which group is more politically successful or logical, but that it is much easier to feel successful when one can rely on his own actions than when it is necessary to rely on the actions of everyone else, especially since the acts of the collective (even successful ones) do not necessarily reflect any individual accomplishment.

Furthermore, liberals are generally discontented with the state of society, and see injustice, victimization, and discrimination everywhere.  They are forever, like the mythical Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill and watching it roll down again, and are therefore less likely to feel happy than conservatives who wish to “conserve” the status quo, for better or for worse.

Even more to the point, and most reflective of America’s divisions today, conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to attend weekly religious services, and liberals are twice as likely as conservatives to never attend religious services.  And conservatives are also much more likely to be married (2/3) than liberals (only 1/3), and more likely to have children and to have larger families than do liberals.  (Children, oddly, decrease short-term happiness but increase long-term happiness.) Married conservatives are three times more likely to say they are “very happy” than are single liberals.  Married people generally are six times more likely to say they are “very happy” (they had better!) than unmarried people.  Almost twice as many religious people say they are “very happy” when compared with secular people (43%-23%).  (Interestingly, agnostics are gloomier people than atheists.) Why ?

Religious people are more likely to be part of a nurturing community (social integration is a key determinant of happiness) and people who live in religious communities tend also to be more financially successful – because those communities reinforce a culture of hard work and prosperity.  Religious people also have an innate purpose in life that affords meaning even to the most mundane aspects of life.  It is understandable then that – to take the two extremes – 52% of married, religious, conservative people with children describe themselves as “very happy,” whereas only 14% of secular, single liberals without children describe themselves in that way.  That validates, to an extent, Tolstoy’s observation at the beginning of “Anna Karenina” that “all happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In another subset, people who donate money to charity are 43% more likely than non-givers to say they are “very happy,” and volunteers are 42% more likely to be “very happy” than people who never volunteer.

All these numbers are exhaustively and comprehensively crunched in this engaging book – you can literally look it up – and all to tell us what we already know (!).

The keys to happiness are:

Faith: “Serve Hashem with joy, come before His presence with song” (Tehillim 100:2) and “be glad of heart, all who seek Hashem” (Tehillim 105:3).

Marriage:“It is not good for man to dwell alone, I will make a helper for him” (Breisheet 2:18).

Work: “When you eat the labor of your own hands, you are happy, and it is good for you” (Tehillim 128:2).

To be sure, there are plenty of unhappy conservatives, unhappy religious people, unhappy marrieds, happy liberals, happy singles and happy seculars – so none of this affects the life of any individual person who still must make his/her own choices.  Abraham Lincoln said that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And, of course, life throws us its curves every now and then that necessitate adjustments, and cause temporary variations in our happiness levels..  But the overall message for us is one that is worth summarizing and internalizing: How does one pursue happiness ? Get married, start a family, stay married, go to shul, do mitzvot, give tzedaka, do acts of chesed, work hard and be a friend to others.

And realize that these are Hashem’s blessings that He bestows according to His will.

Comments are closed.