Life . . . and the Pursuit of (Grants to Study) Happiness


The late William F. Buckley famously quipped that he’d rather be governed by the first one hundred people in the Boston phone book than by the first one hundred academics on the Harvard faculty roster. Confirmation for Buckley’s bon mot – if such was needed – now comes from a study just published in the journal Science featuring the research findings of two professors, one at Harvard Business School and the other at the University of British Columbia.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, the two were familiar with the many studies showing that, barring extreme poverty, having more money doesn’t translate into being much happier, if at all. A 2006 study in Science summed up decades of research on the matter:

“The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income . . . are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. . . . The effect
of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient.”

In fact, the researchers contended, their data demonstrated that the more money people have, the less likely they are to spend time doing certain things that are enjoyable.

Building on these long-standing findings, the authors of the new study set out to investigate further: is money inherently incapable of delivering happiness or, is it only money spent on oneself that doesn’t produce the good feelings, whereas money spent on others might well do so? They “suspected” that the latter proposition was correct and “tested their theory” by questioning employees who had just received large bonuses and college students to whom they gave small cash gifts of varying amounts as part of the study.

Their conclusion? That “the size of the bonus you get has no relation to how happy you are, but the amount you spend on other people does predict how happy you are.” They even coined a term for money spent to benefit another: “prosocial spending.” The Globe piece adds that the “study fits in neatly with a growing body of research that finds that helping others is the best way to help yourself, that people who give more and are more socially connected are happier.”

So, you ask, what’s the problem with all this? As Torah-true Jews we do, after all, wholeheartedly concur in these positions, do we not?

Sure we do. In fact, we don’t just concur; we see the notion of living with an other-directed focus, of developing and exalting our giving selves over our grasping selves as the purpose of life itself.

Granted that the Torah itself teaches us this theme in myriad ways. Granted as well that, as observant Jews, it makes eminent sense to believe that living as Hashem intended human beings to live and emulating, in our finite way, His attributes of infinite goodness is a surefire recipe for experiencing fulfillment and profound joy.

Yet, the notion that giving of ourselves and of what we possess to others produces deep satisfaction and happiness is not only a basic article of Torah faith. It is also – like so much else in our Toras Chaim, which we can translate as a compendium of teachings about life — a fundamental axiom of human living.

It ought to be, and hopefully is, known and intuited by anyone who has lived a life and is reasonably attuned to the truths that emerge from everyday experiences. It is, in other words, something that the first one hundred people listed in the phone books of Boston and most anywhere else would, if queried, readily affirm, at least intellectually (whether they’re prepared to live their lives based on that knowledge is, of course, another matter entirely, and is, indeed, what the human dilemma is all about).

And that makes it all the stranger – and more than a tad comical – that the good professors from Harvard and UBC needed to undertake research projects, coin new terms and publish findings in scientific journals – just part of a “growing body of research” — to demonstrate a rather accessible truth, which doesn’t require specialized investigative techniques or gadgetry to measure, as, say, a research study on some abstruse medical topic would.

What all the time, energy and money devoted to these studies have yielded is something that, on any given day, countless good people, engaged in bestowing their goodness on others – which, one hopes, includes the authors themselves – would be happy to confirm. Can you see how this is material that an adept satirist could do wonders with (while I, given my limitations, have to suffice with pointing out that it’s “more than a tad comical”)?

Yes, yes, I know: a researcher can’t very well submit a paper to Science – or, more importantly, garner a grant or a promotion – with a thesis that merely states: ”People who give to others rather than hoarding for themselves lead happier lives. You know it and I know it. End of discussion.”

Ah, but that’s precisely the point of Bill Buckley’s pithy observation about (some) academics (in some fields; add whatever other disclaimers may be necessary to obviate tens of incensed comments) as people long on education and short on common sense toiling in the groves of academe at taxpayers’ or parents’ expense to prove things your auto mechanic would gladly edify you about for free.

Or so I thought, until I read further into the Globe story. There I came upon the observation of yet another academic, a University of California psychology professor whose credentials include authoring a book titled “The How of Happiness.” She opines that the point of the study is that what’s important is “not money per se; it’s what you do with it.”

The article makes her intent clear: merely possessing money doesn’t bring happiness, but the experiences that money facilitates do – and, apparently, whether those are other-directed or self-directed experiences is immaterial. This, despite the conclusion of this very study that how, and on whom, the subjects spent their money was precisely what determined their ensuing level of happiness.

Furthermore, she contends, other mechanisms could help explain why kindness leads to happiness; there are, for example, “social consequences: you might enhance your friendship . . . people might reciprocate.” Not a great recipe for an altruistically-minded society.

I confess: reading the observations of the author of “The How of Happiness” gave me a newfound insight into why research studies on happiness like this new one might actually be necessary – not to mention a renewed appreciation for why our civilization desperately needs what our Toras Chaim has to teach us about life.

Another version of this article first appeared in Hamodia.

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7 Responses

  1. Jacob Suslovich says:

    While it seems logical that giving to others promotes the givers happiness because “it makes eminent sense to believe that living as Hashem intended human beings to live and emulating, in our finite way, His attributes of infinite goodness is a surefire recipe for experiencing fulfillment and profound joy.” something being logical and making eminent sense does not make it “a basic article of Torah faith”. If, in fact, giving charity did not make one happy, we would still be required to do so because it is a mitzvah.

  2. Garnel Ironheart says:

    First of all, the statement “money can’t buy happiness” was coined by someone who didn’t have any and, therefore, had never been to Disneyworld. Money CAN buy happiness, if only because the purchase is through the supporting of charity and the needy. If this article is correct, then one does need money to be happy, albeit for different reasons than might have been supposed.

    All of this begs the old question: Why did the scientist boil the egg? Because he had a grant to do it.

  3. joel rich says:

    How intuitive are you ” to demonstrate a rather accessible truth”?
    See: and you’ll find that common sense is not always common nor sense.


  4. Yehoshua Gavant says:

    Dear Mr. Kobre,

    While you’re correct that it’s relatively intuitive that “money can’t buy happiness,” and that most people realize this, the whole foundation of science is to question intuition and other “given” assumptions. The conclusion of the study confirms our generally-held beliefs, but that couldn’t be assumed at its outset.

    Where would science be if Copernicus had accepted the “obvious” idea that the sun revolved about the Earth? Or if Newton had accepted Aristotle’s explanation of gravity as the tendency of the element of earth to move downwards? It’s true that science sometimes confirms the obvious, but that’s exactly what it intends to do – the results could have in fact been different.

    Religion, tradition, and intuition have their place; it’s not the same as that of science.

    Yehoshua Gavant

  5. mycroft says:

    Yahadus doesn’t worship money-but certainly people with money have things that make life easier. Using the elderly as an example. those with money can have a much easier hospital stay-private rooms, private duty nurses etc. With money they can afford o stay at home and not be institutionalized etc. Isn’t the whole Long Term Care Insurance etc a way to ensure that money will be available for needs-if one has money one does not have to worry about asst planning etc.

  6. Ori says:

    Why do scientists research things that are obvious? Sometimes it’s just to generate research grants. Sometimes it’s because historically the obvious did not always prove to be correct. If you had asked most people in Georgia in 1850 about the relationship between race and intelligence, they would have given you an incorrect answer. Same thing if you had asked most medieval doctors about the health effects of leech induced blood loss.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    While some uncharitable observers might scoff at the cited investigation published in Science, people of good will can view it positively:

    The investigators set out to enhance the happiness of the funding agency donors and personnel (and all taxpayers, too, if any of the grants came from the government) precisely by taking their money. A quick reference to the Torah’s recommendations, or a quick historical survey of the effects of Jewish charitable giving on the givers, would have been inadequate for this purpose. The lesser sum of money transferred to the investigators in a shorter investigation would have generated a lesser, maybe insignificant degree of happiness within the funding agencies.