Over the last five years, Gallup has interviewed hundreds of thousands of Americans about their lives. On the basis of those interviews, Gallup constructed a “well-being index.” Religious people typically ranked higher than secular, and religious Jews highest of all. Gallup even composed a composite of the happiest man in America – an Oriental living in Hawaii of above average height, over 62, married and with children, earning over $120,000 per year, and, oh yes, an Orthodox Jew. Alvin Wong, an Orthodox convert living in Hawaii, fit the portrait.
Part of the explanation of the higher levels of general “well-being” experienced by Torah Jews lies in the scientific research we cited before Pesach contrasting the long-range impact on physical health and mental acuity of “fun” activities versus that of a general feeling of purpose and fulfillment.
The pursuit of happiness in the form of hedonistic pleasures is like the pursuit of kavod (honor): the more one pursues it, the faster it recedes before one. As society increasingly turns towards the pursuit of hedonic pleasures, so have rates of depression risen. The reasons are not hard to discern. At most, moments of fun consist of a sudden jolt from the mundane, a certain tickling of the nerve-endings. But such moments are inevitably a small percentage of one’s life. When they become the goal, the majority of one’s life is inevitably spent in the negative column. Life then resembles an endless cycle of waiting a half an hour in line for a minute-long roller cycle ride.
Most of what we experience as unhappiness comes from a certain emptiness inside. The cure requires filling that emptiness. But that cannot be done by either material goods or physical pleasures. A Lexus cannot be somehow amalgamated to one’s being; it cannot fill up what is lacking inside us. Even when we attain the Lexus, the inner disquiet remains. Failing to recognize why, we convince ourselves that two Lexuses will do the trick, or perhaps a Maserati.
Finally, the pursuit of pleasure cuts us off from others. Other people become competitors over limited material goods; or objects for our use; or important only insofar as they honor us. “Jealousy, desire, and honor remove a person from the world:” They literally make life not worth living.
By contrast, a feeling of connection to others offers the possibility of a constant state of well-being. In the language of our Sages, happiness is expressed as overflow, as a expansion of one’s private boundaries to include others, and ultimately to connect with Hashem. The more one feels the interconnectedness of being, the more one is led back to recognition of Hashem.
A fascinating Rabbeinu Bachye links the “men of the city [Sdom]” to the Generation of Separation, who said, “Come, let us build a city.” The latter proposed to build a tower to the very heavens and wage war against Hashem – i.e., to sever the lower and upper realms. The former forbade anyone from seeking help from another or tendering help to another; they rejected the existence of any fundamental human connection and mutual dependency.
In a Torah society, there is a constant emphasis on every member’s responsibilities and duties with respect to other members of the community and to the community as a whole. It is axiomatic that a full Torah life can only be lived in a communal context and not in isolation. Those who would be joined to Hashem must also be bound to their fellow men.
Belief in G-d necessitates belief that life has meaning and purpose. If an Infinite Being, perfect unto Himself, brought the world into existence, then He had a purpose for doing so, and the world He created is filled with purpose and meaning.
Not only does life, in general, have meaning, but so do each of our individual lives. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in Nefesh HaChaim, stresses that everything we do is fraught with purpose. Every time we perform a mitzvah, do an act of chesed, learn Torah, we open up the conduits of Divine blessing to the world. And, writes Reb Chaim, it should be our intention to open up those pipelines of blessing. In addition, each of us has a unique role to play in the Divine plan for revealing Himself: No one else was every born into identical circumstances, with the same abilities, or confronting the same challenges – and thus no one else can reveal precisely what we can.
The more these ideas of our singular importance, and concomitant responsibilities, become ingrained within us, the easier it is to maintain a base feeling of well-being, even in the face of the vicissitudes of life.
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine, April 27.