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Sunday, June 4, 2023 - 15 Sivan 5783
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Are You Happy?

Want to know how happy people are? Try asking them. The National Academy of Sciences has recently released a recommendation that the federal government include questions on personal wellbeing and happiness in its annual statistics and surveys. Knowing this information can help the government plan public policy on matters ranging from retirement age to minimum wage, care for the chronically ill, and even transportation issues – such as whether to expand a major highway.

The government already collects data on employment and earnings, and calculates a so-called “misery index” based on rates of inflation and unemployment. However, these numbers do not tell the whole story. People often are happier than their economic circumstances would lead you to believe. Many of the world’s richest countries, including the United States, did not even make it into the top-10 list in self-reported happiness measures.

A recent study published in the journal PLoS One found that as people got richer, they also got happier, but only to a point. Once reaching earnings of $36,000 per person (about $144,000 for a family of four), happiness measures leveled off, with additional money adding little to their happiness. It’s what economists call “marginal utility,” when the more you have of something, the less value it has for you. The classic example is a person who is thirsty: One cup of water has great value to him, but each cup of water after that is less and less satisfying.

Maimonides, in his classical work of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, describes in detail the delights that await us in the Messianic era: “And in that time there will be no hunger and no war, no jealousy and no competition, for all goods will be abundant, and all delicacies will be freely available as dust.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that Maimonides’ choice of words here is instructive. In the Messianic age, all worldly goods will have as much meaning to us as dust. As our lives improve and we reach an unprecedented level of physical comfort, we will no longer crave those delights. Rather, we will seek out more meaningful pursuits – indeed, as Maimonides concludes, “The occupation of the whole world will be only to know G-d.”

For the time being, most of us must work extremely hard to earn enough to achieve a basic standard of living. Of course, what is considered “basic” is greatly dependent on time and place: In another era, and even in other countries in this day and age, a basic lifestyle does not include a car, air conditioning, a cell phone or a laptop. We already have most of the “basics” we need to live comfortably and well, and can afford to dedicate many more hours of our time to Torah study. This, in turn, will help us prepare for a time when we will dwell “each under his vine and under his fig tree,” engaged only in peaceful pursuits and the study of G-d’s Torah.


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