No Torah Jew would rest his “proof” for belief on the findings of psychology or any other academic discipline. Yet he would not be surprised when psychological research offers support for the idea that a Torah life is uniquely beneficial.
The Zohar describes Torah as the blueprint from which Hakadosh Baruch Hu created Man.
Torah Jews would therefore expect to find evidence that Man experiences the greatest feelings of well-being when he is living in sync with the dictates of the Torah, the Divine instruction manual.
Over the past year the Atlantic Monthly’s Emily Esfahani Smith has published a number of articles summarizing recent scientific studies on happiness – “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” “Meaning is Healthier Than Happiness.” The subject of happiness is all the rage. Esfahani Smith notes that Amazon listed 1,000 new titles on the subject over a period of three months.
And among the claims made by celebrants of happiness is that it pays off in all kinds of health benefits. A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, suggests that all depends upon what you mean by happiness.
Steven Cole of UCLA has researched the impact of chronic adversity – loneliness, financial stress, grief over the loss of a loved one – on a particular gene expression pattern. Such chronic adversity produces a stress-related gene pattern marked by an increase in activity of pro-inflammatory genes, and a decrease in activity of genes involved in anti-viral response.
Cole and co-researcher Barbara Frederickson of the University of North Carolina found to their great surprise that those who score high on what they call “hedonic well-being,” as measured by such questions as “How often do you feel happy?” “How often do you feel interested in life?” “How often do you feel satisfied?” display the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.
What does lead to a dramatic difference ingene expression is a state researchers term “eudaimonic predominance.” Here, the crucial questions are: “How often do you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?” “How often do you feel that you have something to contribute to society?” and “How often do you feel that you belong to a community/social group?” Hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being are not mutually exclusive. Some people rank high on both scales. But where there is a strong predominance of hedonic well-being, then the gene expression is that of people suffering from chronic adversity.
And where there is eudaimonic predominance, even among those who express low levels of hedonic happiness, we find exactly the opposite.
Dr. Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin, has been directing a tracking study of 7,000 individuals from midlife to old age since 1995. She has found that eudaimonic well-being reduces the impact of other known risk factors, and is associated with lower levels of Inteleukin-6, an inflammatory marker associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.
Dr. David Bennett, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, conducted a study of nearly 1,000 elderly individuals (mean age 80) and found that those with a greater feeling of purpose in life were less than half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and 57 percent less likely to die over a five-year period.
HOW DOES Smith describe the essential difference between the two types of well-being? Hedonic happiness corresponds to selfish “taking” behavior, and the happiness associated with meaning with selfless “giving” behavior. The triggers for the former type of happiness tend to be self-centered and all about one’s feeling good – e.g., a good meal, the victory of one’s favorite sports team.
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” write Cole and Frederickson.
At the other end are those activities that involve helping others and contributing to their well-being. Such activities do not necessarily make a person happy, but they do make life meaningful. Indeed, Ryff points out, many activities are inversely related on the hedonic and eudaimonic scales. Child-rearing would be a classic example. Parents of children typically score lower on the hedonic scale, but having children is a crucial component on the eudaimonic scale.
The basic division discovered by researchers – that between givers and takers – is the subject of perhaps the most famous essay, “Essay on Loving-Kindness,” by Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. Dessler divides the world into “givers” and “takers,” though obviously very few people are exclusively one or the other.
As long as one is primarily a taker, writes Dessler, he is incapable of fulfilling the task for which we come into the world: to complete ourselves in our relationship to God, to our fellow man and to ourselves.
One of Dessler’s startling insights – today commonplace in Torah discourse – is that we don’t give because we love, but we love because we give. He quotes one wise woman as saying, “Everything I kept for myself is gone; everything I gave to others remains.”
Material objects are consumed or disintegrate, but that which is given creates a relationship that endures. A web of deep personal relationships is another leading predictor of eudaimonic well-being and physical health.
ANOTHER WAY of describing the distinction between hedonic and eudainomic well-being is as the distinction between fun and joy. Fun is associated with particular activities. It is an excitation of the nerve endings designed to distract us from something we would rather not face – the purpose of our existence. So much of social media and modern entertainment is purely distraction.
Fun activities can be pursued, but not happily.
As our Sages say of honor – the more one pursues it, the faster it flees from one – so it is with fun. Esfahani Smith quotes recent studies showing the pursuit of fun actually makes people more unhappy. A 2010 statistical review in the Clinical Psychology Review finds that from 1938 to 2007, every successive generation of college students has reported higher rates of depression, narcissism and other psychopathologies, even as the focus on hedonistic activities, at the expense of those connected to a sense of meaning, has grown.
Joy, on the other hand, is less related to specific events. Rather, it is a state of being – a feeling of connectedness to God, to one’s fellow human beings, to oneself. The basic feeling that the world has a purpose and that one’s life has meaning within that larger purpose is more or less constant.
WHAT IS true of individuals is no less true of civilizations – without a sense of purpose, they wither and die. Man, notes David Goldman, polymath author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too), is the only being conscious of his own mortality. He cannot bear mortality without some connection to something that will outlive him.
That is the central insight of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning – “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other that one’s self” – and is confirmed in the work of social psychologists like Roy Baumeister.
Healthy animals act out of an instinct for self-preservation and preservation of the species.
Not so human beings who have lost a sense of meaning or belief in immortality. Without a belief in something worth transmitting to future generations, people cease to produce children. And those who find nothing of value to pass on to their descendants are also cut off from the civilization that produced them, and will do little to resist the Huns at the gates.
The Western world today is in the throes of rapid population decline that is nearing the point of irreversibility, and will result, within this century, in an unsustainable situation where there are as many elderly retirees as workers. In the Islamic world the decline of fertility is even more precipitous – indeed unprecedented in world history.
Since the 1978 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the fertility rate has dropped by five children per woman to under replacement levels.
Happily, Israel is the only country in the developed world with an above replacement level of fertility: 2.6 children per non-haredi woman and 2.9 per woman with the haredi community included. But exploration of the radical distinction between Israel and other nations, and Judaism and other religions will have to wait for another time.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.