By Jonathan Rosenblum
A recent Israeli study concluded that chareidim are happier than their secular counterparts — and not just by a little bit. Sixty-two percent of the chareidim interviewed expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their lives, as opposed to just 26 percent of the secular Jews. And that is despite the fact that chareidim, on average, have far lower per capita incomes.
The study is just one in a long line of such studies yielding similar results. One team of Israeli researchers explained the life satisfaction differential in terms of the far higher levels of hakaras hatov (gratitude) and optimism among chareidim. A sense of gratitude, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement, is deeply ingrained in chareidi life. It starts first thing in the morning with Modeh Ani, and is reinforced throughout the day in countless ways, such as the recitation of asher yatzar.
Optimism goes hand in hand with the feeling that our lives are guided by a beneficent G-d. The confidence that good may come from even negative experiences comes naturally to chareidim raised from an early age on stories of Nachum Ish Gamzu and Rabi Akiva proclaiming, “Kol d’avid Rachmana l’tava avid — All that Heaven does is for the good.”
The very definition of “one who is happy” as “one who rejoices in his portion” reinforces both optimism and gratitude. The meaning of the mishnah in Avos (4:1) is that the key to happiness is the recognition that Hashem provides each of us with what we need for our mission in life. If that is the case, there is no reason to think that a greater measure of life’s “goodies” would enhance one’s ability to fulfill one’s mission. By the same token, optimism flows from knowing that one has been apportioned what one needs for that mission.
Researchers distinguish between two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic. The latter refers to a general sense of well-being, and, in contrast to hedonic pleasure, is associated with a large number of positive outcomes: longer life expectancy, lower rates of heart disease, reduced chances of Alzheimer’s.
The four elements most identified with high levels of eudaemonia are intrinsic to an Orthodox life. The first is the awareness of a transcendent realm — i.e., of a G-d above. The second is belonging to a community. Communal prayer, shared life rhythms determined by the calendar, large families all provide a strong social support network for chareidim. A third element is the ability to present one’s life story as a coherent whole. That is something much easier for Orthodox Jews to do because they see their lives as guided by G-d. Finally, a sense that one’s life has meaning. There are multiple sources for that meaning and purpose, including Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s extended description in Nefesh HaChaim of how each thought, work, action has the power to open up pipelines of blessing to the world.
FROM THE HIGHER LEVELS of life satisfaction among chareidim, I take away two messages. First, it is not just that the Torah contains many life prescriptions that if followed will make people happier; but also that Jews who define themselves by their commitment to Torah really do take those prescriptions seriously. And as a consequence, their whole approach to life differs radically from that of the world outside our community. In short, the Torah’s message penetrates our inner psyches.
My second takeaway is how much we have to offer our fellow Jews, indeed the world at large. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to say, “In an insane world, we are the least insane.” By that, he meant (I think) that being an observant Jew does not guarantee a blissful marriage, or that one will be a perfect parent, or that our children will fulfill all our dreams for them. Nothing goes without constant work on our middos, which, according to Rav Chaim Vital, are scarcely mentioned directly in the Torah because they are the precondition for the acceptance of Torah.
Yet we have been given a set of rules by which to live that provide the greatest possibility of human fulfillment because they come from the Creator of human nature, and thus comport with it.
Of late, I find myself thinking that much of modern existence has become completely unmoored from human nature, particularly the imperative of family formation without which humankind cannot survive. My most recent data point is an excellent article by Suzy Weiss at her older sister Bari’s site, in which she interviews young women, one only 19, who have had or are planning operations to ensure that they never bear children. Their reasons vary. One cites her plan to retire early and travel the world unencumbered by responsibilities; another, her lousy parents and wish to avoid their mistakes; a third, the inevitability of some suffering in even the most blessed life; a fourth, a desire not to add to the toll on Mother Earth from too many humans.
While their stories do not alone prove a trend, Weiss brings evidence of the decline in matrimony and childbearing as well. American marriage rates are at an all-time low — 6.5 per thousand. Millennials (born 1981–1996) are the first generation in which a majority (56 percent) are unmarried at this stage in their lives, and more likely to be living with their parents in their twenties and thirties.
In half the states, deaths outnumbered births last year; the preceding year, that was the case in only five states. Nearly two-fifths of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are afraid of having children because of the impending climax apocalypse. A survey of a representative sample of American adults conducted in Michigan found that over one-quarter are childless by choice. In San Francisco, dogs outnumber children.
We are now 60 years into the revolution that set out to release human pleasure to hitherto undreamed of heights by tearing down all traditional norms of courtship and marriage. Yet like most revolutions, it did not quite turn out like it was supposed to. Instead of increasing joy, the revolution has been accompanied by higher rates of mental illness, anxiety, and depression in every subsequent generation.
Men and women have been turned into two suspicious, warring camps, to the benefit of neither. Finding themselves constantly condemned for their toxic masculinity, many males at some point stopped trying. On American college campuses today, women outnumber men by a 60:40 ratio, and are the majority of law and medical students. But women’s very success has not come without a cost, particularly the absence of men with whom to build a life and family.
An article in Quillette a few months back noted that women are hard-wired to look for men who will serve as providers and protectors. But for the most educated and highest-earning cohort of women, those men are increasingly hard to find. And once found, enticing them into marriage is even harder.
The highly sought-after kind of men whom high-powered women view as marriage material are not so concerned with their partner’s earning capacity and have a wide selection of younger women to choose from. They often feel little impulse to commit at all. As a consequence, about 30 percent of the women in the most educated and highest earning cohort will never marry.
Baruch Hashem, we still live in a society in which the desire is marry and raise children is the nearly unanimous default position. I have no doubt that the richness of familial bonds has a great deal to do with our higher level of feelings of well-being.
But that must not remain our secret alone. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu lost 33 years from his life, one year for each word of his complaint about the difficulties he had endured, in response to Pharaoh’s question — “How old are you?” But there are only 25 words in Yaakov’s answer. Rav Noach Weinberg used to explain, Yaakov Avinu was punished as well for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question, which was provoked by his downtrodden countenance.
Let us not repeat that mistake, but rather project joy in all that we do.
Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine, November 3, 2021