I recently bumped into one of my father’s colleagues. Approaching the age of retirement, he clearly had a lot on his mind due to the latest swing of the fiscal pendulum. This is the story he shared with me.
“When my wife and I were younger I was earning by the buckets,” he said. “I was a prominent endocrinologist. We could have lived the high life.”
“But?” I said.
“But I wanted to save,” he said. “I couldn’t bear to watch others frivolously squandering their money on this or that vacation when I knew it could be put towards my golden years. It was rough on my wife but she supported my decision. We never bought anything. I was rich as Midas but we bought nothing. Our furniture was old and we put away any remodeling money for later. Vacations were for later.”
“And now it’s gone,” he said. ‘We didn’t have it then and we don’t have it now.”
I looked at him closely. “You look okay,” I commented.
“I am,” he said. “For so many years we watched everyone vacation and remodel while we lived frugally. That was hard. But now,” he laughed. “Now nobody’s doing those things. Now we’re all it together.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses this commonplace phenomenon in her New York Times article; “Why We’re Still Happy.” Lyubomirsky quotes a Harvard study performed by economists David Hemenway and Sara Solnick which demonstrates a fascinating conclusion about monetary satisfaction. They found that many people would prefer to earn an annual salary of $50,000 provided that others are earning only half as much, rather than earning a yearly salary of $100,000 while others make double that amount.
Lyubomirsky purports that this is the root of people’s equanimity nowadays in the face of a failing economy. It is the very fact that the economic slump does not discriminate that provides a measured degree of solace to those who are suffering. The auto workers stand shoulder to shoulder with the Wall Street tycoons in their denouement. It’s the “we’re all in this together” attitude that bolsters people’s spirits and enables them to continue with their day to day existence with a modicum of composure.
According to her theory, it would appear that should the economy pick up eventually, you would find a vast change in people’s attitudes. Those that will be able to put themselves back together will be happy, but those that remain at the bottom of the barrel will be more unhappy than they were previously, even though their position has not changed one iota. It will be the seismic shifts that take place around them that will cause them to lose their footing. Why? Because Lyubomirsky contends it to be a basic human truth that we cannot bear to see people who are more successful than we are.
Could it be that communal unhappiness is really the key to our happiness?
Is this the Jewish view?
Listen to this Midrash Shmuel on Pirkei Avot, as illuminated by Rabbi Yissocher Frand in his book Listen to Your Messages. The Satan approached two men, one of whom suffered from a severe case of envy. The Satan agreed to make a deal with these two men. He would fulfill their heart’s desire, but the other man would receive double of whatever they asked for. The envious person chose first but he could not decide what to ask for. Any gift he received his friend would receive in duplicate. If he asked for one million dollars the other man would receive two million dollars. If he asked for a vacation to Hawaii his friend would receive paradise times two. What could he do? He finally decided what to ask for.
“Take out one of my eyes,” the man said.
And so we see that the scourge of jealousy and comparison that afflicts us humans is not brushed under the rug in Jewish texts. But standing united in misfortune doesn’t bring happiness. Our Sages give us a key, a matchless tool with which to fight the phenomenon outlined by Lyubomirsky. It is one simple line in Mishna Avot:
“Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”
It seems that researchers intuited a deep truth that was already laid out thousands of years ago in our Mishna. If your happiness is dependent on the failure or success of those around you then it is an ephemeral happiness, one that was never real or true to begin with. Wealth is not measured by amounts of money, but by satisfaction gleaned from that amount.
Imagine how liberating it would be to assess one’s riches from within instead of looking outside and comparing with others.
Lyubomirsky’s article goes on to quote Andrew Clark, a French economist. Clark claims that being fired is much easier to stomach if your spouse has also been laid off too. Do we realize how warped that is? Instead of being grateful that at least one supporter in the family is still gainfully employed, the fired party sinks into a deeper depression since their spouse is still doing well. This lends new meaning to the word “downsized.”
But if you are happy with your lot then your lot is not your spouse’s lot. If you were let go it bears no reflection on what does or doesn’t happen to your spouse. Your lot, your role in the family is unique and it cannot be made up for or detracted from by your spouse’s role.
I vaguely recall a competition between two families in the neighborhood that I grew up in. One family extended their house and so the other family did the same. The first family then redid the outside of their house in fancy stone and the other family imported even fancier stone to do the outside of their house. The first family paved a two car driveway, unheard of in our modest neighborhood. The second family quickly paved a four car circular driveway. Finally, in desperation, the first family moved away.
Were these families happy while expending all their energy on keeping up with another family? They were not able to take pleasure in what they had as they were too busy looking over their shoulders.
Think of the man who was granted his every wish and asked only for his eye to be gouged. Was he happy with his lot? Then think of your neighbor, the one whose house was foreclosed but who always manages to focus on the positives in his life. Who is richer? Happiness with one’s lot is an incomparable treasure.
During this economic crisis, we can revel in our collective misfortune. But we can also turn inward to find the place within ourselves where true happiness lays. Unlike the stock market, that place is something that can never crash.
Then when the chips are up again, we’ll have real reason to celebrate.
Yael Mermelstein holds an MA in Jewish Education. After nearly a decade of teaching, she now writes full time when she isn’t busy with her brood of young children. Yael publishes hundreds of articles for adults and children, is a contributing editor for Horizons Magazine and assistant editor of Mishpacha Junior. She is the recipient of the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award and is the author of four books, the most recent The Stupendous Adventures of Shragi and Shia (for ages 7-12). Yael lives in Beitar Illit with her family and a breathtaking view of the Judean Hills.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.