Friday, March 25, 2011
People unfamiliar with the Bible who open up the Book of Psalms for the first time are generally surprised to notice that the book begins, of all things, with a definition of happiness. Nor is that opening effort, according to which happiness is best defined as success in avoiding the company of scoundrels and training oneself to delight in the study of the teachings of God, the only effort in the book to come up with a reasonable answer to the question of how best to define true happiness. There are, in fact, twenty-four different efforts in the Psalter to address the issue. All begin with the famous word ashrei (“Happy is” or “Happy are”) which word most worshipers will know as the word that begins the opening two lines in the prayer that generally goes by that name. Some are banal (“Happy is the one who trusts in God”), but others are more surprising (“Happy are those who know the sound of the shofar”) and still others are as unexpected as they are provocative (“Happy is the one whom God deigns to punish”). Nor are these twenty-four the Bible’s only efforts to define happiness. The Book of Proverbs has its own “Ashrei” passages, some ordinary (“Happy is the individual who finds wisdom”), others more challenging (“Happy are the ever-anxious”). The Book of Daniel ends with the hopeful thought that only in awaiting the messianic moment does true happiness lie. The author of the Book of Job, a dour type at the best of times, echoes the sentiment from the Psalter mentioned above that real happiness consists of being taken seriously enough by Judge God to be punished for one’s sins, thereby (presumably) being able truly to move past them and embrace a finer future. God may wound the righteous, the author of Job continues, but the same divine hands that chastise also make whole.
Different people will have different answers when challenged to say wherein the path to real happiness lies. Their answers could be as useful as they would certainly be interesting too, in that people still in search of happiness could then just choose one of the suggested paths and attempt to travel down it. Still, the more reliable path towards learning exactly wherein happiness lies would be not just to ask random people what they think but actually to examine society itself and then to analyze the results thoughtfully to determine which specific groups of people within society define themselves as being happy people and which do not. Presumably the larger the number of these groups to which any one individual might belong, the more likely that person would be to know true happiness. And from there the rest of us could go on, if we were so inclined, to attempt to emulate that person and in so doing to find the path to personal happiness for ourselves as well.
Luckily for us, the Gallup Organization has been compiling statistics regarding happiness and has come to some interesting conclusions, some that anyone might have anticipated in advance and others which no one, myself very much included, would have thought too likely. The methodology employed was simple enough: they telephoned one thousand people chosen at random over a period of three years and asked them all sorts of questions related to the levels of satisfaction and pleasure they get from the different things they experience in life: work, family, marriage, food, drink, sports, hobbies, etc. And using the results, they developed something called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index they then analyzed in terms of geography, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, number of children, state of residence, height, profession, and other factors. The New York Times, hearing about this undertaking and curious where it might lead, asked the Gallup people to utilize their data bank to determine what the happiest person in our country would be like in terms of the categories just mentioned. In other words, the Times challenged the Gallup people to use the data they had gathered about which segments of American society are the happiest to determine what someone would look like who fell into all the happiest categories.
The results were very interesting. It doesn’t surprise me particularly that married people are generally happier than single people or that people who have children are happier than people who remain childless. I was certainly not surprised, nor will any of my readers be, that richer people tend to be happier than poor people. Nor was I amazed that taller people generally tested happier than short people, although I’m not sure exactly why that doesn’t surprise me. (I do, after all, know plenty of happy short people. Maybe I was unduly influenced by Randy Newman as a younger person.) Other details were more surprising. The state reporting the happiest citizens was Hawaii. Is it the weather? All those pineapples? The distance from the rest of everybody else? Or is it simply the natural beauty of the place that makes happy its residents? Who knows? But other results were more surprising still!
Being a man, I was amazed that men appear to be the happier gender. Being a rabbi, I was surprised that business owners were the happiest people in terms of their profession, followed by professionals. (For some reason, I would have thought it would be the other way ‘round.) And being the age I actually am, I was very surprised to read that, as a class, senior citizens (in this case defined as people over sixty-five years of age) were happier than any other segment of the population analyzed by age. Certainly everything in our youth-oriented culture suggests that just the opposite should be true. Everybody wants to be young. Nobody wants to be old. Plenty of older people do what they can to look younger. No young people have their hair colored gray so they can look older! But when it came down to asking actual people how they feel, the media’s basic assumption that young is good and old is bad turned out to be wrong. Young people may have blacker hair and firmer bodies, but it was senior citizens across the board who reported that they were more content than people in any other age bracket. Go figure! And also surprising, at least to me, was that Americans of Asian origin tend as a class to be happier (and by far) than white people, black people, Hispanic people…and every other ethnic or racial group.
In its own class of amazingness are the twin statistics that, when analyzed by religion, Jewish people turn out to be happier than the members of any other religious group and that, when analyzed as a group unto themselves, observant Jewish people are happier than non-observant ones. We are a happy people? We are lots of things, to be sure, many of them positive: clever, industrious, resilient, (at least so far) indomitable, loyal, charitable, and many other good things I can think of easily. But happy? I grew up thinking crankiness, not happiness, was the quintessential Jewish trait. (In my parents’ house, the crankier and more disgruntled somebody appeared, the more intelligent they were presumed to be.) But there it is in black and white for all to read in the Times of March 6: Jewish people are the happiest of people who self-identify in terms of religion. If my father were only here to know that, would that make him happy? Not likely! But still, I find myself wondering what he’d think.
Anyway, it turns out that the Times went one step further and located someone who meets all the above-listed criteria for happiness: an observant Jewish person who is also an Asian America, who is married and a parent, who is self-employed and a top earner, and who lives in Hawaii. His name is Alvin Wong. He lives in a kosher Jewish home in Honolulu. He owns his own business, some sort of health care management firm. He makes a lot of money. He is married. He’s a dad. At sixty-nine, he’s old enough to be one of America’s happy seniors. And at five foot ten, the same as your author (!), he is tall enough not to be considered short by the Gallup people. When the Times contacted him and told him that he met every one of the criteria he laughed and said, “This is a practical joke, right?” Just what you’d think a happy person would say upon being told that he wasn’t just happy, but that he met the statistics in exactly the right way to be on the right side of every curve and thus to be, almost by definition, the happiest man in America. He also confirmed, once he realized the Times was on the level, that he was indeed a very happy person. Could there be other Jewish Asian-American husband/dads in Hawaii who are tall enough and who make enough money to qualify? I suppose there could be. But the Times couldn’t find one. Other than in Hawaii, I also wouldn’t know where to look.
At the other end of the spectrum were gathered the unhappiest Americans. West Virginia is the state whose citizens are least likely to describe themselves as happy people. Among religious groups, the least happy are American Muslims. Among workers, people employed in the transportation industry and in manufacturing are the most miserable. The Times, at least to date, does not appear to have made any effort to locate a short, unmarried, childless Muslim woman in West Virginia who works in manufacturing but makes less than $12,000 a year and ask her whether she is as unhappy as the Gallup poll suggests she should be. My guess is that she’d be making the best of her situation and that whether or not she self-defines as happy would be a function not of her faith, her job, or her gender, but of her sense that she is doing the best she can with what she has to work with. In terms of my own life, I’ve felt the best when I felt that I was doing my best, when I’ve felt that I was playing the cards I’ve been dealt (as well as those I’ve dealt myself) to my own advantage as cleverly and thoughtfully as possible, when I’ve felt that was being the best version of the person I actually am even if I could make up some fantasy version of myself that would outdo the actual me in every rubric people bring to bear in determining whether they are truly content with their lives.
I wonder if Alvin Wong is happier now than he was before the Times identified him or less happy. Probably, he’s some combination of gratified and embarrassed. Or perhaps he simply is too happy to let something like an article in a newspaper he probably doesn’t even read affect him one way or the other.