By Naphtali Hoff
The ever elusive state of happiness is in the news again these days, as researchers continue to study the effects of lifestyle choices and other variables on a person's sense of inner contentment.
According to a recent New York Times op-ed, many social scientists attribute happiness to three major sources: genes (which contribute about 48 percent), events (40 percent) and values (12 percent).
Another study out of the U.K. published in the British Medical Journal concluded that stable, long term marriages lead to "more healthy lifestyles and better emotional and physical health," and have a marked effect on a person's longevity. The authors cite a Cambridge study that found that married persons had age adjusted mortality rates that were 10 to 15 percent lower than the population as a whole," and that this statistic alone makes stable marriage "probably worth the effort."
They also found that "physical and mental health benefits seem to accrue over time," citing a 30-year longitudinal study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry which found that "the duration of a relationship was associated with better mental health scores, while the difference in mortality rates in favor of marriage, increases with age."
Yet other researchers have sought to identify the core ingredients which collectively comprise a modern day Utopia. Their studies revealed that educational and health services were leading indicators of societal bliss, coupled with idyllic landscapes, ample employment opportunities and sociable neighbors.
If you could distill all the wisdom from the 4,000 or so academic papers that have been written about happiness over the past decade and use it to design a place that would make the most people happy, it wouldn't be one where the streets are paved with gold or one that has a magnificent view of the mountains or the sea.
Little space would be used for luxury shops, country clubs, oversized houses or other places that distinguish the wealthy from other classes. Instead, it would be a place with good schools, free health clinics, day care centers and diverse places of worship dotting leafy urban neighborhoods... Nature, not suburbs, would surround a quiet yet culturally vibrant downtown. Citizens would be... trustworthy but not nosy, questioning of authority but not judgmental of their neighbors. Women would have engaging, but not all-consuming, jobs close to home. Few people would have too much, and fewer would have too little. (Buettner, Dan. "The Happiest places in the World." Delta Sky, January 2011: 73.)
The Talmud (Berachoth 57b) offers its own suggestions for pursuers of happiness (at least of the fleeting variety), such as beautiful scenery, a fine home and a good spouse. Elsewhere, it states that happiness comes from abundant meat and wine (for men) and new clothing (for women). (Pesahim 109a) However, it is resolution of doubt that Jewish wisdom sees as the essence of contentment.
Doubt resolution can occur on two levels. It's the relief that we feel when we gain clarity about the unknown, specifically when the answer is something that we were hoping for. Will I get the job? Will he be okay? Who won the big game?
But true happiness runs much deeper, stemming from our inner sense of purpose and belonging. It is human nature to probe and ask, to try to uncover our purpose in this world. No one wants to see themselves as irrelevant, a meaningless accident who holds no value to the global community and beyond.
We all wish to be happy. We seek material bounty, fulfilling relationships, peace and a connection with nature. But we know that there's another, deeper aspect to happiness, one that scientists cannot measure. It is the fulfillment of our calling and mission, giving us the deep satisfaction that our time here on earth was most fulfilling, for us and those who we impacted.