Meet Alvin Wong, the happiest person in America, according to The New York Times. The Times arrived at that judgment on the basis of a "well-being index" created by Gallup-Healthways from interviews with 372,000 Americans. Gallup produced a composite picture of the happiest American: He would be slightly above average in height, Oriental, an observant Jew, over 65, married with children, live in Hawaii, and have an annual income of over $120,000. The Times managed to track down one individual who fit the composite portrait: Alvin Wong, an Orthodox convert.
A recent Wall Street Journal article by Shirley Wang ("Is Happiness Overrated?", March 15) discussing current research on well-being helps explain Alvin Wong's happiness. Researchers distinguish between what might be called feelings of "hedonic well-being" and what Aristotle referred to as "eudaimonia."
Feelings of hedonic well-being tend to be short-lived and fleeting – a good meal, an entertaining movie, an important victory by one's hometown sports team – i.e., what we normally refer to as "fun." By contrast, eudaimonia refers to a state of being, not specific events, and tends to be more long-lasting and constant. Aristotle described that state as an outgrowth of fulfilling one's potential, and modern researchers emphasize such factors as fulfillment and a sense of purpose in life.
Those activities that provide the greatest sense of fulfillment – e.g,, work that is both challenging and viewed as intrinsically valuable -- or purpose are often not the most pleasurable on a day to day basis. "Sometimes the things that really matter most [in terms of well-being] are not conducive to short-term happiness," says Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin. She cites child-rearing, volunteer work, and going to medical school as examples of activities that may not be fun, but which contribute to a long-term sense of well-being. That would explain why childless couples often describe themselves as happier than those with children, but when it comes to measuring overall well-being, having children is a crucial component.
A statistical review published in Clinical Psychology Review in 2010 finds that from 1938 to 2007 successive generations of American college students have reported higher rates of depression, paranoia, and psychopathology. That trend, the authors note, corresponds to an ever greater emphasis on materialism and the status associated with wealth, and a decline in the importance attributed to community and meaning in life. The last thirty years also correspond to the growth of the self-esteem movement in education, which has had negligible impact on educational results, but contributed to the rising rates of narcissism among American college students.
A number of recent epidemiological studies demonstrate the benefits of eudaimonia. Dr. David Bennett, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Rush Medical Center in Chicago, conduced a study of nearly 1,000 elderly individuals (mean age about 80). Those with a greater feeling of purpose in life were less than half as likely to develop Alzheimer's Disease and 57% less likely to die over a five year period. Dr. Ryff has been directing a study tracking 7,000 individuals from mid-life 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 interleukin-6, a inflammatory marker associated with cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's.
Our Sages say: "One who pursues honor, honor flees from him; one who flees from honor, honor runs after him." There is something pathetically needy about constantly seeking affirmation and honor from others, and thus the pursuit of honor lowers one in the view of others. But one who flees from honor attains the highest kind of honor – self-respect – and, in time, the respect of others. Something similar is true of happiness: When happiness is made the goal of the life, it recedes before one. The most beneficial form of happiness, eudaimonia, is the outgrowth of a life well-lived, not its goal.
Happiness as a goal, comments Dr. Ryff, imposes its own psychological burdens, as people worry that they are not having enough fun or enjoyment. Hedonic activities basically consist of moments of tickling the nerve endings. The span between those moments of sensory exhilaration will always be longer than the moments of exhilaration themselves. And thus a life spent in pursuit of such moments will always be lived with a negative balance, like a constant cycle of waiting twenty minutes in line for a thirty-second roller coaster ride.
WE CAN NOW BEGIN to understand the well-being of Alvin Wong -- the Oriental, Orthodox Jew. The positive side of the Oriental culture self-caricatured in chilling detail by Professor Amy Chua ("Tiger Mom") is its emphasis on discipline in pursuit of long-range goals over instant gratification. The last thing Chua's children will ever hear are messages designed to buttress their fragile self-esteem, unlinked to any actual efforts or accomplishments. Oriental culture stands in stark contrast to contemporary Western narcissism.
But it is the religious element that provides the crucial element of purpose. The Gallup survey found that across all religions, the more religiously observant rank higher on the scale of well-being, and religious Jews the highest of all. A Torah education places constant emphasis on the community and on the individual's duties to others and to the community as a whole, not on his individual rights. A full Jewish life cannot be lived in isolation, without a communal framework.
The structure of Torah life constantly reinforces one's sense of purpose in life. One of the basic educational messages is that our every action is fraught with cosmic significance. With the performance of every mitzvah, every act of chesed, we open up the conduits of Divine blessing to the world, and when we fail to use the potential inherent in every moment, we shut off the spigots of blessing. In addition each Jewish child should be taught that he or she has a unique role to play in the Divine plan – because no one else who was ever born into identical circumstances, with the same abilities, or confronting the same challenges, whether internal or external.
Wang's article also explains, I think, why Israeli society remains by many measures the healthiest in the Western world – low suicide rate, high birthrate, willingness to defend itself. The IDF not only contributes to Israel's phenomenal inventive capacity, as detailed by Saul Singer and Dan Senor in Start Up Nation, it also instills an idealism largely absent elsewhere – a willingness to risk one's life for something beyond oneself, a mission orientation, a feeling of responsibility for one's fellow soldiers and dependence upon them.
A FRIEND OF MINE was recently the subject of a telephone survey of those signed up for a particular geriatric plan. The interviewer inquired about his physical and emotional health: "Do you have any trouble picking up objects off the floor?"; "Do you suffer from depression?": "Do you find yourself frequently bored?"
The last question asked him to categorize himself in terms of religious observance. Instead of answering, he told the interviewer to guess. Until that point there had been nothing in the interview relating in any fashion to religious observance. But the interviewer correctly guessed that my friend was "dati or chareidi."
My friend asked him how he knew, and he replied, "Well, you seem like a pretty optimistic fellow and I find religious people are generally more optimistic." And why not, at an age when many are having trouble getting up from their chair, my friend still works six months a year, walks every morning, and during the months he is not working, spends most of the day learning with a study partner. He tutors boys from broken homes at night, and looks to the future with eager anticipation of the weddings of grandchildren and the birth of great-granchildren.
All he is missing on Alvin Wong is the Oriental background, and, I suspect the $120,000 year income.