Happiness. The most prized commodity of all. Some people think they will find it in marriage, some look for it in exotic locales halfway across the globe, others try to find it in seventeen course tasting menus, while still others think it is found in the driver’s seat of a Lexus. Where can happiness be found?
Research seems to indicate that it can be found in Denmark.
As in previous years, Denmark emerged in 2016 as the happiest country on this roly-poly spheroid we call earth. The World Happiness Report, usually released on March 20, the UN World Happiness day, rates over 150 countries on a wide variety of metrics to discover the happiest of them all. Over 1,000 people were surveyed in each country, giving the World Happiness Report a sizable sample from which to glean its results.
Somehow, Denmark, a country whose most notable invention is the herring sandwich, repeatedly makes it to the top of the list. (The US came in 13th, Germany 16th, the UK 23rd, Israel 11th, France 32nd, and Syria 156th!) What is the secret of that small country with dreary weather, heavy smoking and drinking, and taxes between 50-70%, that keeps the Danes so happy?
A recent episode of 60 Minutes tried to find the answer. Morley Safer spoke to Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of Southern Denmark, who published a study titled, “Why Danes Are Smug.” He discovered that the key to the Danes’ happiness is that they don’t have high expectations. To illustrate, he claims that if the Danes ranking would drop to twentieth instead of first, their response would be, “That’s not bad; at least we’re in the Top 20!” By having low expectations, explains Prof. Christensen, one is rarely disappointed.
The government helps this low-expectation lifestyle by taxing people highly while providing an enormous amount of social services. Health-care is free, people are paid to do well in college, and even graduate school is free. Both parents get paid leave after having a child for at least half a year, and Denmark spends more per capita on child and elder care than any country in the world. Not only that, but the government helps subsidize friendships by providing funding for any group of people who want to cultivate a hobby like model airplane building or quilt croqueting. About 92% of Danes belong to at least one of these social clubs.
With high taxes limiting the earning power of the wealthy, and phenomenal social services keeping people out of debt, there is very little wealth disparity in Denmark. Because the after-tax income of a banker and a carpenter are not far apart, people choose professions based on preference, not expectations of higher salary. There is very little drive to live up to the Joneses, as the Joneses are Jante-luv, just like you. Most Danes can afford a car but choose to travel with simple, cheap, eco-friendly bicycles- they work out better with their low-expectations-ethic.
Tal Ben-Shahar, an veteran of the IDF, was once the most popular lecturer at Harvard University. Each semester, over 1,400 students took his class in Positive Psychology – the Science of Happiness. He explains that the US has a very different dynamic than the one displayed in the Danish culture. “In America, part of the ethos, part of the American dream, is that more is better and the more is better usually applies to the material realm. And that doesn’t pan out…. It doesn’t make us happier.”
About 94% of college students in the US report that they already feel “stressed and overwhelmed.” The pressure they feel is a result of high expectations. Wanting it all is a disease that stays with us from youth to old age – wanting a bigger house, fancier car, more stuff. But, as our sages told us regarding the physical realm, “He who has 100 wants 200, he who has 200 want 400.” The more you have the more you want, and this begins a vicious cycle of expectation, desires, and mounting needs.
One of the most striking results of the “American Dream” was discovered by Israeli economist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman. He found that, generally speaking, American women did not enjoy spending time with their children. It was not that they didn’t love their children, it was simply that they were so busy doing other things while spending time with their children such as sending emails, making phone calls, paying bills, or shopping that the time together became irritating and tedious to them.
Playing your two favorite songs at the same time would be grating, even though when played individually they give you great pleasure. In that same way, spending time with your child can be annoying if you need to do it along with another task. In the rush to accomplish too many tasks at once, mothers are losing their ability to properly do either! How sad is it when we can’t enjoy the most precious commodity in our lives because we are chasing the American Dream!
In truth, it’s family and religion that has the ability to be the greatest source of happiness. In a poll of 1,280 teens from all over the country conducted by the Associated Press and MTV, 73% said that what makes them most happy is a good relationship with their parents. Over half said that religion and spirituality is very important to them, and that the knowledge that there is a Higher Power out there that watches over them and controls their world makes them feel happy and secure. Interestingly, almost no one said that money makes them happy.
All this research into the science of happiness has resulted in some suggestions for boosting happiness, and not surprisingly, you can find roots of these ideas in Torah teachings. The Torah is more than a law book, it is a manual with instructions for the most happy and fulfilling life.
Let’s run through some of the suggestions. Keep your expectations low. Simplify; don’t try to achieve too much at one time. The Gemara frequently tells us “tafasta meruba lo tafasta, tafasta mu’at tafasta.” If we try to grab too much we end up with nothing, but if we try to grab a little, we will surely achieve it.
Keep a gratitude calendar. Prof. Tal Shahar keeps a little diary of all the things that he is thankful for, and every day he writes down 5 things. Some of them are big things like his fulfilling marriage or his successful career, while others are small like a really good ice cream sundae, or the ability to cheer up a co-worker. He also keeps a gratitude calander with his wife and another with his daughter.
As Jews, we stop three times a day to thank G-d for the goodness in our day, as that is one of the most important blessings in every Amidah, every Shemoneh Esrei. However, a gratitude calendar is a great way to add to our gratitude bank. The Jews are called Yehudim, (the word from which Jew evolved), because that word connoted thankfulness and this is one of the most fundamental traits of the Jewish people. It’s nice to know that it is an elixir of happiness is well!
Just say No! Say no to the world, and focus on your family and friends, which are the single biggest predictor of happiness in multiple studies. For this we have a special day called Shabbos, where you basically are given 25 hours to say no to everything but the most meaningful things in your life – your family and friends, your spirituality, and yourself.
Exercise. The Torah told us 3,318 years ago that we must watch our health carefully, but new studies suggest that it can actually increase your happiness. Exercising three times a week for 30 minutes has the same effect as some of the most powerful psychiatric drugs being prescribed today.
The Sages tell us that the current Jewish month of Adar is the happiest month, and a month in which we should increase our happiness. I think I am going to try a bunch of these tips. I won’t expect to be much happier, as I’m lowering my expectations, but I wish you all a Happy, Happier, or Happiest Adar!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of the ½ shekel. The Torah tells us that a census was taken of the Jewish people by having everyone contributing ½ a shekel and then counting the shekalim up. One of the reasons that we were counted with a ½ shekel instead of a whole shekel was to show that Jews are not whole and complete unless they are joined to another Jew through giving. The Medrash tells us of a strange occurrence connected to this Mitzvah.
When G-d commanded Moshe to collect the ½ shekel, Moshe couldn’t understand what G-d meant. G-d therefore showed him the image of a ½ shekel coin made out of fire. What exactly did Moshe, the greatest leader we ever had, not understand about the ½ shekel?
One answer is that Moshe could not understand how such a small sum could have any meaning, neither in bonding the Jewish people together, nor in effecting any atonement for the people, which was another purpose of the census. G-d showed him a coin made of fire to show him that G-d doesn’t care about the denomination; He cares about the intent behind the giving. A person can give a mega-gift, but if he gives it begrudgingly its worth less than a ½ shekel given with fire, with passion, with a desire to give.
Once G-d showed Moshe the fiery coin, Moshe understood the message G-d was teaching him about giving – it’s not about the coin, its about the fire!
This week, we will be reading from two different Torah portions, the standard portion as well as Parshas Parah. This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, begins with G-d commanding the Jews to take a census by having each Jew donate a half-shekel, and then counting all the coins. This teaches us that we are never whole until we join with other Jews. We are then instructed to make a laver (a receptacle that holds water and has faucets used for washing) for the temple, so that the Kohanim can wash themselves before going in to serve in the Temple. We can relate to this by remembering that service of G-d is sacred, and there should be both a mental and physical sanctification before beginning services. This translates into not rushing into prayers with our minds still on our business or our hands greasy from that pastrami sandwich we just had for lunch!
Next, we are commanded to make special anointing oil used to consecrate vessels and Kohanim for temple service. We are also told to make a uniqueincense that was burned in the Tabernacle twice daily on its own dedicated golden altar. Both the oil and incense were not allowed to be made for laymen’s purposes.
Now the Torah focuses on the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Ha-shem commands Moshe to take Bezalel and Oholiav as assistants to aid him in building the Mishkan and in making the priestly vestments. After that, the Torah repeats the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbos. The Sages learn from the juxtaposition of these two ideas that one cannot desecrate Shabbos even for the purposes of building the Mishkan. They also learn that the actions we are not allowed to do on Shabbos are related to the types of labor involved in building the Tabernalce, which the Sages delineated as the 39 Categories of Work.
Finally, the Parsha turns to one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, and tells the Jews he will be back in forty days. The Jews miscalculate when the forty days ended and, when Moshe did not return, they assume him dead. In a state of panic, confusion, chaos, and fear, the Jews build the golden calf and worship it. Moshe comes down from the mountain, sees the wanton sinning of the people (which had degenerated from idolatry to other sins, such as immorality) and dashes the tablets to the ground.
He then forces the Jews to drink from water containing the ground up golden calf, which causes those who served the calf to die. There is a lengthy dialogue between Ha-shem and Moshe in which Moshe pleads on behalf of the Jewish people that Ha-shem should forgive them, which in the end He does. Moshe moves his tent away from the camp, and proclaims that those who want the word of G-d should come to him.
Soon after, Moses ascends the mountain once again and this time G-d tells him to carve the second set of tablets. G-d also teaches Moshe a special prayer called the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which will never return empty from before G-d, and tells him to teach it to the people (it is the focal part of our prayers on fast days, and especially the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur).
G-d renews His covenant with the Jews and finally, on the first Yom Kippur ever, G-d gives His full forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and Moshe descends with the second set of tablets. After having spent 120 days on Sinai (40 getting the first tablets, 40 in dialogue to get level one forgiveness, and 40 to get the second tablets and full forgiveness), Moshe came down with such a bright radiance that people couldn’t look at him. He had to make himself a special mask to wear when he was not teaching the Jews. That concludes this week’s parsha.
This week, we will also read Parshas Parah, the portion in Leviticus that deals with the laws of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah. The red heifer was brought as a sacrifice and its ashes were mixed with water and a few other ingredients to create a liquid that could be sprinkled on people to remove spiritual impurity from them.
We read it at this time of the year, because it was at this time of the year that they would bring the red heifer sacrifice and because we are in middle of a cleansing time of the year, cleaning our houses for Pesach. The physical cleansing we do on our houses is supposed to remind us of the spiritual cleansing that we should be doing concurrently. Reading about the spiritual cleansing powers of the red heifer waters reminds us of that all-important job! That’s all Folks!!!
Quote of the Week: Happiness is the experience of meaning and pleasure together. – Tal Ben-Shahar
Random Fact of the Week: Sponges form an amazing 99% of marine species!
Funny Line of the Week: Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus, or just a really cool Opotamus?
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham