W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone are fellows of the Institute for Family Studies at the University of Virginia. In an article in The Atlantic last April, they identified four causes of human happiness, as described in the General Social Survey, which they characterize as “a key barometer of American social life.” Their findings should speak to Jews.
On top of their list of things that make people happy is marriage. Citing the survey, the authors argue that “married young adults are about 75 per cent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who are not married.” We Jews have always regarded marriage and family as a necessary foundation for a happy life.
A second factor that makes people happy is religious affiliation, something that is also central to Jewish life. The authors of The Atlantic article report that “young adults who attend religious services more than once a month are about 40 percent more likely to report that they are very happy,” compared to those who attend rarely or never. Less involvement in a local church, mosque or synagogue, they speculate, reduces the level of happiness. And what’s true for young adults is, of course, even more true for older people.
Another cause of happiness, this time mostly applicable to the young, is sexual activity. Wilcox and Stone report that “young adults who have sex at least once a week are about 35 per cent more likely to report that they are very happy, compared with their peers who have no sex.” Because nowadays people marry much later than their parents and grandparents did, and because pre-marital relations are often fickle, sexual liberation doesn’t seem to have made people happy.
Friendship, on the other hand, has remained a steady cause of happiness. Perhaps even more than marriage, religious affiliation and regular sex, friendship is a continuous and strong factor in making people satisfied with their lives. Wilcox and Stone write: “Indeed, it may be that rising social time spent with friends in recent years could be buffering young adults from the declines in institutions such as marriage or religion, as friends stand in place of other relationships or forms of community.” Again, we can expect that this would hold true for older people, as well.
During my four decades working as a rabbi in congregations in Britain and Canada, I’ve seen first hand how religious affiliation and friendship work hand-in-hand to improve people’s quality of life. People attend worship services with peers they knew and trust. Some even find their life partners in the synagogues to which they belonged. Though happiness can never be guaranteed, belonging to a religious community often helps individuals carry their personal burdens, affirm life in all its complexities and, yes, be happier.
Even more important than being with others is being for others. Our tradition teaches that membership in a community includes giving of oneself to those in need and trying to ease their burdens. This makes both recipients and donors happier.
Personal bonds often lead to closeness to God. It may take time before women and men reared in our secular world openly admit God into their lives, but with time, many do – not because of what they heard from the pulpit, but because of what they experienced in giving and receiving.
Martin Buber (1878-1965), the Jewish religious philosopher who influenced women and men of many faiths, reflected Jewish tradition when he described the interpersonal as “I-thou relationships” – individuals encountering each other in different situations, intimately in marriage and more generally in community.
Such encounters, Buber contended, often lead people to experience a relationship with that which is beyond the interpersonal – with God, the Eternal Thou. Happiness that comes from relating to people could, and often does, lead to a discovery of the reality beyond human interaction. Community with people leads to communion with God.