Dis­sect­ing the for­mula for hap­pi­ness

Toronto Star - - OPINION - Dow Mar­mur Dow Mar­mur is rabbi emer­i­tus of Toronto’s Holy Blos­som Tem­ple. His col­umn ap­pears ev­ery fourth week.

“Who is rich?” asks Simeon Ben Zoma, a sec­ond-cen­tury Pales­tinian Jewish sage. His an­swer: “A per­son who re­joices in his por­tion.” Other than in fleet­ing moments of ela­tion, sat­is­fac­tion with what we have is the best we can hope for in life. For many it amounts to be­ing happy.

Con­tem­po­rary sur­veys that seek to chart the hap­pi­ness of in­di­vid­u­als al­most in­vari­ably come to this con­clu­sion. Nei­ther the rich nor the mighty, not even the wise, are nec­es­sar­ily happy be­cause of their wealth, their power or their in­sights. Those who are con­tented with their lot in life usu­ally are.

Crit­ics of hap­pi­ness polls tend to dis­miss claims of be­ing sat­is­fied with one’s lot as il­le­git­i­mate. Thus, for ex­am­ple, Michael Booth in his book about Scan­di­navia, The Al­most Nearly Per­fect Peo­ple, calls the con­clud­ing chap­ter of the sec­tion on Den­mark, “The Hap­pi­ness Delu­sion.”

Den­mark, like the other Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, ranks high in vir­tu­ally ev­ery poll that asks in­di­vid­u­als to in­di­cate their level of per­sonal well-be­ing and hap­pi­ness. How­ever, Booth as­cribes it not to in­con­tro­vert­ible ev­i­dence but to the Danes’ propen­sity for de­nial — about their poor health, their creak­ing pub­lic ser­vices, in­creas­ing gang crim­i­nal­ity, eco­nomic and so­cial di­vide, etc.

A Dan­ish jour­nal­ist told Booth that in her coun­try it’s shame­ful to be un­happy. The pos­i­tive an­swers poll­sters get are the re­sults of em­bar­rass­ment rather than truth. Booth writes that he hasn’t yet met a Dane who when con­fronted face to face re­ally agrees with the rosy pic­ture of the sur­veys.

Re­view­ing a cou­ple of books on the same sub­ject in Spiked on­line jour­nal, Kathryn Ec­cle­stone, a pro­fes­sor of ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield in Eng­land, writes that “the hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing in­dus­try is suf­fused with a ‘moral­ity of low ex­pec­ta­tions.’ ” The rea­son for it is “di­min­ished so­cial and po­lit­i­cal as­pi­ra­tions.”

She ar­gues that, in­stead of try­ing to change the world for the bet­ter, many choose to ac­cept things as they are and pre­tend to be happy. They thus col­lude with the forces that op­press them. Rather than want­ing to chal­lenge that which seems too over­whelm­ing they ac­qui­esce by feign­ing sat­is­fac­tion.

Ec­cle­stone’s cri­tique and the cri­tique of the au­thors she cites amount to an in­dict­ment of the bour­geois life­style.

While Hil­lary Clin­ton will try to per­suade Americans that if they elect her to­mor­row she’ll make it even eas­ier for the mid­dle classes — the bour­geoisie — to live in rel­a­tive com­fort and be happy, many aca­demics and oth­ers, espe­cially but not ex­clu­sively on the left, be­lieve that only a rev­o­lu­tion against the ex­ist­ing and crum­bling cap­i­tal­ist or­der will open the eyes of the masses and stop them from deny­ing the truth about their less than sat­is­fac­tory eco­nomic and cul­tural cir­cum­stances.

By view­ing their lives more crit­i­cally in­stead of deny­ing the truth peo­ple stand a bet­ter chance of ac­tu­ally liv­ing to the full.

By all ac­counts, Ben Zoma wasn’t a so­cial re­former. But he was a dis­ci­ple of the He­brew prophets and had learned from them that society must in­deed change to be vi­able. Prophetic crit­i­cism of the abuse of power and the ex­ploita­tion of the weak was of­ten much more in­ci­sive than the ar­gu­ments of Ec­cle­stone and her sources. Yet that didn’t pre­vent prophets from urg­ing us to be grate­ful for the gifts God be­stows on us and re­gard our­selves as happy even in this im­per­fect world.

We who in our time try to heed the teach­ings of Scripture and live by Ben Zoma’s for­mula nei­ther de­lude our­selves nor are we the vic­tims of the ma­nip­u­la­tion of pow­er­ful mas­ters. We’re or­di­nary peo­ple grate­ful for what life has given us and able to cel­e­brate it. This is re­al­ism, not delu­sion.

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