Some of my Jewish friends might take issue with this title. Happy? They remember their moms worrying and nagging and complaining a lot and admit that some of them have even worn off on them. But they will also admit, especially those for whom faith is a central part of their lives, that they are genuinely happy most of the time.
And their admission seems to be born out by research. In 2012, Gallup released the results of a large poll conducted over two years on well-being and happiness based on religiosity. 676,000 people were interviewed, beginning with two questions that classified them as very religious, moderately religious, or not religious. The next questions related to their senses of well-being and happiness. While the study showed that, in general, those who are very religious enjoy more happiness and sense of well-being, religious Jews were among the happiest of those religious groups in America.
Determining why Jews are the happiest was not a purpose of the Gallup study, but there are some possible reasons related directly to their religious beliefs that could be responsible.
There is Comfort in Having Fixed Sets of Rules
Whenever groups of people are part of an organization or institution, the rules bring clarity, purpose, and security. Children in a classroom are happier when there are established procedures, processes, and rules of conduct, in general, it makes their life easier. There is no insecurity – something that breeds anxiety and worry. Established rules within the Jewish faith provide the security in knowing that God’s laws have been interpreted and translated into belief and practice and that following these pleases God. There is thus happiness in this knowing, as well as a peace that only truly happy people can have.
Treasured People of God
The Jewish people certainly have had much in their history about which to be unhappy. The persecutions recalled in the Old Testament; the deliverances that ended in disappointment and tragedy; the continued discrimination throughout history; the Holocaust; the current and enduring conflict in the Middle East; the subtle discrimination that continues to exist in many places around the globe. All of these things could make for a very unhappy and negative outlook. But Jewish people who understand and remain steadfast in their beliefs know that they are chosen people of God, precious people for whom God has always had a purpose. In that strong belief, there is a higher happiness that is pervasive and eternal.
The Big Questions are Answered
For most religions, including Judaism, there are answers to questions such as who created the world in which we live, who gave us life, and why we are here. Having those answers allows a freedom that non-religious people don’t have. Jews know their existence is no accident of atoms and molecules – it is the direct result of God’s plan. To be a part of that plan is a source of joy.
The Closeness of Worship and Rituals
From birth to death, religious Jews are wrapped in their worship, their holidays and their rituals. They are wrapped in these with their family members, their friends, and their fellow religious. The human closeness that is regularly fostered is yet another source of happiness and joy. No secular written guide to happiness can replace the spiritual connections that come from worship and celebration together.
The Sabbath is a Renewal
Life is harried and stressful. People race from work to activities, to errands, to chores, only to collapse in bed at night and begin again in the morning. For many, there is non-stop activity, and it impacts both emotional and physical well-being in negative ways. Many are now learning what the Jews have known for centuries. There must be time for renewal of spirit and soul. This is the purpose of the Sabbath – that break from the demands and devices that keep life so busy and focused on the temporal and secular sides of life. The Sabbath, then, is the time for spiritual renewal and for families to gather and share. It is a time to find joy in relationships. And when it is regularly scheduled as a ritual, it is never neglected.
Do People of Other Religious Faiths Match This Happiness?
Yes, sometimes they do. But inherent in the belief systems of both Christianity and Islam is the idea that suffering and unhappiness during this earthly existence should be endured with acceptance, for that suffering, if they stay faithful, the reward will come in the afterlife. Many interpret this to mean that happiness is not necessarily a “given” in this life and that its pursuit may in some ways remain counter to their religiousness. Younger people born into these religions often reject them preferring a secular humanistic approach to life. In fact, in developed societies, the numbers of young people who state an affiliation with an organized church or religion has been steadily declining. They seek happiness outside of the religions of their birth and often do so as individuals rather than as members of an institution that can bind them spiritually.
Happiness is not Frivolous
In 2015 another happiness report was published, this time by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. This was an attempt to measure happiness by country, by lifestyles, and by emotional factors. As expected, those countries that were economically developed with stable political systems scored high. But some other interesting data came out of this study that related to emotional happiness and its ability to sustain people through crises. When the world economic downturn occurred, Iceland and Ireland suffered almost complete decimation of their banking systems. So did Greece. The happiness scale of Greeks plummeted, while that of Iceland and Ireland did not. The factors, as determined by the study, were emotional. People in Iceland and Ireland had strong emotional support for one another through social institutions, including religious ones.
Jews are certainly not the only happy people on the planet. But operating within their faith, adhering to its tenets, to communal worship and celebrations, and to the sanctity of the Sabbath, all provides a framework for mutual support and belonging – two critical pieces of this whole happiness formula.
[Photo credit: Nathan Ashby via Pinterest]