Tzedakah and the Pursuit of Happiness

Money can buy you happiness. This has been shown not only historically and culturally, but also scientifically. One of the most confusing paradoxes is that though people spend so much of their time trying to make more money, having more money doesn’t seem to make them that much happier.

Buy experiences not things. Although we can use our money for material things, it’s not what you own that makes you happy, it’s what you do. We remember the actual holiday with more happiness than the new clothes we bought to take with us.

A study was done at Cornell University. The study specifically focused on the mood consequences of spending decisions.  According to the research, choosing to invest in an experience like a vacation or a concert, contributes to a more upbeat mood than paying for a new computer or phone. It also showed that by having a longer waiting time with experience purchases, you receive as much anticipatory happiness as possible from the investment.

Additionally, if we focus on what we have, we reduce our enjoyment of future purchases as we become complacent. We take for granted our good fortune and our confidence reduces the uncertainty of life. Without hard times, we lose appreciation of the good.

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

— Winston Churchill

We are taught in Judaism to give 10% of our income to charity. The tradition of members paying fair dues, used by many Jewish Communities is built on this concept. When we give to others, it reminds us of how lucky we are. We gain from compassion and empathy and the realisation that we cannot and should not take things for granted.

In a study on charitable giving when people donated to a worthy cause, the mid-brain region of the brain lit up. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for our cravings (like food) and pleasure rewards, showing the link between charitable giving and pleasure.

Not forgetting of course that giving money is not the only way to give tzedakah. We can give our time and our skills. In the findings of the 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey of 4,500 American adults. Forty-one percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. Of those who volunteered, 68 percent reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 89 percent that it improved their sense of well-bring (e.g. happiness) and 73 percent that it lowered their stress levels.

There are many studies still being held about giving to others and the effect it has on us. However, regardless of how much money people have, those who spent money on others report greater happiness than those people who spent more money on themselves. There is much that is mystical about Judaism but giving to others is not a complicated mitzvah to keep.

“Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah”  Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1.

So, how can money buy us happiness?

The answer is by giving it away.

About the Author
Abi Taylor-Abt is an outstanding Jewish Educator and Curriculum Developer who has worked in the field of Jewish Primary and Secondary Educational Curriculum Development for over twenty years. She is the author of Lessons in Jewish Learning - a grab and go curriculum for communities and Jewish schools. Originally from London, Abi spent time living in Israel, South Africa, England and the United States. After working in Boise, Idaho, Abi spent 5 years in Israel for the second time whilst her children served in the army. She is currently Director of Education for Yachad a combined educational endeavour between the conservative congregation of Beth Shalom and the reform community of Temple Emanu-El in Michigan, USA. A 2018 recipient of the Klein/Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Abi is also awaiting the video version of her recent ELI Talk Detroit Speaker Fellowship.