A recent psychological survey shows that this is true…to some extent. People who are less affluent do tend to be less happy. The survey also shows that people at or above about the 90th percentile of wealth tend to be the happiest. Curiously, though, there is no difference in the happiness of people from the 90th to the 99th percentile. If you already have a "comfortable" income, having more money will not make you any happier. You will have to find greater happiness someplace else.
Another interesting finding of the survey is that the happiness that comes from wealth is relative. People who are wealthy compared to the people around them tend to be happier in absolute terms. In other words, whether you have a well paying job and live in a nice neighborhood in the affluent United States, or whether you are a successful goat herder living in a better-than-average hut in impoverished Tanzania, you have about the same chance of being happy.
We could say that it is not really wealth that brings happiness. Rather, it is the perception and expectation of wealth that contribute to making a person happy. Billionaires who have come to believe that their wealth is "normal" have the same likelihood of unhappiness as vagrants who are inured to a wandering, homeless life. Happiness is built on perceptions, attitudes and gratitude.
In this week's Torah portion (Toledot), Isaac asks his son to kiss him and he observes, "The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field that Adonai has blessed!" He then blesses Jacob, saying, "And may God give you from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land; the abundance of new wheat and wine." Rashi, the medieval commentator, wonders why Isaac begins his blessing with the word "and." Is the blessing a continuation of the observation about Jacob's fragrance?
Rashi concludes that the "and" is there to tell us that Isaac wishes God to bless his son over and over again. Just as he has been blessed with the fragrance of an orchard, he wishes God to bless him repeatedly and further with the plenty of heaven and earth. Rashi quotes a midrash that says, "יתן ויחזור ויתן," "May God give and give again." (Bereshit Rabah 66:3)
This is the way we usually wish blessing upon people. We do not wish for some windfall to come upon them that will "set them up for life." Rather, we hope that blessings large and small will be an ongoing presence in the life of people we care about. We wish for them a life in which blessing is a constant, not a one-time event.
In his commentary on this week's portion, Aharon-Ya'akov Greenberg says that Rashi's commentary teaches a deeper lesson:
Every joy in which we take pleasure in this world is only temporary. If you suddenly were to become wealthy, you would be happy for a day or two. Afterwards, though, you would become used to it and think that it is just the way things must be. All desires of the world are insubstantial, and when they are fulfilled the delight quickly fades. However, if you were to become wealthy gradually, day by day, your happiness would grow every day. Thus was the blessing of Isaac for Jacob—that he would not become wealthy all at once, but rather that “God would give and then give again.” That way, his success would increase day by day without interruption. (Iturei Torah, 1:236. Greenberg cites "various sources")
This wealth that grows day by day is not necessarily some kind of monetary annuity. The wealth that each of us can experience each day is the riches of just living in this world with gratitude. By regarding the universe around us—which we did not create and which was given without our asking—as a gift, we can become happier in the recognition that God has given and then given again.
Happiness is the product of our perceptions and attitudes. When we cultivate an awareness of the miracles around us, we are able to expand our joy beyond the finite limits that material wealth can bring. We become people whose happiness can grow every day.
Other posts on this topic:
Re'eh: Giving and Receiving