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Buying Happiness

Can money buy happiness? Psychologists and economists have conducted many studies to answer this complex question, and the answer, in short, is maybe. More precisely, it depends how we define “money,” “buy,” and “happiness.” In a 2010 landmark study, Drs. Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton distinguished between everyday experiences of happiness and a broader evaluation of life satisfaction, and found that in terms of broader life satisfaction, money was – up to a point – positively correlated with satisfaction. Beyond an annual income of around $75,000, there was no connection between money and happiness. A more recent (2021) study by Dr. Matthew Killingsworth utilized technological advances to design a more robust study, and found, in contrast to Kahneman and Deaton, that even above the $75,000 threshold, everyday happiness increased with the amount of money earned.

Drs. Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson focused, not on how much people earn, but on how people spend their money. Their findings show that money is more likely to buy happiness if: (1) it is spent on experiences rather than on material goods, and (2) if it is used to benefit others, rather than oneself.

A comprehensive analysis of the nuances of the Torah’s approach to money and happiness would require an extensive study of excerpts from Mishlei, Kohelet, Pirkei Avot, the Talmud, and later commentaries. In brief, these sources suggest that the unabashed pursuit of money for its own sake would have an adverse effect on both our spiritual and psychological lives. Given the above, there is a verse in Parshat Vezot HaBerachah that requires some further analysis. As part of his final address to Bnei Yisrael, Moshe bestows a unique blessing on each of the tribes. The tribe of Zevulun, who is known for business pursuits, is told to “Rejoice Zevulun in your departures” (Devarim 33:18). What aspect of their business activities is Moshe encouraging them to enjoy?

One answer could be that Moshe was speaking of the happiness that comes from the way in which they spent their money, and not of the intrinsic enjoyment of earning a livelihood. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 99:9), quoted by Rashi, asserts that the people of Zevulun would share their profits with Yissachar, affording Yissachar the opportunity to learn Torah. Thus, Or HaChaim contends, their joy stems from the knowledge that their money is spent in support of Torah study. Furthering this theme, that joy is connected to the way in which they spend their money, the next verse states that “[t]hey invite people to the mountain, where they will offer sacrifices of success” (Devarim 33:19). One could argue that happiness is directly tied to hosting guests, especially in the context of bringing sacrifices to God. Happiness comes by spending money on spiritual experiences, specifically ones that benefit others.

Abarbanel offers an explanation which may illuminate an additional path to happiness. First, unlike the Midrash, Abarbanel contends that according to the basic reading of the verses, the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun were both in business together. Zevulun would sail across the seas and import goods, while Yissachar would be “tent-to-tent” salespeople, selling the goods on land. Consequently, the rejoicing which Moshe mentions cannot be interpreted as referring to strictly spiritual pursuits.

Rather, according to Abarbanel, Moshe is telling each tribe to rejoice in their distinct business roles, each one befitting their particular personalities. They should each be happy and content with their business pursuits. Abarbanel’s approach is very powerful because he legitimizes the pursuit of a career as a path to spiritually acceptable happiness, without adding the caveat that happiness can only come if the money is used to support Torah. Happiness can and should come through spending money for spiritual experiences and helping others, but one can also feel happy by “enjoying the fruits of your labor” (Tehillim 128:2).

While we may be unable to determine whether money can always buy happiness, these studies and commentaries provide a basic blueprint for approaching the question. Earning money through a profession that provides meaning and matches our personalities and skill sets, along with spending money on spiritual experiences that specifically benefit others, are paths that lead us to relate to money in a psychologically and spiritually healthy way.


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