When I was growing up, money meant AUTHORITY. Dad made the money, so he also made the decisions. Our family lived by the Golden Rule as in: He who has the gold, rules.
We were told at an early age that it wasn’t “polite” to talk about money, but it sure seemed to be the subtext of most conversations. And back when dessert was a Good Humor bar that cost a nickel, I knew that my family was definitely happier when we had more money, not less.
It’s easy to make the leap from ice cream treats to world views, so I grew up think- ing that money could make you happy. Money is an all-powerful force – influencing everything from global politics to interpersonal relationships. Our American culture is deeply consumer oriented, and for many, self-worth and identity are derived from what we earn, own, wear, buy and drive rather than from what we think and feel, or what we give to and care about.
Money is both a means and an end – to material goods as well as to emotions and feelings such as peace of mind, pleasure, happiness and satisfaction. Scientific research suggests that there is definitely a correlation between money and happiness, but only up to a certain point. Having money gives us a sense of emotional well-being, because when we have enough to provide for our basic needs, we feel more secure and satis- fied. Having what we need frees us up to make choices, to experience pleasure and leisure, and to use our time in ways not just related to survival. But when material worth is the primary measure by which we assess our own value, we will rarely, if ever, be happy.
The issue of being unhappy with what we have and always wanting more has been around since the beginning of time. Over 2,000 years ago, the rabbis dealt with this problem when they gave us this bit of wisdom: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” So, how do we become happy with our lot? Research suggests that when we spend money on meaningful experiences and on people we love rather than on tangible things and possessions, we tend to feel good about ourselves and the money we have.
And charitable giving, to people and organizations that we care about, also has a direct effect on our happiness. The emotional reward that we feel when we are able to make a difference, even a small one, often surpasses the temporary joy of buying something new. This is supported by readings from MRIs, which indicate that giving money to charities actually stimulates brain activity in the regions of the brain where we experience feelings of pleasure and reward. As Jews we are guided by the Torah, which gives us the blueprint for Jewish living. One of the key values in the Torah is tzedakah – using our money and resources to help those in need. The Jewish win-win is the mitzvah of giving – of our time, talents, resources and money. Not only does it make us happier, it improves the lives of others.
The beauty of the concept of tzedakah is in its absolute equality. No matter how much or how little we possess, each one of us has the potential to consciously become a better person, and a happier person, when we use the money we have to make our world a better place.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. Her first book, To Life: Jewish Reflections on Everyday Living, goes into its
second printing this fall. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com