Tag Archives: Dan Ariely

It’s Not About Being Happy — It’s About Doing Good

These the words I shared on Sunday evening for Rosh Hashanah. Shanah tovah all — may it be a good and sweet new year.

There are two Hebrew words that we say many, many times over these High Holy Days. They express a wonderful sentiment to use when we greet others – whether in the sanctuary, in the parking lot or with friends and family – because they reflect our hopes for this New Year.

Those two Hebrew words are, of course, shanah tovah. And yet we almost always mistranslate them.

Perhaps it’s because we Jews celebrate two “new years” – Rosh Hashanah and January 1st – that the English greeting we tend to use is “happy new year.” But that’s not what shanah tovah means. “Shanah tovah” has almost nothing to do with happiness. Instead, “Shanah tovah” really means “a good year,” and there is a difference between our year being a “happy” one and our year being a “good” one. And I would argue that we shouldn’t focusing on “being happy.” Instead, we should focus on “doing good.”

Now, I can already hear an objection: Don’t we want to be happy? Is there anyone here who would wish for less happiness this year? Well, of course, if we had the choice, we would obviously rather be happy than be sad. But it also depends on what we mean by the word “happy.” Generally, we define “happiness” as “a pleasurable feeling,” but here’s the thing – feelings come and feelings go. So yes, we all hope that this year will have many moments of pleasure. But we also know that this year will bring moments of sadness. Of anxiety. Of struggles. In fact, there is even significant research that shows that we have only a limited amount of control over how happy we actually are.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and author of the book The How of Happiness, tells us that there are three main factors that determine our happiness level. The first part is genetic – our “happiness set point,” as it’s called. Just as some people’s genes make them taller or shorter than others, genetics play a role in our psychological make-up, as well, which naturally influence what our “baseline happiness” tends to be. According to the research, our genetic tendencies make up about half of our happiness level – and so half of our happiness is something we have no absolutely control over.

The second part of the happiness equation is life circumstances – are we partnered or single? How much money do we have? Are we healthy or ill? These are the areas where we tend to invest a lot of our time, energy, and resources. We try to put money into savings. We go to the gym. We try to eat better. Yet even a cursory reflection on last year shows us just how much luck is involved in our attempts to change our circumstances. We may have tried to save money – but found that landing a job was surprisingly difficult. We may have gone to the gym and eaten better – but were sideswiped by an illness we never saw coming. We can do our best to try to improve our circumstances, but we know that in this area, as well, we have only limited influence.

But what’s surprising is that it turns out that life circumstances make up about only 10% of our happiness level. While there is always an initial shock when our circumstances change dramatically – both for good and for ill – within a few months, their power generally lessens. Why is that? Because we humans have what’s called “hedonic adaptation,” which is just a fancy way of saying “whatever it is, we tend to get used to it.” Author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains it well:

If you’ve ever gone to a matinee and walked from the dark movie theater to the sunny parking lot, the first moment outside is one of stunning brightness, but then your eyes adjust relatively quickly…

[Similarly, w]hen we move into a new house, we may be delighted wiSth the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren’t as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don’t derive as much pleasure from the hardwood floors.

Just as our eyes adjust to changes in light and environment, we can adapt to changes in expectation and experience. (Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality, 158-159, 168-169)

So while we may try to change our circumstances in 5773 in order to “be happy,” we have to remember that not only do have only a finite amount of control, and not only would we need to invest significant time and effort in changing them, even if we do succeed, they will only minimally affect our level of happiness.

So if 50% is genetics and 10% is life circumstances, what’s the other 40%? It turns out that the remaining 40% of our happiness consists of simple actions that we choose to do. What are those actions? They’re ones you would probably expect to hear: Express gratitude. Practice acts of kindness. Be fully present in your actions and with those around you.

And what’s interesting is that through these behaviors, we re-orient how we perceive this year. While these actions do make up 40% of what makes us happy – what make us “feel good” – they are almost 100% of what it means for us to “do good.” Expressing gratitude, practicing acts of kindness, being fully present – these types of actions make both us and our world a little bit better. So as we look towards 5773, we shouldn’t be asking the question “will it be a happy new year?” Research suggests that a large part of that equation is outside of our direct control. So instead, we should be asking, “how will we do good this year?”

Now, if this sounds a little bit like “moral self-help”…it kind of is. And that may not such a bad thing. Earlier this week, Megan McArdle, a journalist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, wrote a piece entitled “What’s Wrong With Self-Help Books?” She notes that people often denigrate them, because

[t]he lessons they offer are obvious – be nice to your spouse, save more, give constructive feedback to your team members, eat less and exercise more.  And of course this is true, not through any particular fault of the authors, but because there are very few revolutions in human affairs.  The basic facts of living, getting along with others, and dying haven’t actually changed all that much since they were first discussed in blockbuster self-help titles like The Bible.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t bear repeating…[And s]ome messages can only be heard when [we] are ready. (McArdle, “What’s Wrong with Self-Help Books?”, The Daily Beast, 9/13/12)

Similarly, the messages of the High Holy Days are ones we hear all the time: reflect on our actions from this past year. Be kind to others. Be kind to ourselves. Make restitution for the mistakes we made. Forgive. These are messages we hear each year because these are messages that bear repeating.

But perhaps even more important than the words we speak is the way that Rosh Hashanah forces us to do what’s called cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of our soul. A joke among many people who work in the Jewish world is the hope that the holidays will be postponed or even cancelled because “we’re just not quite ready for them.” But that’s the point – whether we are ready for them or not, the purpose of the High Holy Days is to put ourselves in a particular mindset. They are designed to confront us with the question, “What are the messages that we truly need to hear, and are finally ready to heed?”

And centuries of Jewish wisdom have accumulated many messages about how we do good. Indeed, Judaism’s vision of “self-help” isn’t about “helping ourselves” – it’s about how we help others and make this world better. As Dr. Byron Sherwin and Dr. Seymour Cohen explain in their book Creating an Ethical Jewish Life:

Rather than demonstrating how to accumulate wealth for [ourselves], Jewish ethical literature deals with how wealth may be employed for the benefit of others. Rather than offering strategies about how to manipulate others to do [our] will, it focuses on how best to live a life correlative with the divine will. Rather than teaching [us] how to deliver a speech, it is preoccupied with how to speak without harming others… (Sherwin and Cohen, xi)

So we don’t judge this year on how we felt. We don’t judge it on whether we were “happy” or not. Instead, as our machzor tells us, “the Shofar’s sound [should] awaken the voice of conscience…” (Gates of Repentance, 64-65) We should judge this year on the “good” we can do; how we can build, maintain, and repair our relationships – to ourselves, to each other and to God.

If we can do that, if we focus on “doing good,” then we can also rethink what “being happy” might actually look like. While one definition of “happiness” is feeling good, Russ Harris, author of the book The Happiness Trap, reminds us that true, deep, lasting happiness isn’t about the fleeting moments of pleasure. As he says,

[w]hen we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling – it is a profound sense of a life well lived. (Harris, 5)

In the end, that’s what these High Holy Days are about. We are not looking for a happy new year, but a good new year – and that means “a year of goodness.” We need to concentrate our attention and actions on what “we consider valuable and worthy” and lead us to “clarify what we stand for in life, and act accordingly.” And because it is natural and easy for us to go through the days and months of the year without reflecting on our actions, Rosh Hashanah forces us to consider the kind of life we are building, and to ask ourselves not how we can “be happy,” but how we can “do good.”

Adonai Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, as we reflect on this past year and look towards the new one, remind us to be grateful for the joyous moments and simple pleasures we experience. Remind us of the kind of life we should be living, so that it is a life of compassion and of justice. And remind us that we should evaluate this year in terms not on how happy we felt, but on how we helped improve ourselves and our world. As our machzor says, “We look ahead with hope, giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal. For the promise of good to come.” (Gates of Repentance, 52) May the promise of 5773 be that we bring a little more goodness into our selves, to others and our world.

Amen, and shanah tovah – may it be a good year for all of us.

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Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

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What Would a “Conscious Judaism” Look Like?

What does it mean for us to be “conscious”?

Sometimes, it means that we are aware of our surroundings, as opposed to the times when are we blind to what’s going on around us.

Sometimes, it means that we are acting intentionally, as opposed to the times when we act without thinking.

And sometimes it means that we know our self, meaning that we are trying to determine who we really are.

These aspects of consciousness — awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge — have become rich sources of scientific inquiry. Interestingly, these ideas also have deep resonance with teachings found within Jewish tradition.

So where do Judaism and the science of consciousness intersect?  What would a “conscious Judaism” look like? And what does Judaism teach about awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge?

Awareness

In an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, psychologist Richard Wiseman describes a very simple experiment that he ran which shows how a lack of awareness leads us to ignore potential gifts, even when they are staring us right in the face:

I gave…people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside…I [also] placed a…large message half way through the newspaper. [It] announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” …[The unaware] people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

So simply by becoming more aware — more conscious — people discovered unexpected gifts they otherwise would have missed. And so the natural next question is — how many gifts do we receive each day that we are simply not conscious of?

The answer? Far too many. And because we are often totally unaware of all the blessings that we experience each and every day, Jewish liturgy reminds us that sometimes, we need some help in opening our eyes to the blessings of this world. Perhaps that’s why the Talmud (Menachot 43b) tells us that we should say “one hundred blessings every day” — it’s so that we become that much more aware of the myriad gifts that we experience, but all too often ignore.

Indeed, in his book The Book of Words, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner creatively defines the word b’rachah, “blessing,” as “awakening.” As he says:

Blessings keep our awareness of life’s holy potential ever present. They awaken us to our own lives. Every blessing says, “I am grateful to be a creature and to remind myself and God that life is good.”

With each blessing uttered, we extend the boundaries of the sacred and ritualize our love of life. One hundred times a day. Everywhere we turn, everything we touch, everyone we see. (Kushner, 20).

So one aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about raising our level of awareness of the opportunities, the joys, and the goodness in this world that we so often overlook.

Intentionality

Apparently (at least according to my fiancee), I have a problem with hogging the blankets in the middle of the night. When she wakes up in the morning, the blankets are wrapped tightly around me, and she doesn’t seem to have any. I remember saying to her once that “I don’t intend to steal the blankets,” but clearly that’s wrong — I do intend to do that, since that’s what happens! What I really mean is that I don’t consciously intend to hog the blankets, since I’m not actively trying to leave her shivering in the middle of the night.

Our intentions are what guide our actions, but when we talk about intentionality, we are really talking about conscious intentionality — making a particular decision because that’s the decision we want to make. But in fact, many of our choices are ones that we don’t consciously think about.

Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, gives an example: imagine that you have spent most of your life drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. One day, you walk into a Starbucks, buy a cup of coffee, and enjoy it. Then,

…[t]he following week you walk by Starbucks again. Should you go in? The ideal decision-making process should take into account the quality of the coffee (Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts); the prices at the two places; and, of course, the cost (or value) of walking a few more blocks to get to Dunkin’ Donuts. This is a complex computation — so instead, you resort to the simple approach: “I went to Starbucks before, and I enjoyed myself and the coffee, so this must be a good decision for me.” So you walk in and get another small cup of coffee. (Ariely, 37)

Generally, it’s not a problem that we make most of our decisions without too much thought. But all of our choices do have consequences, whether or not we make them consciously — and if we don’t consciously own our decisions, then we won’t be able to accept their consequences.

So how can we raise our level of intentionality?

Here again, Judaism can help guide us, since rabbinic literature emphasizes that all of our actions need to be done with a level of conscious intentionality. In Hebrew, that concept is called kavvanah.

Kavvanah is a subject of study because Judaism is a religion that focuses on actions, and in particular, mitzvot, or sacred actions. On the one hand, doing mitzvot could and should be done regardless of how we feel – we simply have a responsibility to give charity, to observe Shabbat, and to honor our father and mother.

But the Rabbis also tell us that “mitzvot require kavvanah.” (Berakhot 13a) While we could  fulfill our sacred obligations out of habit, when we recognize the potential holiness of our actions, we will naturally raise our level of intentionality. As Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels notes, “mitzvot provide a system of sacred practices that aim to lead us to the realization of the divine presence…For mitzvot to fulfill their purpose, we must bring mindfulness and intention to their practice.” (quoted in Cosgrove, Jewish Theology in Our Time, 38-39)

Judaism reminds us that actions need to be connected to purpose, and purpose manifests itself in actions. When we recognize that every choice is potentially sacred, we will bring more intentionality, more consciousness, to that moment. And if we can increase our level of intentionality, then we will be that much more able to own our decisions — and that much more able to own the consequences.

So a second aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about raising our level of intentionality, helping us recognize the potential sacredness of each choice we make.

Self-Knowledge

While awareness and intentionality are certainly important aspects of consciousness, they are also features that we share with all other animals (and, depending on how broadly we define those terms, perhaps even with all living things). But there is one aspect of consciousness that is uniquely human — a sense of self.

All animals have experiences, perceptions and desires, but only human beings can create a coherent sense of self that can not only evaluate the present, but also reflect on the past and plan for the future — and also to know that it is the same “person” who experiences all those moments. As Antonio Damasio notes in his book Self Comes to Mind:

What your life has been, in bits and pieces, is available to you rapidly in recall, and bits and pieces of what your life may or may not come to be, imagined earlier or imagined now, also come into the moment of experience. You are busily all over the place and at the many epochs of your life, past and future. But you — the me in you, that is — never drops out of sight. All of these contents are inextricably tied to a singular reference. Even as you concentrate on some remote event, the connection remains. The center holds. (Damasio, 168)

As far as we know, only humans have this level of self-knowledge, with the ability to become introspective and to create an integrated sense of “self.” And perhaps that ability to construct a unified sense of self is what it means when Judaism says that we are “created in the image of God.”

After all, the most important aspect of God in Judaism is that God is one. While that insight was originally used to claim there weren’t many gods, as the surrounding cultures had argued, it could also mean that God is unified or integrated. So today, when we say that we are “created in the image of God,” we are also saying that even as we grow and change and struggle, there is a continuity in our sense of “self” — who we were, who we are and who we will be are, in fact, all one person.

That’s an important thing to remember, because as evolutionary psychologists Robert Kurzban and Douglas Kenrick argue, we have many “modular subselves,” with different parts of our brain advocating for different goals. For example, in his book Sex, Murder and the Meaning of Life, Kenrick calls these subselves

…the team player (concerned with the goal of making friends), the go-getter (concerned with getting ahead), the night watchman (concerned with protecting us from the bad guys), the compulsive (concerned with protecting us from disease), the swinging single (concerned with finding mates), the good spouse (concerned with the very different problem of keeping those mates), and the parent (concerned with taking care of our kin, especially any children we might have). (Kenrick, x-xi)

All these modular subselves have their own specific role and own specific purpose, so when we feel like different parts of our “self” are at war, it’s really because our different subselves are trying to get us to act in conflicting ways.

And yet despite the fact that one level, “who we are” consists of many subselves, on a deeper level, we know that “who we are” is unified, whole, and complete. And that idea that we know that we are an integrated self parallels a teaching that appears in Pirkei Avot, when Rabbi Akiva said, “while it was a great love that God created humanity in the Divine image, it was an even greater love that they were made aware that they were created in the Divine Image.” (Avot 3:14)

As Rabbi Irwin Kula taught, perhaps the goal of religion is to help people bring their disparate “selves” into a unified whole, reminding people that they truly are created in the image of a unified God.

So a third aspect of a “conscious Judaism” would be about developing an integrated sense of “self,” guiding people towards the knowledge that they are already whole, complete and unified.

I believe that a “conscious Judaism” — striving to enhance people’s awareness, intentionality and self-knowledge — could improve people’s engagement with the world, their decision-making process, and how they view themselves. It could help people in pursuing tikkun olam, repairing the world, and tikkun hanefesh, repairing the soul.

So now that I’ve shared my thoughts, I want to ask you — in your mind, what would a “conscious Judaism” look like? And how might it help improve both individuals and society at large?

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Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

We love to tell ourselves that “money can’t buy happiness.” We say to remember that there’s more to life than money, that  our relationships and our experiences and our hobbies and our friends are truly what bring joy and fulfillment to our lives. And yet there’s a part of us that says deep down, “OK, that’s all true…but I could certainly use more money!” So what is the connection between money and happiness?

Well, most studies show that if you’re in back-breaking poverty and can’t make ends meet, you’re unlikely to be particularly happy. But once you reach a level of comfort and have food, shelter and basic necessities, then the link between money and happiness is in fact quite tenuous. And as psychologist Dan Ariely shows us, in many ways, money can actually make people quite miserable.

Ariely explains that when it comes to our feelings about money, happiness is relative. There’s no magic salary that makes people happy — instead, it’s how we fare compared to those around us.

He shares a story about a an employee who was expecting to make $100,000 a year just out of college. In fact, he was making almost $300,000 — and was deeply unhappy. Why? “It’s just that a couple of the guys at the desks next to me, they’re not any better than I am, and they are making $310,000.” (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 16)

If money bought happiness, then objectively speaking, he should be three times happier than he thought he would be. But instead, his focus was on how he was doing relative to everyone else. And so he was miserable.

Keeping Up with the Cohens

Problems arise not when we want things — they arise when we see how the other half lives, and then want what they have. And as Ariely says, that’s why the Ten Commandments ends with, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17)

Notice that that commandment isn’t about simply wanting something. It doesn’t say, “You shall not want a house, or a field, or a donkey.” The point seems to be that it’s your neighbor’s possessions that you may desire — and that’s where the issue lies. Our deepest yearnings are for things that we can see on a regular basis, and since we can constantly see what our neighbor has, it’s their stuff we want.

But as we all know, it has become easier and easier to see what millions of other people have. Originally, we knew only the people closest to us. But now, a quick Google search can show us exactly what other people’s comfort level is. So if comparing ourselves to the five or fifty or five hundred people we really know was destined to make us unhappy, how much worse is it that we can now compare ourselves to 50,000 or 500,000 people?

Indeed, if we think of our neighbor as “someone we know a lot about” (which leads us to covet what they have), then our definition of “neighbor” has certainly changed over the centuries. But while that might be a negative (and Ariely argues that we should keep our “neighborhood” small to increase our happiness), there are other consequences to the fact that our definition of “neighbor” is now much broader.

An Ever-Expanding Neighborhood

We read not only about how rich other people are (leading us to want what they have), but also read about how challenging life is in other parts of the world — and even parts of our own country. Yet we certainly don’t compare ourselves to them when we consider our own happiness. So if we don’t use them as a point of comparison, do we still consider the homeless person on the street our “neighbor”? The person who doesn’t have health care? A Sudanese woman? Who truly is our “neighbor,” and what do we use to define who that is?

There are actually two other well-known commandments in the Torah that use the word “neighbor” – “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16) and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). What happens to those commandments if we view our “neighbor” more broadly?

If we think of our neighbors as people we have to try to keep up with, then that will just make us miserable. But if we think of our “neighbors” as those we have a responsibility to, then we can realize the value and importance of moving away from our self-centered materialism. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, when it comes to societal and economic problems, “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, xxiv)

Our field of awareness about people has expanded from a small local circle to a large global world. But if our awareness has grown, then our responsibility has grown, as well. Too often, we compare ourselves to our “neighbors” who are better off than we are — making us unhappy. Instead, perhaps we should be focusing more on our obligations to our ”neighbors” who are not as well-off — and helping those neighbors will ultimately bring much more fulfillment, meaning, and even happiness into our life than an extra $10,000 ever could.

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Why We Should be More Like Robin Hood

In an interview in 2010, Oscar winner Russell Crowe explained why he took on the role of Robin Hood in the movie of the same name. He felt like “there [wa]s something wonderful about a story that has lasted for so long. Its core thing, the thing that attract[ed] me, and has attracted me since I was a five-year-old kid…is that there is some guy out there who will go out and work on behalf of the people who can’t do something for themselves.”

So what is about the Robin Hood story that makes it so enduring?

Perhaps the Robin Hood still resonates for us because we have a natural aversion to too much income inequality. A recent study by economists Michael Norton and Dan Ariely found that

[w]hile liberals and the poor favored slightly more equal distributions than conservatives and the wealthy, a large majority of every group we surveyed – from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal – agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Certainly, if we are lucky enough to be comfortable, we probably feel like we have earned our success (and hopefully, we actually did earn it!). But many of us have also faced difficult and challenging times. If we live long enough, we begin to recognize that luck often plays a large part in how wealthy we are at any given moment. And when we become aware of the hand of fortune in the monetary realm, we also start to realize that there may be value in helping lessen the gap between “rich” and “poor.”

The Relationship Between Rich and Poor

The Rabbis believed that if we do happen to live comfortably, that’s wonderful – but it also entails certain responsibilities:

“In the day of prosperity, enjoy the prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiyya said, “In the day of your fellow man’s prosperity, rejoice with him. And in the day of adversity, reflect. If adversity confronts your fellow, consider how to do him a kindness and save him…But why does God create both poor people and rich people? In order for them to draw riches from each other, as it says, ‘God has made one for the other’ (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 28 in Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy, 55)

If we are prosperous, we are certainly allowed to enjoy it. But we also know that prosperity can become adversity all too easily. And if that is the case, then we can see that helping others is clearly a responsibility we have.

But what is truly fascinating is that giving money to help others actually makes us feel better than simply having money. Author Jonah Lehrer describes a Caltech study where people were randomly selected to be “rich” or “poor” and the “rich” people were immediately given $50. They were then placed in a brain scanner and given an opportunity to give some of that money to a stranger. Amazingly, the reward center in their brains lit up when the “rich” people were giving money to a “poor” stranger! As he notes:

The scientists speculate that people have a natural dislike of inequality. In fact, our desire for equal outcomes is often more powerful (at least in the brain) than our desire for a little extra cash. It’s not that money doesn’t make us feel good – it’s that sharing the wealth can make us feel even better. (“Inequality Aversion” in Jonah Lehrer’s blog “The Frontal Cortex”)

Perhaps the Robin Hood story endures even up to today because thinking about “giving to the poor” simply makes us feel good (although certainly just “taking from the rich” is not what we should do!). So maybe we should strive to become a bit more like Robin Hood on the “giving” part of that equation — not only would it make the world more fair, it would make us feel better, as well.

As we give to others, we can find simchat mitzvah, the joy in fulfilling a mitzvah, which not only makes our world a little more whole, it elevates our souls a little more, as well.

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