How much of an annual salary do you need to feel secure and happy? My guess is, whatever that number is, it’s more than what you’re currently making. And in fact, journalist Joe Pinsker wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the annual income people feel like they need in order to be happy. Interestingly, it’s not an exact number – rather, whatever your salary is, you feel like you need 30-50% more. Or, as journalist Derek Thompson tweeted: “Make $50k? ‘I need about 75k.’ Make $75k? ‘I need about 100k.’ Make $150k? ‘I need 200k.’ Make $200k? ‘I need 350k.’”
While there is some good research that suggests that, yes, on some level, money does buy (some) happiness and certainly requires at least a base level of income, it isn’t exactly pegged to an exact figure. Instead, it’s often based on comparisons with others, or what we don’t have, or something we lack. And we see that clearly in this week’s portion, Vayetzei. Jacob marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah, and the two of them are often framed in terms of comparison. The text even says that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.” (29:30) And what each of them wants is precisely what the other one has.
While Jacob loves Rachel, all that Rachel wants is children. And while Leah gives birth to six of Jacob’s children, all Leah wants is to be loved by Jacob. So for her first three children, Leah gives almost ironic etymologies – Reuven means “now my husband will love me”; Simeon meant, “God heard that I was unloved”; Levi means, “This time my husband will become attached to me.” Whether it is love, security or happiness, she hopes that these children will get her what she truly wants.
But for her fourth son, Judah, she says, “This time, I will give thanks to God.” As the Etz Hayim commentary notes, “Her mood changes from rivalry to gratitude…Her heartfelt prayer of thanks reflects her having grown from self-concern and a focus on what she lacked to a genuine sense of appreciation for what was hers.” (174)
Judah’s name ultimately led to the name “Judaism,” so to be a Jew, by definition, is to give thanks. It’s a natural human tendency to want what we don’t have, to compare ourselves to others, or to think about how our lives will be better once we end up getting the thing we want. But whatever we have, we end up getting used to it – a concept called the hedonic treadmill. Taking a few moments to look not at what we lack but at what we have can help us truly celebrate our blessings.
Yet we do have goals we strive for, both as individuals and as a society – and that’s an important element to remember, as well. We strive to balance both our needs in the present and our desires in the future. It’s not always an easy tightrope to walk, especially as the needed self-control can be hard to manage. But Professor David DeSteno, in an interview with journalist Olga Khazan, discusses how gratitude – along with compassion and pride – can better embrace that dynamic:
What I’ve found is that these emotions actually ease the way to self-control because they prevent the mind from devaluing the future. They attenuate what economists call “temporal discounting.” They make people value the future more than they normally would, which makes it easier to persevere toward eating broccoli instead of eating Ben and Jerry’s … or whatever it may be.
These emotions ease the way to self-control because you’re not fighting a desire; you’re changing what you desire in the first place. They’re making you desire the future more.
We all have needs, desires, goals, and strivings. Some are healthy; others are less so. But as Leah learned, wanting what others have is often the road to dissatisfaction. Rather, celebrating what we already have can allow us both to enjoy our blessings now and to build for the future.
It’s natural to feel like the grass is greener on the other side or others have what we wish for. But every person, every family, has their own unique struggles, challenges, and blessings. We may not always get what we’d like, but this Thanksgiving, may we find the peace of mind we need.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. In addition to My Jewish Learning, he’s written for The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He lives in Westchester with his wife, Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter and son.