Happiness, Misreads and Bad Statistics

The is a meme going around based on the Gallup poll that made religious Jews the happiest in the US. I have already received notices about rabbis planning on using it as their Sabbath sermon.

First off, stick to the religious polls by the groups that specialize in relgion like PEW because they are calibrated for religious groups. Leave Gallup for exit polls on election night. The basic messages of the poll when read correctly is that it does not matter which religion and how much in term of happiness. The differences between different religions were only 3-4 % and between religious and non-religious 3-4%. But if you looked at the poll, it said that the Jewish statistics was accurate only to +/- 6% due to the small sample. Did everyone fail statistics? The real factors are economics, freedom of mobility, religion, and job, health care, and class. Gallop uses a broad category like Protestant that includes together Boston Unitarians and Southern Fundamentalists blurs more than it reveals. And secular Denmark remains the happiest country in the world by a much larger margin.

The funnier joke is that Orthodox Jews, even modern ones, confuse in the meme yinglish and English. A religious person is not an orthodox one. Religious does not mean frum. Rather religious means the same thing it means by Protestants.- Is your religion and house of worship important in your life? Do you make God a part of your life? If a Christian Fundamentalist thought that liberal Protestants were not true believers, he might think that only Fundamentalists are included in the religious category and he would place the liberal Christians in the moderate or non-believer group.

Since this survey specifically sought to gather data from all fifty states then the majority of those Jews who said they are religious are Reform and Renewal, those who geographic distribution would fit a survey like this. When the Orthodox rabbis preach on this survey this Shabbos, they will be cheering on liberal Jews.

I am in contact with Reform Jews committed to Jewish causes. They all consider themselves religious without any dietary law observance They have connections to Teaneck Orthodoxy through business or marriage.They once told me that in their community Teaneck is seen as “observant but not religious.” From their perspective, the observant Jews commit their heart, time, and soul to their secular lives. I assume that most of the Jews in the 50 states that they reached have similar perspectives about what it takes to be religious.

On the other hand and more germane to happiness, I have heard from local doctors that their haimish patients think that Teaneck is where the “doctors live and have happy lives.” I suppose the comfort level and the convenience looks mighty happy.

Any survey like this to be real needs to compare similar groups, if you can’t then you have not controlled the variables. At least once a year, you get these bogus studies by frum psychologists comparing Orthodoxy to the national average showing that Orthodoxy is amazing. You cannot compare someone in the top 6% to a national average. If you want to do a study it would have to compare like to like. You can compare upper middle class people in Franklin Lakes, or White Plains to people in Teaneck and ask about religiosity.
From the studies on wellness and happiness done by people that I know for degrees in psych on their patient pool, the results actually show those with a fearful or rigid Orthodoxy are less on a wellness scale. And that issues in family life and adjustment play a bigger role.

It is interesting to note that Jews can finally be happy. It was not long ago that if you asked a Jew if he was happy or doing well, it would go like this:
Jew #1 Are you doing well?
Jew #2 Oy, Could be better.

Jew #1 Are you happy?
Jew #2 Oy, I wouldn’t wish such happiness on my worst enemies.

But on the other hand, it is interesting to see Orthodox Jews think that wellness are Jewish values. They never were Jewish values. They are not the values of prior ages and are entirely of our zeitgeist. (Discussions of badhan’s at weddings, needing to overcome melancholia, and medieval discussions of eudemonia are not modern happiness).The happiness of wellbeing is not purim joy. The Vilna Gaon in cited in the Hemdat Genuzah as defining external pleasure (simhah) in contrast to internal pleasure (sasson). But I am not sure that even there it would be well-being as on a modern wellness survey. I am leaving Breslov out of the discussion because the real tormented master is far from mizvah gedolah lehiot be simchah. I am not sure that Breslov sinchah corresponds to wellness. Wellness and this form of happiness may be closer to a hokhmah, a worldly wisdom in Maimonides (III:52) and R. Israel Salanter. I still need to think about other potential sources.

Aish Hatorah is busy producing videos and articles on Judaism and happiness – in fifty years we will look upon this happiness and Judaism in the same way as we look at the 1950s “Democracy and Torah” “American Liberty and Torah” as a quaint product of its time. But that is Aish, what about all the rabbis who plan on mentioning it this Shabbos in shul? But since when is well-being a Jewish virtue? If there was a statistic that said religious Jews are the best boxers, Would it become a religious virtue? Is it a religious virtue to “Don’t worry be happy” Are those rabbis who are giving the sermon living a life of be happy?


Other versions of the video had copyrights and could not be embedded.

And for those a few years older. How many of these Orthodox rabbis would preach Happiness Runs as a philosophy of life?

7 responses to “Happiness, Misreads and Bad Statistics

  1. Now I understand why it is that it was the Prince of Denmark who famously declared: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, line 259). Could this be a statement of Positive Psychology on Happiness & WellBeing? Or a good Beshtian Devar Musar? Or a BUJU Purim Torah? Maybe Bretzlav Hasidism should be happiest – after all it is a great Mitzvah to be in continuous joy is an idea invented by R. Nahman? Alan, please keep us smiling with your observant comments on human nature…

  2. That line in Hamlet is actually from Epictetus, the Stoic. Like the late Roman Empire we live in an age that chooses between Epicurean pleasure and Stoic mental health.

  3. Funny. This weekend I’m thinking along the lines of contrasting that poll and the David Brooks excerpt (I still need to read the whole book) with some idea of korban-sacrifice.

  4. Did everyone fail statistics?

    Yes. In my experience, not only rabbis have difficulty with statistics, but economists, too (or at least the business types who specialize in economics for their MBA). Even people who took a stat course or two. Somehow, common sense is hard to come by, and once combined with math, it becomes a very rare commodity.

    But on the other hand, it is interesting to see Orthodox Jews think that wellness are Jewish values. … Aish Hatorah is busy producing videos and articles on Judaism and happiness – in fifty years we will look upon this happiness and Judaism in the same way as we look at the 1950s “Democracy and Torah” “American Liberty and Torah” as a quaint product of its time.

    Ah, but pray, tell, wouldn’t that jibe well with the call of one of my teachers, to develop, for the suburban Orthodox Jew, instead of the intellectually demanding, abstract, elitist Torah u’Madda, a more accessible, more relevant to them Torah u’Sports ve’Dougies? (hint to readers: I am referring to an article by our esteemed blog owner).

    Quaint products of the time are also important, not as new philosophical inroads, but on order to articulate Jewish wisdom in the language of contemporary speech. It’s not for everyone to be a contrarian counterculturalist.

    They once told me that in their community Teaneck is seen as “observant but not religious.”

    I think we should not discount the possibility that this says more about interdenominaional competition than about facts (though it may also be partially factual).

    • The idea that Jewish wisdom is somehow both transhistorical but able to be expressed in the idiom of every faddish stupidity is deeply confused.

      • I wouldn’t fault someone for adopting the language of his audience. You work with whatever tools are available. (But I will not be using this meme in any forthcoming sermon – not my thing).

      • And the notion that ideas stand apart from the language used is also deeply confused or hopelessly platonic.

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