Fighting Affluenza With a Torah Lifestyle

Can More Be Less?

Chazal say, “Yeish lo manah rotzeh masayim—If one has 100 he desires 200.” Without breaking the cycle, material desires keep growing; if you get the 200, you will want 400, and if you get your hands on the 400, you will want 800. So, unless he conquers his desire, the rich man is indeed needier, missing the 400 he wished for versus the poor man who lacks just 100. Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal found that when asked what level of wealth they defined as rich, people indeed tended to choose a number equivalent to double their current assets—in keeping with Chazal’s dictum of “Yeish lo manah rotzeh masayim.” Instead of happiness, mindlessly amassing and spending wealth can have negative emotional effects, setting off a cycle of unfulfilled desire and disappointment.

How can one jump off this treadmill and enjoy what he has rather than continually chasing the next step?

The Unusual vs the Common

Human nature is to take pleasure from the rare opportunity and ignore the constant, even if the familiar pleasures are significant. However, with a bit of focus, it’s easy to raise the amount of enjoyment we get from simple things. In All for the Boss, Ruchama Shain z”l relates how in Mir, Poland, her husband took ill and she splurged on an orange for him. While we mindlessly gulp through a fruit, she was so careful to squeeze every precious drop of the rare delicacy out for the patient.

Once, as we were sharing some oranges, I mentioned to my young kids how lucky we are to have an abundance of fresh fruit. I encouraged them to imagine they were eating their first and last orange ever in prewar Poland. When they took the time to savor the smell, taste, and texture, they agreed it was by far their best-tasting fruit ever. With similar mindfulness, one can appreciate and get more pleasure from what he has instead of constantly chasing new levels of excitement.

Having Everything but Enjoying Nothing

Ironically, in the days when most people struggled to feed their families, it was quite easy to feel great satisfaction in a day’s work—it was the difference between starvation and survival. But today, without a conscious effort to appreciate what we have, an abundance of wealth may become monotonous and boring. A relative of mine tutored a bachur from a very wealthy family who’d lost his drive for life. Because he had access to everything, he wasn’t interested in anything! Having wealth is a bracha, but only when properly utilized.

Mindfulness Made Easy

Just as Chazal have diagnosed this problem, the Torah provides guidance and a framework for channeling wealth properly.

For example, you can use the many brachos you say daily as a reminder to slow down and appreciate the many enjoyable things you are blessed with. Mindfulness is a hot concept with mental health professionals today, who encourage people to slow down in their hectic lives and take in the world around them. Predating them by thousands of years, l’havdil, is the concept of saying me’ah brachos b’chol yom—100 opportunities to take a moment to be thankful for what we have. Concentrating on these brachos, which you are saying anyway, is one way you can train yourself to enjoy more quality over quantity.

Built Into the Calendar

The Kuzari states that the Torah lifestyle is designed to perfection, and is in tune with our need to achieve long-term happiness. As part of this, the calendar has an intentional rhythm and cycle of all the necessary human emotions, including weekly highs on Shabbos, occasional periods of extreme happiness on Yom Tov, and the rare sadness on ta’aneisim. Certain delicacies were always reserved for oneg Shabbos and others for Yom Tov; in fact, in his days, the Chafetz Chaim considered eating the kugel faren Shabbos an obvious case of missing the boat.

Today we are surrounded 24/7 by expensive meats and treats, forget about kugel, cholent, and kishke, which are mainstays of every humble parlor meeting. In clothes as well, people who can afford it have wardrobes of the finest custom suits and shirts and may wear them always. Besides lowering the kavod of Shabbos and Yom Tov, the constant availability of delicacies and luxury dulls our enjoyment of them (“Ta’anug temidi eino taanug—A constant pleasure is not a pleasure”). By reserving certain foods and clothes for Shabbos and Yom Tov, you will be enhancing both their honor and your overall enjoyment in life.

Affluenza: An All-American Sickness

America’s constitution guarantees the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” but despite its freedom and economic dynamism, many never actually catch it. On the contrary, a teen from Texas used his family’s wealth as an excuse for a terrible crime, killing four people in 2014 while driving drunk and drugged. His lawyers argued that their client suffered from “affluenza” (combining the words “affluence” and “influenza”), a socially transmitted condition of overload, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more. Supposedly, this afflicted teen was “unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of financial privilege.” Perhaps the greatest sign that this disease is real in this country is that a judge went for it and this “afflicted” murderer avoided jail time! At least they should have sentenced him to lifelong poverty, thereby curing him of his “disease.”

The Real Solution

Happiness and wealth don’t go hand in hand; many poor people are happy, and plenty of the rich are depressed. By following the teachings of Chazal and with a bit of effort, you can enjoy your olam hazeh a lot more and become genuinely wealthy, as in “Eizehu ashir hasame’ach b’chelko—Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

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