Unorthodox Findings: Happy Days Are Here … Forever?


Who knew?! Orthodox Jews rank highest in happiness among the religious while liberal Jews score well among their counterparts in a recent survey focused on contentment.

The Gallup Poll reports that religious Jews score the highest on emotional and physical health well-being indexes applied by researchers Frank Newport, Dan Witters and Sangeeta Agrawal.

While people within more liberal branches of the Jewish faith scored lower than the Orthodox, they rank higher when compared to their counterparts from other faiths (including Catholics and Muslims).

According to CNN, which first reported on the survey, the sense of security experienced by Orthodox Jews and other groups is defined by "findings that confirm the strong positive relationship between religiosity and well-being" that hold true regardless of faith.

However, they also note that these recent findings appear to be more closely aligned with the faith itself, and largely independent of the proportions of very religious, moderately religious and nonreligious in each religious group profiled.

One way to explain the phenomenon with the Jewish community is to look within the intricacies of Jewish culture itself, according to Dr. Bernard Luskin, CEO and senior provost of Touro University Worldwide and a professor of marriage and family therapy; and anthropologist/professor Tamar El Or of Hebrew University in Jeru­salem.

They both observe that the organization and tight structure of Jewish communities in major cities like Philadelphia create a social climate where many Jewish people feel an added sense of security, even with many of the uncertainties and collective attacks still impacting Jews around the world.

Luskin notes that even before this recent Gallup survey, he had followed research and studies over the years that validate the conclusion that people grounded in their religion, no matter what the faith, tend to be happier. He also adds there is a positive factor attributed to a lot of Jewish households.

Among the Jewish community, "there is a dedication to religion but not to proselytizing, which could increase stress levels," he says. Judaism's values "are focused on self-actualization and focused on perpetuating belief about the existence of a truly cohesive community.

"I believe the reasons why Jewish people collectively weathered the Holocaust, pogroms and other bad situations in history is that the communities were close knit, family life was important and there was a high regard for the faith's values and teaching.

"Regardless of whether or not people are Orthodox or Reform, being observant for many Jews represents contentment because they have more solid structure to their lives."

El Or notes that within a large society like the United States, individuals always face a risk of becoming alienated or isolated, given the country's size and diversity. Countering this, Orthodox communities in larger cities like Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles have provided a social structure that at once allows its members to be involved with the outside world but feel safe within its boundaries.

"Orthodox Jewish communities in major cities are well-organized, allowing the members to practice and follow their values but also co-exist with modernism," she explains.

"Because these communities are not remote or isolated, they can totally be part of this world and yet at the same time have a parallel social system to the state, city and community that enhances their commitment to each other. Their organization requires its members to take on the responsibility to encourage both the well-being of the individuals and the good of the larger community."

Luskin concurs with this and other studies that show religious traditions involve guidelines and patterns that reinforce community ties, charity and other forms of positive behavior. He also notes that as Orthodox Jewry places high value on marriage, the community is full of married people who statistically live longer than single people, regardless of what's going on in the rest of society.

"I do think that the more observant people are, the more they tend to be in tune with themselves and more outwardly driven," says Luskin. "Being around people where the morale is good leads to more interdependence and trust, and it extends across all cultures where larger families are bound together."

El Or, however, offers a very important caveat: Because members of more religiously bound communities are educated and socialized to think a certain way, their perceptions about their actual feelings and their willingness to talk about how they feel may be self-restricting.

In the case of Orthodox Jews, she adds, they tend to see their way of life as the only true way of life. As this "true way" pro­mises to offer the best of everything if the guidelines are followed, a member of this community would be more likely to believe that everything was OK, and with God's help, everything would continue to be OK.

However, she adds, members of other Jewish denominations may have a different understanding about what happiness means to them and how they express it: "More religious Jews participating in these kinds of self-reporting surveys may be less inclined to admit they are unhappy, and if they are less inclined to express that within their community, they would not be likely to report it to anybody on the outside of the community."

The professor adds that "it makes no sense tell people you are unhappy if you believe that through your faith you are marching on a track which you believe will lead you to ongoing happiness."

On the other hand, "all Jews and people in general can learn from the Orthodox community's sense of responsibility towards others and a mind-set focused on how one can contribute to his or her community."


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