In the 1970s there was a study that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know if having more money in your pocket made you happier. These types of surveys have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were surprisingly mixed.
On the one hand, the study found that you can track happiness to income. The more money you have the more things you can own and the happier you can become. Happiness means having a full belly and a full bank account.
On the other hand, when the data was looked at again a paradox emerged. While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did a sense of meaninglessness. These scientists found that having more stuff did not make you more happy. Every time you buy something new, you get excited but only for a little while. You remember when got that new purse or car? You remember how awesome it was to drive down the road or walk into work in a new outfit? What about the tenth time you drove the car? Or in my case when you spill your first cup of coffee on the sweater?
You can end up feeling that something that made you happy one day, leaves you feeling just normal or even empty the next. You have a need for the new. Freud called this being ‘driven by instinct,’ and that all of life is shaped through the craving for sex, food and power. When we live by instinct, we are excited by the pursuit but disappointed by the catch. As the rabbis teach, if it is gold you want, take it, but it comes at an eternal price.” (Exodus Rabba 52:3) We feel energy in the moment of winning, but bored in the very next. We fill up our bodies and our homes with things but our souls quickly feel empty.
The irony is that the more you own, the harsher this cycle becomes. The more intense experiences you crave, the more you need to feel alive. In the end of the day, instead of owning your things, your things own you. It is its own form of slavery. You can become fettered by your instincts. Chained to your desire to own, to expand and most of all the need to need.
In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we learn that the craving you feel, the despair that frightens you, the loneliness of being in the world, cannot be overcome by owning things. The Torah tells us that at the heart of universe, you own nothing – God is the owner. Every seventh year we must let the land lay fallow. We cannot farm it. Every fiftieth earth year, called the Jubilee, we must let go of what we own and proclaim a “Release throughout the land and for its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:10) Economically this means returning property, freeing indebted servants, and canceling debts.
Spiritually, the idea is more radical. At the heart of the Bible is a God who wants you to know that your sacred worth is more valuable than your net worth. A life that is full because you are already the invaluable person that you already are. What you actually crave is not a something, but a Someone. As it says in Psalms, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) The fullness of life is in the covenant with God. A relationship with the universe that releases you from judging your life in terms of your bank account.
You are not your job. You are not your wallet. You are not your GPA. You are not your Facebook or Instagram account.
You are living, breathing, dancing, striving creature made from the cosmos and filled with spirit. The fullness you long for is not found in things, but in the community and in the relationships that share life with you. When you release yourself from the endless cycle of instinct, you are free to the find meaning that throbs at the center of the universe. You are full. You are free. You are alive.