Kvetch Less, Thank More

Have you heard the story about the Jewish grandmothers sitting by the pool and complaining about various things. The first begins with a heartfelt “Gevalt.” Before she can explain, the lady next to her sighs, “Oy, tatenyu.” Then the woman to her left exclaims, “Oy vey.” and then the fourth woman cuts things short. “OK, ladies, enough about the children. Whose dealing?”

With all the other possible forms of amusement available in our blessed country, why is it that so many people today choose Kvetching as their preferred recreation.

Just in case you are unfamiliar with the term, let me define it. To Kevetch is to complain persistently and whiningly. In recent years Kvetching has actually become a field of academic study. Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin (Bo-din) College, wrote a book called “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching,” subtitled ‘a five step guide to creative complaining.’ The text includes chapters such as “Obstacles to Creative Kvetching,” “The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude,” and “Famous Creative and Non-creative Kvetchers.”

Undoubtedly we Americans enjoy kvetching, but research suggests it does not make us happier. A World Health Organization study conducted by the Harvard Medical School concluded that Americans have a higher percentage of depressed people than war-torn Lebanon, or job-starved Mexico. We even have a higher rate of depression than Nigeria, with its desperate poverty and violent tribal conflicts. How is this possible? When this study was reported in the Wall Street Journal the reporter suggested, “Maybe if your life is a struggle for clean water and adequate food, you don’t have time to indulge in being unhappy over luxuries.”

In truth, we Jews come by kvetching very legitimately. It is in our DNA. Think back to the stories in the Torah about our ancestors as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. It wasn’t gratitude for freedom, or daily sustanance, or protection from the desert sun that dominated their conversation. It was a long series of complaints. The one that always stands out in my mind is the yearning for the fish and cucumbers they had eaten when they were slaves in Egypt. Can you imagine? In the desert they wanted to have fish. That was a remarkable instance of world-class kvetching.

And we still do it today. We complain about our work, about our parents, about our children, about our neighbors. We even complain about ourselves, “Why didn’t I do such and such twenty years ago? My life would be so much better today if I had.”

Why do we spend so much time complaining? Our liturgy today tells us that we should be happy. Immediately after the blowing of the shofar we say, “Ashrei HaAm Yodea Truah” “Happy are those who know the sound of truah.” Happy, not kvetching.

So is happy really what we should be looking for? I am going to surprise you by saying, “Why not?”

You have probably heard rabbis talk about why we wish people a Shana Tova – a good year, rather than a Happy New Year. I have done it myself, but in truth, the difference is largely semantic. Why not have some happiness in your life? If you are like everyone else, you already have your share of troubles and tension, so I do wish you a happy new year. You deserve it.

I visit convalescent centers and I visit with people who are virtual prisoners in their homes. Neither are places you would expect to find happiness or satisfaction in life. And yet, you would be amazed by what I see. Meeting with many of those people gives my day a real boost. For example, there is the woman well into her nineties who loves to share the books she has finished reading. Or the woman who has passed her 100th birthday, has lost her vision, but still weaves products that go to support a charitable organization. There is a lady whose knees won’t carry her anymore but feels tremendous gratitude that otherwise her life is good. I love visiting the nonagenarian who just about jumps out of her wheelchair with joy just because I stopped by to say hello. In every case, the issue is perspective. Like the water-carrier I told you about Wednesday night, whether we kvetch or kvell largely depends on how we view things.

We have a wonderful group here at BSBI called “Knit and Kvetch.” Obviously, they chose that name for its humorous appeal. I can attest to the fact that they do more knitting than kvetching and as a result create a prodigious number of afgans, scarves and hats to help those in need.

Sometimes happiness has to do with the here and now, feeling good in the moment. And that is not so bad. A Happy Hour is the period of time a bar offers drinks at reduced prices. But what we really seek is something that lasts not just an hour, but a lot longer, and that is the satisfaction that comes from a life of meaning.

The superstar of adding meaning to life was Viktor Frankl, who died just six years ago. He was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna before the Second World War. In those dark days he was arrested and transported to a concentration camp with his wife and his parents. Three years later, when the camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished. But he managed to survive and shortly after the war, in 1946 he published his magnum opus, Man’s Search for Meaning. In that classic book Frankl explains that if one can live a life of meaning, he can endure almost anything. He writes, “a man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “Why” of his existence and he will be able to bear almost any “How”.”

If you go to the self-help section of any book store you will find a myriad of books on finding happiness. I did next best, I went to Amazon.com. In a search for books on finding happiness, I got 33,883 hits! Titles came up like Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Secrets of True Happiness, and The Happiness Hypothesis. There appeared to be no end to books about happiness. That vast market tells me there must be a lot of people desperate to find this elusive benefit in life.

A famous Chassidic maxim tells us, “It is a mitzvah to be joyful at all times.” “Mitzvah gedolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid.” This saying, particularly in the Hebrew, is very instructive because it combines the notion of happiness and longer term satisfaction. You may be familiar with the term Simcha. We often use it to refer to a particular event such as a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding. On the holidays we wish each other “Chag Sameach,” A holiday of simcha, of joy. But in that Chasidic adage the word ‘Simcha’ is followed by ‘Tamid,’ ‘always’, which changes it from ephemeral happiness – as in a ‘happy hour,’ to joy in life, a sense of satisfaction and pleasure that lasts much longer.

And where can we find that? The first word in that maxim gives us the answer: Mitzvah. Technically, and most correctly, a mitzvah is a commandment and can refer both to what we do with other people and how we serve God with rituals. But just for now I want to use the word Mitzvah in the colloquial sense; the way it is most often used in Yiddish: things we do to help others. And that really gives us the answer to how we can find meaning in life.

All the experts tell us that even if they don’t put it terms of doing a mitzvah. The best way to help yourself is to help others.

When you think of experts on happiness, the name Nicholas Kristoff likely will not be the first one to come mind. He spends much more time writing about starvation and disease in third world countries. But he wrote a fascinating column on basic human pleasures, which he listed as food, sex and giving. The three elements don’t seem to go together, but he reported that Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex. He quotes another expert as saying, “The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people.” And that is so obviously true. Think about conversations you have had with people who did hurricane relief in Haiti, or worked in Guatemala to rebuild houses. They loved it and got so much pleasure from their hard work and sacrifice.

A colleague of mine gave a beautiful Jewish definition of happiness. Rabbi Gerald Zelizer wrote, “Happiness has to do with concretely contributing to a more merciful and compassionate world….with giving rather than taking. It has to do with moving the locus of our concern away from kvetching about what comes in to ourselves and back to what come from ourselves to others.”

That is a key lesson in achieving happiness: strive to be a contributing human being. That effort will go far toward lessening your sense of dissatisfaction in life and the likelihood that you will kvetch about it.

We hear some negative things about college students today, but I recently read an article that provided a wonderful balance to that. The headline read, “Six-Figure Salary? They’d Rather Make a Difference.” The piece was about the organization called Venture for America, a non-profit that selects fellows to work in cities that aren’t the usual magnets for young college graduates. For example the young man who turned down a 6-figure job with an LA hedge fund and instead took a position with a venture capital firm in Detroit that would pay him $33,000 a year. He explained, “I wanted to be in a position where I could have a huge impact on the community.”

Making an impact on a depressed community is giving of yourself, and that can put you well on the road to meaning in your life.

I want to conclude by returning to the theme of finding happiness in unexpected places. This story takes place in a nursing home.

Two men, both seriously ill, occupied the same room. One man was permitted to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon and his bed was next to the room’s only window. The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back. Every day the men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, where they had been on vacation. And every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.

The man in the other bed began to live for those one hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside.
The man next to the window did a spectacular job of describing what he saw. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.
As the man by the window described all this in exquisite details, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine this picturesque scene.

One warm afternoon, the man by the window described a parade passing by.

Although the other man could not hear the band – he could see it in his mind ‘ s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it vividly.

Days and weeks passed.

One morning, the day nurse arrived only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window who had died peacefully in his sleep.

The roommate was devastated with grief, and asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.

Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the real world outside. He strained to slowly turn to look out the window besides the bed.
It faced a nondescript brick wall.

The man turned to the nurse in total confusion. “Your roommate was blind,” she told him. “His pleasure in life seems to have been giving you the view.”

An ancient Hebrew source tells us, “Shared grief is half the sorrow.” I am not sure about that. What is certainly true is that when happiness is shared, the joy is doubled.
May the new year 5774 be one of happiness, joy and meaning for you and all your loved ones.

Shana tova u’m’usheret.