Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'Profit vs Prophet' - Abigail Morris

A Jewish man was praying for a lottery win when he heard God say to him, "Can you meet me halfway and buy a lottery ticket."

Our topic tonight is about the business of well being and wealth. Research demonstrates that wealth does not make us happy. 58% of people in the relatively affluent UK define themselves as being happy compared to 86% in the relative poverty of the African continent. The UK has a mental health crisis with £6bn lost on stress in the workplace and mental health issues cause more deaths than cancer. 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem.

It seems that having less than a certain sum of money (in the UK, this amount seems to be around £20,000 per annum) tends to make people miserable but that earning above that level makes no difference to people's reported levels of well being. Interestingly, the poverty of others makes us unhappy. The spirit level of inequality affects you even if you are at the top.

Well being is, of course, hard to measure. Ed Diener studied the well being of nuns from their entry into the convent as novices and then throughout their lives. He found that attitudes made a significant difference to length of life, with those having a positive attitude living up to 15 years longer than those who did not. Our sense of well being ad our attitude to life seems to affect our health and longevity.

Martin Seligman, who studies postive psychology, suggests that we can shift towards improving our sense of well being; that there are practical steps we can take to do so. Based on such scientific evidence, the new economics foundation has created a set of five simple actions which can improve well-being in everyday life.

These have clear corrollaries to teaching within Judaism: Give (Tzedakah) - being a volunteer and giving to charity has consistently been shown to be hugely beneficial, both mentally and physically (peer to peer support has been noted as the biggest help to cancer suffers with the implication that giving gives you more); Connect (Kehilah) - people cope better if they are part of community networks and possess strong relationships with friends and family; Be Active (P’ilot v’kasher) - exercise is not just about physical health but mental wellbeing as well, while kosher practices are about an awareness that our bodies are changed by eating animals; Keep Learning (Torah) - learning new skills stimulates the mind and can have long term benefits in reducing your chances of developing dementia or alzheimers; and Take Notice (Tefilah) - reflecting on your surroundings and your feelings can help you to appreciate what matters to you most (something towards which Shabbat or Sabbath assists), while prayer can bring an awareness of daily miracles. Maimonides argues that bodily health and well being are both part of the path to God.

To these, and based again on the work of Martin Seligman, ResponseAbility add Gratitude (Berachot) as studies have shown that if people take time at the end of every day to reflect on things that have gone well there is a marked increase in well-being. Seligman suggests each day writing down three things for which you are grateful while Rabbi Meir urged an obligation to recite 100 blessings daily.

None of these steps towards well being are about making money. The scriptures say, "Choose life, that you should live." The Jewish toast is 'L’Chaim: To Life.'

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