The “Have One, Want Two” Syndrome

We don’t seek or need social scholarship to support anything Chazal teach us. But it’s always interesting to see how contemporary studies, through analyses of evidence, can reach conclusions that dovetail with the Torah Sheb’al Peh wisdom of the ages.

The Midrash in Koheles Rabbah informs us that it is human nature to want more than one has: “He who has one hundred wants two hundred.” That the human desire for wealth, in other words, unchecked by the realization that true wealth is being “happy with one’s lot” (Avos, 4:1), will always remain unsated.

Enter Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, who published a paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin based on a survey of more than 2000 millionaires. The wealthy subjects were asked about how happy they were on a scale of 1-10, and how much more wealth they envision would take them to 10.

“All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” Professor Norton told a reporter, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy.

Yesh lo million, rotzeh millionayim, so to speak. And the study subjects included many people who were millionaires many times over.

Echoing Chazal not only in that but in Rabi Elazar Hakapar’s teaching that jealousy is something that “takes a person out of the world” (Avos 4:21), Professor Norton says that research points to two central questions that people ask themselves when determining whether they’re satisfied with something in their life: “Am I doing better than I was before?” And “Am I doing better than other people?”

While those questions apply to all aspects of life, money is the easiest, he says, to quantify. It is easy, he says, to ask “Am I making more money?” or “Does my house have more square feet?” or “Do I have more houses than I used to?”

Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, notes further how becoming more wealthy can even lead to, so to speak, diminishing returns.

“Say you wanted to have a mega-yacht plus six mansions in six different locations around the world,” he posits. “You could probably do all of that fairly comfortably with a few hundred million dollars.” But “there’s no number at which you have enough,” he says, adding that “Every billionaire I’ve spoken to, and I’ve spoken to quite a number of them, is extremely excited by each additional increment of money they make.” Meaning that, although they have more than any person could possibly use or enjoy, they remain unsatisfied.

Those of us in somewhat lower tax brackets might smile at such smallness of mind, but the essential silliness of always wanting more than one has is something to which few of us are immune. If we examine our financial goals, many of us might come to realize that, albeit on a smaller scale, we too aspire to what we don’t really need.

There is true need around us, of course — people who simply don’t have enough to pay for their housing, food and other essential needs. In New York City, which has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, the Jewish poor also include not only many of our frum neighbors but other fellow Yidden, including elderly Holocaust survivors who lost their relatives and Soviet Jews who emigrated to the U.S. after the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as families who, like many other Americans, lost savings in the financial crisis ten years ago.

Our community is astoundingly generous. Whether it be the man in shul collecting funds so that he can make a chasunah, the almanah sitting outside a store, the neighbor in need of a loan, or any of the myriad tzedakah organizations that reach out to us on an almost daily basis, we do our best to respond to those in need.

It is sometimes hard, though, for us to uphold the impressive level of generosity for which our tzibbur is renowned. Helpful in maintaining it is focusing on the fact that, whatever we may momentarily think we ourselves “need,” it is sometimes the “having one, wanting two” mental impairment at work. By aiming at achieving a state of being “same’ach b’chelkeinu” — “happy with our lots,” we empower ourselves to recognize the true need of others.

Today is “Zos Chanukah,” the eighth day and culmination of our celebration. The sefarim tell us that the day represents the final echo of the Yemei Hadin that began on Rosh Hashanah. And so it is a day mesugal for teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah. That latter zechus can be greatly enhanced, and should be, by our rejection of the “have one, want two” syndrome.