propos of the reference in last week’s column to what the sociologist Hartmut Rosa termed the drive to “realize as many options as possible from the infinite palette of possibilities that life presents to us,” I came across a study on happiness that says it ain’t quite so. Or, at least, whether or not it’s so has much to do with one’s age.

And that, in turn, led me to a new way of looking at the first things we say as we take our siddurim in hand each morning.

In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers at Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania explored this question:

What types of experiences should we pursue to extract the greatest enjoyment from life: the extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that we might tell others about and commemorate in photographs on our… walls, or the simple, ordinary experiences that make up the fabric of our daily lives?

They asked hundreds of participants aged 18 to 79 to rate the extent to which both extraordinary moments in their lives and ordinary ones contributed to their happiness. What they found was that extraordinary moments — those that “are rare and fall outside daily routines” — always contributed strongly to happiness, whatever the person’s age. But older people felt that ordinary moments contributed to their happiness much more than younger people did.

One of the reasons, the study’s authors found, is that

ordinary moments that make up everyday life tend to be overlooked when the future seems boundless; however, these ordinary experiences increasingly contribute to happiness as people come to realize their days are numbered.

Not only do these ordinary happiness-producing events vastly outnumber the more unusual ones, but as we advance in years, we recognize evermore that chasing extraordinary experiences to check off on the so-called “bucket list” is largely an exercise in frustration. As Rosa expressed it, “No matter how fast we become, the proportion of the experiences we have will continuously shrink in the face of those we missed.”

There’s something different about the happiness potential inherent in ordinary life experiences: They tend to be more internally experienced and less reliant on factors outside the individual experiencing them. The extraordinary experiences that live on in people’s memories are often dependent on some other person, place, or event, because they consist of having visited a certain place or having met or witnessed someone or something special.

Contrast that with the everyday occurrences that brighten our lives, whose focal point tends to be within us, either the things we actively do or simply who we are. As Viktor Frankl, founder of the psychological approach known as logotherapy, once observed: “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

Indeed, following this line of thinking leads to the conclusion that the more ordinary the experience — that is, the more basic to our functioning it is and the more its locus is within us, as an identity or ability we possess rather than an act we do — the more joy-inducing it will be.

And now we’re ready to open our siddurim for our morning meditations.

We begin with Modeh Ani, the wording of which seems to indicate that it’s not simply an expression of thanks to Hashem for returning one’s soul each morning (although it’s sometimes translated as such in siddurim). I previously cited Rav Yitzchok Hutner’s observation that the word hoda’ah encompasses two different but related meanings: thanks and concession — because at the deep root of every thanksgiving is an admission of one’s dependence on another for whatever kindness it was that prompted the thanks, a dependence that is at odds with the natural human impulse toward self-sufficiency.

When conveying an acknowledgment or admission, it will be phrased along the lines of “modim… sheh” (“we acknowledge that…”) — as in Shemoneh Esreh, where we say, “Modim anachnu Lach she’Atah Hu Hashem…” But where the meaning is that of thanksgiving, the phrase will be “modim… al” (we thank you for…) — as in the very next phrase in that brachah of Modim, where we continue with “Nodeh Lecha u’nesaper tehilasecha al chayeinu…”

The phrasing of our first morning prayer, “Modeh ani… she’hechezarta bi nishmasi” (rather than “Modeh ani… al she’hechezarta”), indicates that its meaning is “I acknowledge before You, O living and eternal King, that You have returned my soul to me…” Question, though: Were this an expression of thanks for our very existence (“Thank You, Hashem, for returning my soul to me”), it would be clear why it’s the first thing we utter. But if, indeed, it is an acknowledgment, what is it doing here, on the siddur’s opening page?

But with the help of our academic friends from Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania (or perhaps with just some common sense), we begin to understand. The day-commencing words of Modeh Ani (our commencement address?) declare that whatever our age or stage, even if “the future seems boundless,” it isn’t. Our days are indeed numbered. After all, only a few short hours from now we’ll once again return our souls to our Maker for what will hopefully be only a temporary overnight deposit.

And that, per the above-referenced study findings, is the ideal preface to the morning blessings (which were originally said upon rising, as a Jew performed each of the functions for which those brachos give thanks). Squarely acknowledging the contingent uncertainty and brevity of life turns every Jew, no matter how young, into the older, wiser person, who, according to the study, understands that chasing all manner of exotic experiences is futile and that it’s in life’s simple pleasures that happiness inheres.

Modeh Ani sharpens like nothing else our appreciation for the abundant “ordinary” kindnesses with which Hashem fills our lives, for which we now proceed to thank Him, with the stage set to recite a battery of brachos focusing on the most ordinary of ordinary things — extra ordinary, one might say. Most of these aren’t even particular things we do at a specific moment, but simply who we are and what capabilities we have: That I’m a Jewish man or woman, a functioning one who can see and sit up and move.

Of such basic, inherent gifts is happiness made.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 718. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com