The following is the introduction to the unit on the value of Gratitude.
Jewish wisdom rigorously builds gratitude into our daily lives. It offers an array of rituals, blessings, and teachings to guide us towards an all-pervasive attitude of gratitude.
In fact, when we look at current science, we see just how wise Jewish wisdom is in its insistence on fostering a sense of thanks. Take the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. In it, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson explains that we are hard-wired to remember negative experiences better than positive ones. This is because, as a species, our survival has depended on remembering where danger might lurk. Our biology does this to protect us of course, but ironically it actually causes us unnecessary and damaging anxiety and negativity.
Dr. Hanson advises that, luckily, we can change our bodies’ hardwired tendency to focus on the bad by deliberately focusing on and savoring life’s good experiences. That simple shift in attitude can profoundly rectify our hardwiring.
Ample research has demonstrated the overwhelming benefits of gratitude. In one striking study1, researchers analyzed the medical records of American nuns. Sixty years earlier, as part of the process for entering the convent, each of them had written an autobiographical letter about her life and why she wanted to become a nun. Almost 700 nuns gave permission to have their records and letters scrutinized. The letters were coded, among other things, for gratitude and other positive emotions. Researchers contrasted the medical records of the elderly nuns, who had lived a stable and relatively similar lifestyle to one another, with how positively they described their lives in their twenties. The results were striking: nuns who expressed more positive emotions in their early autobiographies lived significantly longer – an average of 7 years longer – than those expressing fewer positive emotions.
Apparently, we can be grateful that Jewish life guides us to fill our days with gratitude. From the moment we open our eyes, we are invited to start the day with the words “Thankful am I” – “Modeh Ani” – as the first utterance to grace our lips. In this section, we’ll explore the centrality of the Hebrew notion of ‘hakarat hatov‘ – recognizing the good. We will see how our tradition directs us to build habits of focusing on the good in our lives. Moreover, we will see how being in that place of hakarat hatov helps us to better recognize those around us who are in need. We will explore how we can work to ensure that they, too, receive the blessings that we so enjoy.
(1)Danner, Deborah D., David A. Snowdon, and Wallace V. Friesen. “Positive Emotions in Early Life and Longevity: Findings from the Nun Study.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80.5 (2001): 804-13. Quoted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a fabulous article: The Power of Gratitude (Ekev 5775).
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