Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Power of Gratitude


In the early 1990s one of the great medical research exercises of modern times took place. It became known as the Nun Study. Some 700 American nuns, all members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States, agreed to allow their records to be accessed by a research team investigating the process of aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. At the start of the study the participants were aged between 75 and 102.

What gave this study its unusual scope is that in 1930 the nuns, then in their twenties, had been asked by the Mother Superior to write a brief autobiographical account of their life and their reasons for entering the convent. These documents were now analyzed by the researchers using a specially devised coding system to register, among other things, positive and negative emotions.

By annually assessing the nuns’ current state of health, the researchers were able to test whether their emotional state in 1930 had an effect on their health some sixty years later. Because they had all lived a very similar lifestyle during these six decades, they formed an ideal group for testing hypotheses about the relationship between emotional attitudes and health.

The results, published in 2001, were amazing. The more positive emotions – contentment, gratitude, happiness, love, and hope – the nuns expressed in their autobiographical notes, the more likely they were to be alive and well sixty years later. The difference was as much as seven years in life expectancy. So remarkable was this finding that it has led, since then, to a new field of gratitude research, as well as a deepening understanding of the impact of emotions on physical health.

What this research revealed about individuals, Moses knew about nations. Gratitude – hakaras ha-tov (literally, 'recognizing the good') – is at the heart of what he has to say about the Israelites and their future in eretz Israel. Gratitude had not been our strong point in the desert. We complained about lack of food and water, about the manna and the lack of meat and vegetables, about the dangers we faced from the Egyptians as we were leaving, and about the inhabitants of the land we were about to enter. We lacked gratitude during the difficult times. A greater danger still, said Moses, would be a lack of gratitude during the good times. This is what he warned:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, do not exalt yourself, forgetting the L-rd your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ (Deut. 8:11-17)

The worst thing that could happen to us, warned Moses, would be that we would forget how we came to the land, how G-d had promised it to our ancestors, and had taken us from slavery to freedom, sustaining us during the forty years in the wilderness. This was a revolutionary idea: that the nation’s history be engraved on people’s souls, that it was to be re-enacted in the annual cycle of festivals, and that the nation, as a nation, should never attribute its achievements to itself – “my power and the might of my own hand” – but should always ascribe its victories, indeed its very existence, to something higher than itself: to G-d. This is a dominant theme of Deuteronomy, and it echoes throughout the book time and again.

Since the publication of the Nun Study and the flurry of further research it inspired, we now know of the multiple effects of developing an attitude of gratitude. It improves physical health and immunity against disease. Grateful people are more likely to take regular exercise and go for regular medical check-ups. Gratitude reduces toxic emotions such as resentment, frustration and regret, and makes depression less likely. Gratitude helps people avoid over-reacting to negative experiences by seeking revenge. Gratitude even tends to make people sleep better.

Gratitude enhances self-respect, making it less likely that we will envy others for their achievements or success. Grateful people tend to have better relationships. Saying “thank you” enhances friendships and elicits better performance from employees. Gratitude is also a major factor in strengthening resilience. One study of Vietnam War Veterans found that those with higher levels of gratitude suffered lower incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Remembering the many things we have to be thankful for helps us survive painful experiences, from losing a job to bereavement.

Jewish prayer is an ongoing seminar in gratitude. Birkat ha-Shachar, ‘the Morning Blessings’ said at the start of morning prayers each day, form a litany of thanksgiving for life itself: for the human body, the physical world, land to stand on, and eyes to see with. The first words we say each morning – Modeh/Modah ani, “I thank you” – mean that we begin each day by giving thanks.

Part of the essence of gratitude is that it recognizes that we are not the sole authors of what is good in our lives. The egoist, says Andre Comte-Sponville, “is ungrateful because he doesn’t like to acknowledge his debt to others and gratitude is this acknowledgement.” La Rochefoucald put it more bluntly: “Pride refuses to owe, self-love to pay.”

Gratitude has an inner connection with humility. It recognizes that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all to G-d. Comte-Sponville adds: “Those who are incapable of gratitude live in vain; they can never be satisfied, fulfilled or happy: they do not live, they get ready to live, as Seneca puts it.”

Though you don’t have to be religious to be grateful, there is something about belief in G-d as Creator of the universe, the shaper of history, and author of the laws of life that directs and facilitates our gratitude. It is hard to feel grateful to a universe that came into existence for no reason and is blind to us and our fate. It is precisely our faith in a personal G-d that gives force and focus to our gratitude.

It is no coincidence that the United States, founded by Puritans – Calvinists steeped in the Hebrew Bible – should have a day known as Thanksgiving, recognizing the presence of G-d in American history. On 3 October 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, thanking G-d that though the nation was at war with itself, there were still blessings for which both sides could express gratitude.

Thanksgiving is as important to societies as it is to individuals. It protects us from resentments and the arrogance of power. It reminds us of how dependent we are on others and on a Force greater than ourselves.

(Adapted from "Covenant and Conversation" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

2 comments:

  1. Interesting study. Incidentally in my own prayer life I've noticed that less asking for stuff and more thanking for what I have is resulting in a more enjoyable time spent in prayer.

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  2. The older I get, the more convinced I become that gratitude transforms everything. Nothing ruins a life faster than bitterness. Gratitude is the antidote to bitterness and pride. To be quite frank, the most difficult person to tolerate is an ingrate.

    And there is a big difference between being thankful in spite of the circumstances versus being thankful for the circumstances. That is why I like the definition of hakaras hatov, recognizing the good. That is exactly what gratitude is. Learning to recognize the good, no matter the circumstances.

    When I think of gratitude I often remember the story of Darlene Rose who was interned in a Japanese prison camp for several years. She and her husband had been serving as missionaries in Papua New Guineas when they were captured by the Japanese and treated as spies.

    Her husband was killed within a short time and she spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Part of her daily routine was "interrogations" which inevitably involved a severe beating. She later recounted how she got to a point when she heard the guards footsteps in the hall coming to get her for her "interrogation" she would quickly get down on her knees beside her bed and give thanks to G-d for the beating she was about to receive, much like you and I would give thanks for the meal we were about to receive. Not in spite of the beating, but for the the beating.

    When asked many years later if she wished she could erase those years from her past, she replied that they were the sweetest and most precious years and that she would not trade them for all the world.

    It is a story I share often with my family, especially when we find ourselves acting ungratefully. Most believers today are under the impression that we will never be asked to suffer, and that when we are asked to suffer we are expected to suffer well. We were promised trouble in this world, but we were also encouraged to take heart because He overcame the world.

    My greatest fear is becoming an ingrate. I pray for an attitude of gratitude daily.

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