April 20, 2024
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First Responder: Restoring a Lost Art

Studies on mental hygiene, a term which I reintroduced during the covid years in describing proactive steps which insulate us from many mental health concerns, show that expression of gratitude to others promotes positive feelings in ourselves. Routinely, I recommend that those facing stress practice daily expression of gratitude, verbalizing appreciation, displaying kindness, looking out for the welfare of others, and giving thanks to those who inspire us, who impress us favorably, who set encouraging examples for us, and who say and do nice things. “Thank you” goes a long way for the recipient of your gratitude as well as for your own mood and outlook.

Jewish people have a long tradition of giving thanks. If we look at many of our daily prayers and at our Psalms, we see the theme of thanks-giving. If we look at our sifrei mussar, the classic works on interpersonal and spiritual values, we read about “hakaras hatov,” which means acknowledging the goodness which comes our way. Saying thanks, and giving recognition to goodness, are behaviors. Integrating an attitude of gratitude requires additional internal psychological work. Let’s differentiate between a behavior and an attitude. As a behavior, verbalizing appreciation can be a challenge when we are not accustomed to sharing our internal feelings. It is even more difficult when we fail to have such feelings: when we take things for granted and when we lack empathy, the positive and considerate gestures of other people go unnoticed. If a person is going to develop internal appreciation and feel that hakaras hatov, the first step might be to engage behaviorally in communicating gratitude whether or not you are feeling grateful. An illustration of this is the halacha of being charitable. Let’s say you have $100 set aside for charity. Do you give out a $100 bill or do you disperse 100 single dollar bills? The accepted standard is to give 100 single dollar bills, for that represents 100 behaviors which will, ideally, implant an enduring internal sense of being charitable. That is the goal: to internalize an attitude of charitableness. Giving one big bill, as magnanimous as that might be, is a single behavior. It may not inculcate within you an embedded value about remaining charitable. So, for many people, developing a positive attitude and outlook begins with behavioral trials which, with repetition, will lead to a more giving attitude.

This applies to thanks, giving as well as giving money. Training yourself to say “thank you” is a behavioral beginning. Training yourself to say, “I am grateful to you” or “I really appreciate your helpfulness” shifts our own internal process. We become more perceptive of the goodness in others, and we learn to value and practice goodness with others. I was brought up to say “good morning” or afternoon or evening to people, even strangers. I have visited countries where most people do this routinely. I have always wished my coreligionists “good Shabbos” as well. Yet I have noticed that many of us have fallen out of practice. We may not be teaching our young ones either about greeting, responding to greetings or about expressing thanks. The more insular and reticent we are, the less we notice others. The less we interact, the less empathic and caring we become. Our Sages extoll those who are the first to greet others, and our Sages compare the giving of thanks to giving a gift.

In my clinical consultations, I recommend that people set aside time at the end of each day to reflect on and then keep a record of things for which they feel grateful that day, whether gratitude to Hashem or appreciation of people. In general, I recommend that we also train ourselves to acknowledge that gratitude by expressing it directly to those who mean well, who do well and whose actions make a positive difference.


Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS.

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