by Arnold Zar-Kessler, Head of School
Our Institutional Advancement Office recently ran a wonderful event, Erev Nedevim, graciously hosted by Schechter parents Andy and Rabbi Suzanne Offit. As I stepped away to prepare some remarks, I noticed an interesting book on a table in their library, The Psychology of Gratitude. Leafing through it a bit, my interest was piqued enough to follow-up, and – as you might have guessed – there is, indeed, a growing field of study on the psychology of gratitude, and heretofore left to theologians and moral philosophers.
In the preface to the book, Robert Solomon claims that “psychologists are relative latecomers to study of gratitude…Unlike anger, fear and disgust, gratitude does not seem to qualify as a basic emotion.” Psychologists explain that feelings of gratitude are elicited when one is willing to recognize that they have “been the beneficiary of someone’s kindness.” The cornerstone of gratitude, however, is “undeserved merit,” recognizing that that we did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed. This core feature is reflected in one definition of gratitude as “the willingness to recognize the unearned increments of value in one’s experience.” (Bertocci and Millard, 1963).
The increased attention to gratitude is one of the outcomes of the Positive Psychology movement, to which I’ve referred previously. Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. In this light, gratitude is both a positive emotion and individual trait that enables communities and individuals to thrive.
Many of the contributors to The Psychology of Gratitude argue that being capable of expressing gratitude is not only a virtue, but part and parcel of the good life. It is not just an acknowledgement of debt and expression of humility, but it is also a way to improve one’s life.
I concur with many of the contributors to the book (Hebrew College professor Sol Shimmel amongst them), that a structure that cultivates gratitude helps shape a propensity towards recognizing one’s “undeserved merit,” and expressing it as well. At its core, that is a key goal of religious education.
As it turns out, it seems that the rest of the world is catching up to the transformative power of being thankful. Witness the entries on the newest shelf of the self-help section of your local bookstore, Thanks!, How the New Science of Gratitude can Make You Happier (Emmons, 2007); Gratitude Power for Runners and Walkers (Mahoney, 2011); Even Happier, a Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (Ben Shahar, 2009); Living in Gratitude, A Journey that Will Change Your Life (Arrien, 2011); and the list continues.
I write that they are “catching up” because there is a book we use here at Schechter that leads us through daily journeys of gratitude. In the preliminary prayers for the morning service, we note the challenge of just being a mortal being:
“What is our life? What is our strength? What is our goodness? Even the deeds of great people are like nothing.”
“But we are blessed to have tradition, to be part of a people with a covenant.”
“Therefore, we are obliged to thank you, God; how fortunate are we to be able to recite twice daily the Sh’ma.”
It is this construct that our tradition provides, as well as its logical extensions: to recite a hundred blessings a day, to recite blessings when we eat, when we smell different fragrances, when we see a rainbow, or lightening, the ocean, a scholar, or a friend who has recovered from a serious illness – all of these are acts of cultivation of a sense of appreciation. A school that gives children gifts that will last them a lifetime effectively cultivates a deep sense of gratitude, as well.
Another book recommendation for this season is Enjoy Every Sandwich, Living Each Day as if it were Your Last by Lee Lipsenthal. In his introduction to the book, Dr. Dean Ornish writes, “Making every act sacred is what helps us more fully enjoy life… When I was a teenager, I thought ’sacred’ meant ‘boring’… Now I understand sacred is just another way of describing that which is most special.”
Perhaps this week, when you’re sitting around the table with your children, you’ll open up a conversation about what is special in everyone’s life, what constitutes an “undeserved merit” in their lives, and how we express gratitude for the gifts bestowed upon us. The school and parents partner when parents, for example, make sure that their children complete their written homework. That comes with the tuition of any good independent school. But hearing your children share their own understanding of what they are thankful for? Priceless.