Being Grateful Isn’t Just for Deadheads
How to bring happiness into your life.
My new patient was a very lucky man. He didn’t have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or any other serious mental illness. He wasn’t addicted to drugs or alcohol, he wasn’t dying of cancer, and he wasn’t facing 20 years in a Federal Prison for white-collar crime. My patient was happily married, had a few kids enrolled at the local prep school, and was a successful urologist at a prestigious hospital.
Why was this fellow coming to a psychiatrist? As he listed his credentials, his loving relationships, and assets – a brand-new sports car, a country club membership, and a vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard – everything should have added up to a happy life for this nice Irish-American gentleman sitting in front of me. Rather than beat around the bush, I asked him outright, “What were you hoping to accomplish by coming in for a psychiatric evaluation?”
He answered immediately. He’d been passed up for the coveted promotion to Department Chair and wanted to talk about it. And while this healthy, wealthy, brilliant, and beloved man had just about everything most anyone could want, he was lacking the only thing that he himself craved and everything else was suddenly shockingly unfulfilling. “My colleagues know I deserved it and my wife doesn’t know why I care so much but all I can think of is how disgraced I feel.”
This man’s successful career and a healthy personal life had been overrun by a poisonous jealousy that made it impossible to focus on the big picture. Things had to be fixed quickly but my new patient didn’t need medications, a place to talk about his mother (she was doing well and they had a solid relationship), or someone to interpret his dreams. So without need of these staples from any psychiatry practice, we embarked together on Gratefulness Training.
The first step was to think about things objectively and to consider how wonderful life truly was for my patient. I gave him a tiny notebook with the instructions to keep it with him at all times. On one side we taped a photo of his family and turned the page to start a general list of things to be grateful for including family, health, and a meaningful profession. On the other side of the notebook my patient began his Gratefulness Diary and took a few moments each day to write down things that made him happy, things that he was proud of, and things that made him smile.
He began to live with the awareness that the key to happiness is realizing how much each of us has to be grateful for. While not everyone will have the prestige of being a Department Chair, wealth is truly a subjective term as our Sages teach, “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion,” (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1).
As you’re reading this article, take a moment to consider the following things you most likely have to be grateful for:
Your Health – You tapped your fingers to manipulate the electronic device you’re using to access this webpage and now your eyes are reading the words that your brain is processing. This means that you must be 99% neurologically intact with pretty good cognitive functioning, something which is arguably the greatest gift given to humankind.
Your Freedom – If you were reading this article 25 years ago in Russia you might have been sent to the Gulags or Siberia with a sentence of forced labor. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion still aren’t guaranteed to many citizens of the world and in North Korea men are forced to pick from 10 different government-approved haircut styles or face criminal charges.
Your Wealth – You might not be the wealthiest person living in the nicest house on the block, but if you have access to a computer then you most likely have food, clothes, and shelter. I have yet to meet the person who bought an iPad when they didn’t own a pair of pants. Having food to eat tonight for dinner is a wonderful thing and should never be taken for granted.
Your Connections – With nothing in common beyond their Jewish roots, hundreds of thousands of people recently shared a beautiful Shabbos experience together as part of The Shabbos Project. Consider how lucky you are to be able to walk into any Synagogue across the world and instantaneously make new friends who are thrilled to have you for Shabbos dinner again this Friday night.
To return to my patient, by our next visit he’d filled his Gratefulness Diary with wonderful things like, “Completing my 500th straight surgical procedure without a complication,” “watching my daughter score a goal in her soccer game,” and “taking my wife to the symphony.” After a few weeks he was finally able to say, “I guess it’s good that I didn’t get promoted because I’d be stuck at meetings instead of spending more time caring for my patients and I’d be unable to leave work early to catch my daughter’s game tomorrow.”
With this statement, it was clear he had resolved his problem and that maybe he was even ready to learn a bit of Hebrew. “Gam zu l’tovah,” I taught him – Everything is for the best. After writing it down for him on a blank page in his Gratefulness Diary, I told him to remember this bit of rabbinic wisdom and to recall it any time he began to forget how good things were.
Being grateful isn’t just for Deadheads; it’s for doctors, patients, and people everywhere.