Wiring Our Brains for Happiness
The incredible spiritual power of gratitude.
Science is uncovering the secret of a fundamental tenet of Judaism: gratitude. The Jewish People are called “yehudim” from the root word “lehodot,” which means “to thank.” Gratitude is embedded in our being. It’s part of our spiritual DNA.
Interestingly, a family history of spirituality actually changes the physical makeup of the brain. In a study published by Columbia University in 2014, findings showed that people with a history of spirituality, religious practice, or regular meditation were less likely to become depressed, even in people who were predisposed to the condition. The reason for this is that the cortex of the brain thickened through religious and spiritual practice over the generations, guarding against depression.
As Jews, we have suffered through thousands of years of persecution, yet we have recovered and pushed forward, oftentimes being the harbingers of goodness and compassion. Despite our hardships, we have always uttered words of gratitude for the good in our lives. Perhaps, this is the key to our success.
The first thing we do in the morning is express gratitude to God with the “Modeh Ani” prayer. Before we eat, we thank God for our food. After we eat, we give thanks for our meal. After we use the restroom, we express gratitude for our health. Before we learn Torah, we thank God for giving us the Torah – our guideline for life. When we pray, we give thanks for our health, sustenance, wisdom… The list continues.
Grateful people have reported improved physical health, less depression, less physical aches and pains, higher self-esteem, increased happiness and empathy, better sleep patterns, lower blood-pressure, strengthened immune systems, and stronger emotional resilience.
Studies show that gratitude actually changes the brain. In fact, those who practice gratitude are more likely to exercise gratitude in the future. The more we use our gratitude “muscle,” the stronger it becomes. Gratitude imprints itself on our brains, becoming a mindset and a way of life.
Acting as a natural anti-depressant, Gratitude increases the production of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It becomes a happiness stimulant, releasing the chemicals that make us happy. By activating areas of the brain associated with social reward and bonding, gratitude brings us closer to others.
Gratitude also triggers regions that control fairness, morality, value judgements, economic decision-making, and self-perception. Experiencing meaning and fulfillment in life has roots in gratitude.
Indeed practicing gratitude is so important, it is touted as a mainstay of raising healthy and fulfilled children. As parents, we want to know, how do we inculcate this fundamental Jewish trait in our children?
1. Show sincerity and joy in performing mitzvot.
Our children soak in our every move and word. They have a beautiful gift of perception that allows them to understand the intentions behind our actions. Showing true gratitude and happiness not only improves our spiritual connection and cultivates our physical and emotional health, but it also leaves an indelible mark upon our children.
Gratitude is a natural part of observing the mitzvot. Before performing mitzvot, we proclaim a statement of gratitude to God. Focusing on having kavana (the proper intention) when we utter a bracha (blessing) – doing it sincerely and happily – we show our children that we are truly grateful.
2. The gratitude attitude reigns supreme.
The Hebrew phrase for gratitude is “hakarat hatov,” which means “recognition of the good.” When we not only focus on the good, but recognize it in every aspect of our lives, we send an important message to our children: we always have something to be thankful for, and many times we have an abundance of blessings to be thankful for.
Surround your children with the gratitude attitude and watch joy flow throughout your home. Read them books about children and adults who are grateful. Give them sticky notes to write small “thank you” messages to their siblings, parents, teachers, and friends. Have a “Thank You” board to post your appreciations for all who come into your home to see. Make “thank you” the topic of conversation at the dinner table. The gratitude attitude must permeate every aspect of our lives.
3. Write it down.
Writing is a powerful act that helps us to solidify our thoughts, sometimes uncovering ideas we didn’t even know we had until we’ve committed them to paper. Keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to vastly improve physical health and optimism, even helping one to achieve goals. Encourage your children to record 3-5 things they are grateful for every morning and night in a journal.
Similarly, ask your children if there is a letter of gratitude they would like to write to someone who has made a special impact on them. Ask if they would like to write a letter of gratitude to God for all that He has done, is doing, and will do for them. This wonderful practice creates a bond between your children and G-d, as well as your children and those around them.
Perhaps, most importantly, just remember that we are the Jewish people, the people of “giving thanks.” It is part of our spiritual heritage, and perhaps gratitude has left its impact on our brains throughout the generations, just as our spirituality has. The more you express gratitude, the more you pass it on to your children and your future generations.