Gratitude—the art of giving thanks — is one of many virtues according to Jewish tradition. The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha-tov, which literally means “recognizing the good.” This expresses the fact that the good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours. If you lost your job but you still have your health and your family, you surely still have something to be grateful for. If your home is flooded but you and your family escape in good health, you still have something to be grateful for. Most of us focus so heavily on the deficiencies in our lives that we barely perceive the good that counterbalances them. Gratitude may be one of the most overlooked qualities that we can access every day.
There is no limit to what we don’t have, so if that is where we focus, our lives will undoubtedly be filled with much dissatisfaction. Correspondingly, even if we are aware of our many gifts, we may grow indifferent to them, so that after some time we forget that they are even there and we come to take the good for granted.
Gratitude is something that does not come easy to us, and it usually takes effort to develop this quality through practice. Some Mussar teachers (i.e. those who teach practices for spiritual self-improvement) suggest a weekly practice of saying thank you to everyone who does even the slightest thing to help you. Examples might include gratitude for someone who holds open a door for you as you are exiting a store, a driver who lets you in and allows you to make a turn onto a busy road, or someone who lets you move up in a store check-out line.
A regular spiritual practice can help us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. The opening prayer in the Jewish prayer book is called Modeh Ani, meaning “thank you.” It is meant to be said when one opens one’s eyes in the morning. The essence of the prayer is the grateful acknowledgement of the gift of life that we have been given, the greatest of all miracles. It’s so easy to take for granted when it is a daily phenomenon, and if we immediately turn our attention to our daily routine.
Research by the psychotherapist Amy Morin details the benefits of gratitude:
- Gratitude opens the door to more relationships. Not only does saying thank you constitute good manners, it can also help you win new friends.
- Gratitude can improve psychological health. Leading researchers have shown a strong link between gratitude and well-being.
- Gratitude can reduce a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and frustration to regret.
- Gratitude can improve empathy and reduce aggression.
- And, according to a 2011 study, spending some time at night to jot down grateful moments can help you sleep better.It is never too late to show your gratitude. A letter that recently arrived at Beth Judah Temple, where I currently serve as rabbi, reminded me of this. Beth Judah is near the Coast Guard School in Cape May, and each year Jewish coast guard cadets join the congregation for Shabbat morning prayer and are warmly received and welcomed by the congregation. This letter recently arrived from a coast guard member who was a cadet nearly 50 years ago: I was fortunate to have found the hospitality of your congregation in 1969 as a coast guard cadet. The weekend visits were the highlight of my schedule for 10 weeks. Although it’s been a long time, I realize that I needed to still thank you for the kindness you showed the stranger all those years ago and how much I enjoyed your generosity. A.S.
I often like to reflect on the words of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav: “Gratitude rejoices with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair, and taking life for granted.” May we all continually strive to develop an attitude of gratitude, and develop practices that will improve ourselves and the world.