The Why and the How of Gratitude

The Why and the How of Gratitude

By Beth Fishman, PhD, Manager, Addiction Services

Most of us would agree that gratitude is indisputably good. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l summarized the positive effects of gratitude: “{It} improves physical health and immunity against disease. Thankfulness reduces toxic emotions such as resentment, frustration and regret and makes depression less likely. It helps people avoid over-reacting to negative experiences by seeking revenge. Grateful people tend to have better relationships. It is also a major factor in strengthening resilience. Remembering the many things we must be thankful for helps us survive painful experiences, from losing a job to bereavement.”

Research has also shown that gratitude has positive effects on addiction recovery. In the study Gratitude, Abstinence, and Alcohol Use Disorders: Report of a Preliminary Finding, author Amy Krentzman found that for individuals who were abstinent after treatment, gratitude was positively associated with sustaining recovery long term.

In addition, Eric Garland’s research on Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement found that mindful savoring practices, which increase the appreciation of and gratitude for the beauty in our natural surroundings, reduces depression, anxiety, and addiction.

It is therefore reasonable to ask: if gratitude is so obviously good and valuable, what are the barriers to gratitude?

One answer is the human tendency called the negative bias in which we notice, dwell on, and give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. Some have suggested that this negativity bias is the result of evolution. Early humans who paid attention to danger in the environment increased their chance of survival. If so, we may have inherited this deeply embedded, involuntary safety mechanism.

Mussar teacher Alan Morinis offers another explanation: “{with} no limit to what we don’t have…if that is where we focus then our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.”  He goes on to say that “the Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours. When you open up to the trait of gratitude, you see clearly and accurately how much good there is in your life. Gratitude affirms.”

Given our propensity toward noticing the negative, gratitude takes effort and there is great hope in knowing that we can instill gratitude into our lives if we put forth that effort. Here are three gratitude practices to consider:

1. Start your day with thanks by saying the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer. Sara Esther Crispe teaches that{w}e are by no means guaranteed to wake up in the morning, so when we do, it’s only proper that we take a moment to express gratitude for another day, for another opportunity to live our lives. The wording of Modeh Ani also offers a powerful lesson. Grammatically, it would be correct to say Ani modeh — “I thank You.” Yet, the words are in the reverse order, which translates literally as “Thank You, I.” The point is that the very first word that comes out of our mouths should be one of gratitude. We often spend the rest of our waking day focused on ourselves, our needs, our work. So we want to ensure that we never forget to have the foundation of our day be “Thank You.” Only after that has been said, do we mention ourselves.”

מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה. רבה אמונתך

Modeh Ani L’fanecha, Melech Chai V’kayam, Shehechezarta Bi Nishmati B'chemla.
Raba Emunatecha

I offer thanks to You, Eternal One, for lovingly restoring my soul to me; Your faithfulness is great.

2. Say Blessings Every Day: A simple, effective way to practice gratitude is by making giving thanks part of your everyday life. Jewish tradition teaches us to say 100 blessings a day. Imagine how such a practice might impact your experience of life! Who and what might you bless as you go through your day?

3. Take a 20-minute savoring walk. During a savoring walk, you allow your attention to be drawn to the positive sights, sounds, smells, or other sensations along your way. As you notice each of these positive sensations, pause to deeply experience the sound, look, smell, or feel. Really take in the sensations along with the positive feelings they evoke. Savor the experience, the positive feeling, the moment. If possible, choose a different route each time so that you can experience many new sensations and the positive emotions associated with the beauty in your surroundings.

JCFS Chicago addiction services invites you to join us in a deep dive into gratitude during our annual Gift of Recovery Hanukkah celebration for the Jewish recovery community, families, and allies. We will learn about Judaism, recovery, and gratitude with Rabbi Joseph Shamash from the Beit Tshuvah addiction treatment program in Los Angeles, hear and share gratitude experiences and practices among Jewish recovery community members, and close with blessing and lighting the Hanukkah candles. We will gather on Zoom on December 20 from 7 – 8:30pm Central time on Zoom. The program is free of charge:  all are welcome. Register here to receive the Zoom link-.

Wherever you are, you are welcome, please join us!

Cherry, Kendra. Very Well Mind. What Is the Negativity Bias?
Crispe, Sara Esther. My Jewish Learning. Modeh Ani: It’s Not Just About Gratitude.
Krentzman, Amy (2017). Gratitude, Abstinence, and Alcohol Use Disorders: Report of a Preliminary Finding. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2017 Jul; 78: 30–36.
Morinis, Alan, The Mussar Institute. A Season of Mussar:  Hakarat HaTov/Gratitude
Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan z”l, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain the Power of Gratitude