Perhaps the best strategy to improve one’s overall happiness level is to work on inculcating the trait of gratitude. In the psychological literature, gratitude is consistently correlated with happiness.
Besides for demonstrating that there is a connection, researchers also want to understand why there is a connection. What is it about gratitude that increases happiness?
In one of the most important articles on the subject, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough hypothesized that responding gratefully to life’s circumstances allows people to “positively interpret everyday experiences.” Well-being and happiness come from “the ability to notice, appreciate, and savor the elements of one’s life.”
In describing the blessings that will be earned by obeying G-d, Moshe states, “All these blessings will come upon you (u’va’u alecha) and will reach you (ve’hisigucha)” (Devarim 28:2). Commentators are bothered by the seeming redundancy of the verse. What is the function of a blessing reaching someone if it has already come upon him?
Rabbi Yissocher Frand quotes Rabbi Elyakim Schlessinger who explains that blessings could “come upon” us without us realizing. While our lives may be filled with blessings, if we do not develop an attitude of awareness and appreciation, those blessings may not “reach” us. The blessings are there, but we need to notice them.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, in his work Degel Machaneh Ephraim, points out another peculiarity in the verse. It should have read that the blessings “will come upon you and you will reach for them.” Instead, the person in the pasuk is completely passive – they “will reach you.”
R. Moshe Chaim explains that not only do we sometimes take blessings for granted, we sometimes actively run away from them. Blessings often have elements of stress attached to them and we have a hard time discerning what’s good for us. The added bonus of this particular blessing is that the blessings will chase after us even if we run away from them – they will reach for us even if we don’t reach for them.
One of the reasons we may have trouble noticing blessings is that there’s a human tendency to always want more. Yes, I have some money, but I could always have more. After delineating the confession that accompanies the bringing of the first fruit to the Temple, the Torah writes: “You shall rejoice with all the good (ve’samachta bechol ha’tov) that Hashem, your G-d, gave you and your household” (Devarim 26:11).
Subjective interpretation of events doesn’t just apply to blessings; it also plays a part in understanding the curses. One particularly dark pasuk outlines three elements related to fear: “And your life shall hang in doubt before you, and you shall fear night and day, and you shall have no assurance of your life” (Devarim 28:66).
The Talmud (Menachot 103b) interprets the three parts of this verse as representing three approaches people may have to purchasing food in advance of when they need it: 1) some people buy grain from one year to the next because they are not certain they will find grain to eat throughout the year; 2) some purchase grain every Friday for the entire week because they aren’t sure they will have enough to buy throughout the rest of the week; and 3) some rely on the baker to give them bread because they have no grain of their own.
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz references this teaching to demonstrate the subjectivity of the experience of the curse and the subsequent fear and anxiety. Having what we need right now should theoretically be enough to allay our worries. But if we are obsessed about next week or overly concerned about next year, we can subjectively create our own curse through mental anguish.
Our lives are filled with both blessings and curses, pleasantries and hardships, positive and negative experiences. It is up to us to determine the subjective realities of the blessings and curses. Let us choose to approach what we are given with appreciation and gratitude, counting our blessings and being thankful to G-d for the good He has bestowed us.