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  • Writer's pictureMichael Barclay

Hidden in Plain Sight: The Secret to Happiness

In this world, there are a few things that are unquestionably true; and often these “truths” are at the root of theologies. One of the most clear of these concepts is the relationship between gratitude and happiness; a relationship deepened not only through the recent observance of Thanksgiving, but a vital part of all things Jewish.

Studies for decades have demonstrated that there is a correlation between being grateful and feeling happy. Dr. Emmons of U.C. Davis, Dr. McCullogh of Univ. of Miami, and the Harvard Medical School among others have demonstrated in study after study that when people are grateful, they are emotionally happier and physically more in balance. There was even a study at Wharton School of Business of Univ. of Pennsylvania that showed that fundraisers who were appreciated and thanked by their managers had a 50% higher success rate; and that people who are “grateful” are “3 times more creative; have 31% higher productivity; 23% fewer fatigue symptoms; have 37% greater sales; and are 40% more likely to get a promotion” (Harvard Business Review Jan-Feb 2012).

Simply put: being grateful makes your life more full, successful, and leads to more things to be grateful for…creating a wonderful upward spiral that leads to a progressively more meaningful and joyous life.

This is not a new concept in Judaism; where over one third of our daily prayers are dedicated to giving thanks. The first prayer an observant Jew says each morning just as his eyes are opening, “Modeh Ani”, starts the day off with, “I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion---abundant is your faithfulness!” Our Sages knew, and Jewish practices dictate that when we begin the day with gratitude to the Source of all, that the entire day has a more full, holy, and happy tone to it.

Gratitude is always important and focused on and we are often more aware of it especially at Thanksgiving. But with Hanukkah beginning in just a few nights, we have an extra special opportunity of following up on Thanksgiving by using this sacred eight day Festival of Hanukkah to awaken the lights of gratitude in our souls…and bring more fullness and joy into our lives all year.

Before you light the candles each night of this holiday next week, take a few minutes and express three different types of “lights” in your life: three things that you are grateful for. Let one be something you are grateful to God for; one be an expression of gratitude to someone else ; and something that you are grateful for to yourself. Often this third aspect can be the most difficult, but think of it as thanking your soul (n’shomah) for guiding you to act in a certain way. This eight day practice will help keep the lights of dedication (the word “hanukkah” means “dedication” in Hebrew) on throughout the year; and this simple practice for just eight nights will fill your life with more joy than you can imagine. It can also be the preface for beginning the practice of a “Gratitude Journal” throughout the year.

I first heard of the spiritual exercise of a “Gratitude Journal” through Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish HaTorah in Israel. In assigning it to hundreds of students over the years as a Professor at Loyola Marymount Univ., I consistently heard back that it was one of the most powerful teachings of the semester. It’s a simple process, yet profoundly deep.

Take a journal and spend a full hour writing everything that you are grateful for in your life. (While the first half hour is general easy, for some people the last minutes are difficult, but it is important to finish it.) Then, each morning, add a new thing to your gratitude list, and again in the evening before you go to sleep (ideally something new that you experienced that day). After doing this daily for a while, gratitude becomes such a large part of your life that it affects every experience that you encounter. Life becomes fuller, joy becomes more prevalent, and although it does not relieve deep and real pain, it prevents the pain from becoming “suffering”. My experience is that this simple spiritual exercise leads to some of the most profound changes in consciousness, health, and happiness; and is a wonderful expression of some of the deepest Jewish beliefs that bridge all faith traditions.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful secular holiday and Hanukkah is a true gift of bringing the light of gratitude into our lives. As an observant Jew I am obligated to make not only every day a day of thanks, but each moment; and both the secular and religious holidays of these days can help to make conscious gratitude an integrated part of our lives. To be truly grateful for the large and small miracles of each day allows life to be richer, and every moment to be a true moment of holiness.

May we each find true gratitude in this holiday season and coming year, and as a result live happily, fully, and in a way that blesses all of Life.

Rabbi Michael Barclay

November 26, 2021

22nd of Kislev, 5782


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