It’s the Fourth of July weekend, and another chance to think about the pursuit of happiness. I will not trouble you with the latest data on how many Americans report to pollsters that they are (a) very satisfied, (b) satisfied, (c) unsatisfied, or (d) very unsatisfied with their lives. We all know, more or less, to what extent the Declaration of Independence’s promise of happiness has been fulfilled.
I don’t mean to say that everybody is just lying around being morose and cussing the Founders. Americans are can-do people, and some are doing something about it. For example, there’s a whole new movement called Positive Psychology, which emphasizes the healthy parts of the human personality, as opposed to the tired, old Freudian obsessions with such negative phenomena as depression, neurosis, anxiety, schizophrenia, and death. Courses in Popular Psychology are being offered at some of the country’s leading institutions of higher education. At last report, the most popular undergraduate course at Harvard was, I kid you not, Happiness 101.
These courses have a practical bent; not just theories of feeling good, but how to get there. They recommend, among other strategies, the cultivation of gratitude as a path toward happiness. Exercises in gratitude, including writing thank you letters and making gratitude visits to one’s benefactors are part of the new happiness curriculum.
They say it works too. For those who sign up and do the exercises, anyway. Taking the time to say thanks is almost guaranteed to make you feel better.
It comes as a surprise. For many of us, saying thank you is—let’s not repress it—a chore to be avoided. Acknowledging one’s debt to another may be the right and decent thing to do, maybe even a moral obligation, but not most people’s idea of a good time. Indeed, the reason why so many people are unenthusiastic about gratitude is that it makes them feel beholden, owing somebody something. Nobody likes being in debt. And it matters not whether the debt is monetary, or personal; it’s not a comfortable feeling.
So the world is full of—veritably teeming with—gratitude shirkers. Many of us don’t even realize how ungrateful they are. A friend of mine once participated in a course of what you might call “Applied Ethics” during his days as a yeshiva student. The rabbi leading the group suggested that they focus for a week on saying thank you to their wives or mothers, as the case might be, for the meals they were served. My friend’s reaction was that that would be too easy. He suggested instead something more dramatic, like washing the dishes. The rabbi persuaded him that just saying thank you might yield sufficient spiritual rewards, and he should try that first. My friend came back a week later, saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize until this week how I almost never said thank you!” (If you think he was a terrible ingrate, try it yourself, and see.)
Rabbi Moshe Sherer was a lifelong community activist for decades, and as such made a career of doing favors for people; helping them get job training, housing, education, exercising their freedom of religion, and so on. He encountered his share of ingratitude along the way. Some recipients of his altruism were downright resentful, and he was sometimes the target not of roses but brickbats. Rabbi Sherer used to joke that he always carried a bag of small pebbles with him to give to those for whom he had rendered some service, in the hopes that they would content themselves later with throwing a pebble rather than a larger boulder at him. Yet, whenever questioned as to whether it was worth it to help such ingrates, he would reply, “Do you have a problem with that? I don’t have a problem with that. I know why I was put in the world.”*
So we can understand why people aren’t more grateful. But how to explain the reports from campus about how giving thanks makes you happier?
Maybe it’s because the hard thing is facing up to the fact that we are in fact indebted to others for so many things. Once one accepts that as an inescapable part of life, and that we’re all in the same boat, saying the words comes more easily. And focusing on the benefits is itself a source of pleasure. The ingrate, on the other hand, enjoys life less because he can’t stand to think of all the good he is getting from others. And deep down it bothers him that he lives in denial.
However, saying thank you isn’t the whole story. Nobody who remains a taker all the time will be very happy. Paying off debts may be satisfying, but who wants to be in debt all the time? You have to learn to give too. They must know that at Harvard. But that’s for more advanced students.
* In his commentary on Rashi (Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 2:5), he writes, “It is forbidden to do a favor for someone who will not show proper appreciation.” Rabbi Sherer was not daunted by this cautionary. He explained that the Maharal was referring to someone who feels he is doing a favor for someone else. But if he views the favor as for himself, he need not concern himself with the likelihood of ingratitude. As he used to say when people would thank him for some favor rendered, “Would you thank me for putting on tefillin this morning or for keeping kosher?” (Yonason Roenblum, Rabbi Sherer, P. 583)
Special thanks to Rabbi S. Black for his help in the preparation of this essay.