Hakarat HaTov: Recognizing the good

The exercise instructions are bolded, below. I hope that the background and examples will be helpful, too.

There are lots of good reasons why we fail to recognize the good in our lives. For survival, our brains focus on what’s wrong, missing, or a threat. We have inherited the DNA of folks who attended well to low growls in the forest. Those who focused primarily on the lovely trees probably didn’t survive. In addition, most people become acclimated to blessings. (Psychologists call this tendency “hedonic adaptation.”)

When you first step into an air-conditioned building on an oppressively hot day, the cool air fills you with relief, appreciation, and delight. Later on, you may find yourself complaining that the temperature is 74 and not 72. Many things that once felt like luxuries or even miracles – high speed internet, a robot that cleans your floor, video conferencing, the strength to shower, urinate, or walk after surgery – can, through familiarity, come to seem merely routine. Even reciting blessings and writing in a daily gratitude journal can become rote!

To combat “hedonic adaptation,” we will deploy four powerful tools: intention, celebration, gamification, and novelty.

Before you set out to do the exercise, choose at least one small and perhaps silly way that you will celebrate your success. Do a victory dance or pump your fist. Look in the mirror and give yourself a thumbs-up and goofy grin. Whisper “Good job!” to yourself, as you hold your hand over your heart. Text your partner or friend that you’re proud of yourself for completing the exercise – and, in that way, share the good with them. BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab, has shown that celebrating success in such ways is key to changing habits of mind and behavior.

Next, set an intention today to discover four good things which, on any other day, you probably wouldn’t have focused on and might not even have noticed.

Maybe you would have been on your phone in line at Starbucks and now you look up to notice someone’s beautiful outfit or to connect with the barista or someone else standing in line. Or you keep looking at your phone, but savor a welcome message or funny meme, rather than just “getting through your inbox.” Another example: if you have kids or grandkids at home and are helping them get ready for the bus, it’s normal and routine to deal with lost shoes. Instructions to “hurry” and “eat your breakfast” are not unheard of. What would it be like to focus during your morning routine on the miracle that you have these children?

After you notice each good thing, write it down (in a bound journal is preferable, or you can use your computer or phone), and make sure to follow through and celebrate in your pre-selected small, silly fashion.

“O God, to whom we come so often with needs to be satisfied, we come to You now in gratitude for what we already have and are.”

– Rabbi Milton Steinberg

Wishing you joy in this moment and in the anticipation of a good future,
Rabbi Debra

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women. She earned a Certificate in Positive Psychology and teaches online. Visit RabbiDebra.com to learn more.
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