As a young adult, I was deeply touched when introduced to the simple recipe our Talmud offers for inner wealth: “Who is the rich man? One who takes pleasure in what he has.”
As someone who had felt plagued by an eye for what was missing in life, I had come to the distressing conclusion that I simply lacked some happiness muscle that others seemed to have no problem flexing.
“It’s ‘two plus two equals four,’” my teachers in yeshiva explained with conviction. “If you focus on what you don’t have, you will feel impoverished. If you focus on what you do have, at some point you’ll feel your riches. It’s just the way life works.”
Despite years of what seemed like innate unhappiness, something clicked: I believed them. Filled with conviction that this law applied to me, too, I got to work.
I set my alarm every three hours to pause whatever I was doing — eating a meal, sitting in class, running an errand — to rattle off five things that made me wealthy. My alarm rang five times a day; I eventually completed several 40-day cycles.
I chose a partner in my beginners’ yeshiva to practice “gratitude drills.” Once a day, we’d find an empty room, set a 60-second stop watch, and take turns flooding our consciousness — loudly, exaggeratedly — with the virtues and pleasures of some mundane asset of the other’s choosing.
“Here, this plastic cup,” my partner would say. “Go!”
“Do you know what I can do with this?” I’d plunge in. “I can hold water and sate my thirst. Do you know how many people it took to make and bring this cup to me?” It was freestyle, stream-of-consciousness, ecstatic immersion in wealth awareness.
Buoyed by my inner certainty that it was indeed axiomatic — focusing on “what is” will bring joy eventually — I was relentless. Within weeks I could see I was in a different space. Within months people around me began to ask, “What’s different about you?”
I felt so fulfilled. I was genuinely seeing blessing. I no longer felt like an emotional wimp. I proudly shared with my teachers the miraculous results I’d seen and offered to teach the exercises to others. I was good at something important and I felt like a million bucks.
Then the exercises started to lose steam. Okay, I thought, you’ve been doing this for a while and you’ve seen progress. Move the wealth awareness muscles to lower throttle.
I progressed in my studies, completed a rabbinic degree, and began preparing to take a job in outreach. And then the voices of doubt and complaint started up again.
Are you good at what you do? Have you really accomplished much? As much as so and so? Why are you not more inspired? More sought after?
They didn’t let up.
Okay, I thought, I’ve dealt with this before. I’m an experienced inner wealth warrior. I fired up the watch alarm and reflooded my consciousness daily with my blessing index.
I reread the original sources. I retained a gratitude partner. I arranged to wake up to the theme song to Rocky.
Nothing. I was puzzled, discouraged, even upset. Why wasn’t this helping?
I reconciled to the fact that G-d is good, that my commitment to Jewish wisdom was unconditional of the joy I felt, and I soldiered on.
Years later, blessed with a wonderful wife, children, a job helping the Jewish community together with idealistic colleagues, I found myself filling up with complaints — toward my wife, my kids, my job, my colleagues. There was something to my critiques, yet I couldn’t deny that the common denominator seemed to be me. I was bringing crankiness to everything I touched and my biggest crankiness was with myself: why am I not happier, more satisfied with my lot?
A friend heard of my predicament and offered to share insights that had helped him. The gist of our conversation went something like this.
“You think you were deeply helped back then by the hard core gratitude work you did; you were ‘good’ at it,” he offered. “What really touched you was a gift — the inner ‘click’ that focusing on what you have will change you. G-d gave you that. Your work only built on it.”
“So how do I replicate the gift?”
“You can’t. See that you didn’t do it, that G-d just popped that understanding into your heart. Respect that and you’ll see how G-d is helping you with new gifts all the time.”
“Okay, but what can I do to ‘respect’ this more readily? A program? Exercises?”
“It’s not about what you do. It’s about what G-d is already doing.”
“Okay, but how do I see that?”
I wasn’t getting him. My work-hard-‘cause-it’s-up-to-me sensibility was flummoxed. I believed in G-d, but G-d helped those who worked hard. What did he mean?
Our conversations continued until something caught his eye that I hadn’t noticed: my mood had lightened.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good,” I said with a smile. It wasn’t a loopy, ecstatic high; I just felt relaxed. Had it been suggested then that my “issues” were resolved, I would surely have disagreed.
“What do you mean?” he explored.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “I just feel good.”
“Tell me,” he asked with genuine curiosity, “what did you do get to that good feeling?”
I paused. Then it happened: a light went on inside as I confessed, “I didn’t do a darned thing!”
It was another “click.” I saw in that moment that I had been spending hours, months, years trying to generate greater happiness only to find that stealth-like, under my very own nose, gentle, happy thoughts had showed up. The subjects of my complaints hadn’t dissolved, but from this lighter vista they looked softer, less ominous. I hadn’t generated it, but it was real — and so helpful.
And I could see that this vista was normal, that I had had simple upswings (and downswings) like this regularly. I just hadn’t seen them as the normal gifts and challenges of being human because my ego was too busy taking credit for the ups and taking personally the downs. I fully anticipated more of both, except with the possibility of more gratitude for the gifts and gracefulness with the challenges. And I now understood why I couldn’t replicate my original gratitude work.
Shortly after seeing the miracle of helpful thought, I came across a striking comment on the Torah’s warning about ingratitude.
“You may be tempted to say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth,’” Moshe warns the Jewish people. “Then you shall remember [God]: it was He who gave you strength to make wealth…”
How does the ancient commentary Onkelos translate “strength”? Counsel, insight. The strength that makes success in life is insight, thinking that lifts our hearts, lightens our load, and comes from beyond. More often, I am grateful for the blessing of happy, grateful thinking.