How Judaism and positive psychology make excellent bedfellows

“The old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy,” wrote Rav Kook, chief rabbi of Israel in the 1920s and 30s. His deep insight exquisitely applies to the psychological movement that has swept the social sciences of late. This movement is, I believe, poised to profoundly influence religion today and Judaism as we know it.

I speak of the positive psychology movement — a field devoted to “the scientific study of what goes right in life [and] those things that make life most worth living.” An intriguing branch of science, if ever I heard one. You need only browse the dozens of titles at the bookstore about happiness and positive psychology, and the thousands more on Amazon, to witness its tremendous growth and appeal.

Birthed at the turn of the 21st century by Dr. Martin Seligman, professor at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology has from its inception been unabashedly influenced by ancient philosophical and religious wisdom, embracing teachings and values found in Judaism. Timeless Jewish virtues and values such as justice and fairness, love and compassion, prudence and temperance, forgiveness and wisdom, and spirituality and hope are all integral to positive psychology.

Just as Judaism has inspired some of positive psychology’s central tenets and practices, in turn this 18-year-old scientific field has the potential to reinvigorate and strengthen Judaism.

Why put such stock in this newest branch of psychology to positively impact Judaism? Because it applies scientific and empirical methods to many of the spiritual and ethical teachings and practices that Judaism has espoused for more than 3,000 years. And let’s face it: We are an evidence-based and empirically minded people.

It turns out that scientific research and experimentation now confirms much of what Judaism has been doing and saying all along. Consider the striking example of the Jewish value and spiritual practice of gratitude. Judaism, of course, places considerable importance upon our regularly giving thanks and expressing appreciation. The Talmud advises us to say 100 blessings a day. The vast array of brachot for food, beauty in nature, and the joys of life are all meant to cultivate our gratitude to God, deepening our awareness and appreciation of the many blessings that life offers us.

Now enter the current psychological research on gratitude. Dozens of studies have been conducted and several positive interventions created by positive psychology researchers and practitioners to build one’s sense of gratitude. Why? For starters, because scientific studies show that a daily practice of gratitude can increase happiness and decrease depression for up to six months.

A validated practice called the “Three Blessings” exercise, in which one spends five to 10 minutes at the end of each day reflecting upon three things that went well — from the small to the significant — has been shown to increase happiness levels in those who practice it and decrease depression for up to half a year.

Gratitude is just one of 24 character strengths categorized, measured and analyzed in the landmark volume, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, by Drs. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, published in 2004. If you have the temerity to pop open this 800-page book — a veritable bible of positive psychology — you will soon realize that most, if not all, of the two dozen strengths explored are deeply embedded within Jewish life and sacred texts.

Positive psychology demonstrates that each of these 24 human capacities for thinking, feeling and behaving can lead to greater joy and fulfillment, engagement in what we do, meaning and purpose in our lives, and stronger relationships.

Classes connecting positive psychology and Judaism are now being taught. Tal Ben-Shahar, best-selling author and former Harvard University lecturer whose positive psychology course at Harvard became the most well-attended in the school’s history, was enlisted to teach such a course called “Habits of Happiness: Positive Psychology & Judaism.” The course is taught at Jerusalem U, an online Jewish and Israel learning center for teenagers, college students and adults.

Commenting on the link between Judaism and positive psychology, Ben-Shahar observes, “What I found time and again [in the study of positive psychology] was that the material that I looked at, even though it was the latest research, a lot of it seemed familiar to me. Because I’d heard or read a lot of these ideas earlier on in my life, in my Jewish education. Many of the ideas that were quote-unquote ‘discovered’ by modern psychologists had actually been there for thousands of years, present in traditional Jewish sources.”

As a rabbi, I can foresee many applications of positive psychology’s teachings and practices within Jewish settings, such as adult education and religious school classes that explore the teachings and exercises of positive psychology within the Jewish framework of values and the practice of mitzvot. Another application is in integrating positive psychology principles and practices within religious school classrooms and Jewish day school and camp settings, similar to how ancient musar teachings and practices have been rediscovered, renewed and made accessible within the past decade by authors and teachers such as Alan Morinis.

Finally, I can foresee positive psychology being an aid to rabbis across the religious spectrum in their rabbinic counseling, just as the healing work of Viktor Frankl and his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has proved instrumental in grief counseling and support.

It would seem that positive psychology has the potential to renew and reinvigorate Judaism — as it dovetails, confirms and enhances millennia of Jewish wisdom and practices with the latest scientific methods. Together, Judaism and positive psychology could aid all of us in that perennial human and Jewish pursuit of happiness and joy, meaning and purpose, blessing and fulfillment.

A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Rick Schechter is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai of Glendale, Calif. He has studied the field of positive psychology extensively for more than 13 years.

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