Perhaps the best strategy to improve one’s overall happiness levels is to work on inculcating the trait of gratitude. In the psychological literature, gratitude is consistently correlated with happiness. Additionally, working on gratitude through various interventions, such as journaling, has been shown to boost happiness levels. In addition to merely demonstrating the connection between gratitude and happiness, researchers also seek to understand why there is a connection. What is it about gratitude that increases happiness? In one of the most important articles on the subject, researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough hypothesized that responding gratefully to life’s circumstances allows people to “positively interpret everyday experiences.” Well-being and happiness come from “the ability to notice, appreciate, and savor the elements of one’s life.”
In describing the blessings earned by obeying God, Moshe states that “All these blessings will come upon you (u-vau alecha) and will reach you (ve-hisigucha)” (Devarim 28:2). Commentators are bothered by the seeming redundancy of the verse. What is the function of a blessing reaching someone if it has already come upon them? Rabbi Yissocher Frand quotes Rabbi Elyakim Schlessinger who explains that blessings could “come upon” us, but we may not even realize them. While our lives may be filled with blessings, if we do not develop an attitude of awareness and appreciation, those blessings may not “reach” us. The blessings are there, we just need to notice them.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim, in his work Degel Machaneh Ephraim, points out another peculiarity in the verse. It should have written that the blessings “will come upon you and you will reach for them.” Instead, the person in the verse is completely passive – they “will reach you.” R. Moshe Haym explains that not only do we sometimes take blessings for granted, we sometimes actively run away from them. Blessings often have elements of stress attached to them and we have a hard time discerning what is good for us. The added bonus of these particular blessings is that they will chase after us even if we run away from them—i.e., they will reach for us, even if we don’t reach for them.
One of the reasons that we may have trouble noticing blessings is that there is a human tendency to always want more. Yes, I have some money, but I could always have more. After delineating the confession that accompanies the bringing of the first fruit to the Temple, the verse concludes: “You shall rejoice with all the good (ve-samachta be-chol ha-tov) that Hashem, your God, gave you and your household” (Devarim 26:11). Rabbi Mordechai Gifter understands the rejoicing not as a description but as a commandment. Because there is a proclivity to downplay the blessings of the harvest, the Torah requires us to overcome that propensity by being satisfied, appreciating the good, and being happy.
Subjective interpretation of events doesn’t just apply to blessings, but also plays a part in understanding the curses. One particularly dark verse outlines three elements related to fear: “(1)And your life shall hang in doubt before you; (2) and you shall fear night and day, (3) and you shall have no assurance of your life” (Devarim 28:66). The Talmud (Menachot 103b) interprets the three parts of this verse as representing three approaches people may have to purchasing food in advance of when they need it: (1) people who buy grain from one year to the next because they are not certain that they will find grain to eat throughout the year, (2) people who purchase grain every Friday for the entire week, because they aren’t sure they will have enough to buy throughout the rest of the week, and (3) people who rely on the baker to give them bread because they have no grain of their own. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz references this teaching to demonstrate the subjectivity of the experience of the curse and the subsequent fear and anxiety. To the extent that we have what we need right now, that should theoretically be enough to allay our worries. But if we are obsessed about next week or overly concerned about next year, then we can subjectively create our own curse through self-imposed mental anguish.
Our lives are filled with both blessings and curses, pleasantries and hardships, positive and negative experiences. It is up to us to determine the subjective realities of the blessings and curses. Let us choose to approach what we are given with appreciation and gratitude, counting our blessings and being thankful to God for the good He has bestowed upon us.