Updated: Mar 20, 2020
As a current rabbi and former environmental biologist I am fascinated by the interconnection of science and spirituality. New findings in double blind studies published in peer reviewed scientific journals, the “gold standard” in science, are increasingly providing proof of what we already know or intuit, deep inside. It’s what a psychologist professor I once had used to call Grandma Research: proving what your grandmother could have told you, and probably often did. In this time of uncertainty and challenge, the news media supply us with many things to worry about. It’s their job, I don’t blame them. And it is the opposite of what we need right now. The Chassidic masters of the 18th and 19th centuries in Eastern Europe, whose movement was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, called Baal Shem Tov, taught that joy is the best medicine. Science is now proving this. The Eastern European Jews of their time were often living in poverty. They were a persecuted minority from whom high taxes were exacted. If they failed to pay, they were often imprisoned. The rabbis of their time taught that one should live in joy, and this is the important part: independent of the circumstances.
Many people know that the editor Norman Cousins cured himself of a terminal auto-immune disease through laughter, by watching funny movies. There is a growing body of research showing that that we can affect the state of our health through joy. In fact, the field of psychoneuroimmunology or mind-body medicine, is burgeoning at universities and medical schools. A 2003 study of susceptibility to the common cold virus showed that positive emotions were associated with a lower risk of developing a cold. (PsychomMed; Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, Skoner). Another study from 2006 showed that the people in the study who were happy boosted their immune systems, creating more antibodies, when they were injected with a Hepatitis vaccine (Brain, Behavior, Immunity; Marsland, Cohen, Rabin, Manuckin). The converse has also been proven: that stress, worry, fear, and depression suppress our immune and endocrine systems. This is the quintessential Grandma research.
My teacher, Rabbi Joseph Gelberman taught that joy is a decision, and that joy is different from happiness. As an inheritor of the Chassidic tradition, he had made a decision to always be joyous, although he wasn’t always happy, having lost many family members in the Holocaust, including his first wife and only child. We can become addicted to our familiar emotions, and yet they are simply habits that can be changed. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has done research on changing our thinking. He wrote, “Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think. (Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life).”
Changing our way of thinking and consciously choosing joy takes commitment and practice. It doesn’t happen overnight, and yet we know we can change our habits. We can change the place where we put our keys and we can change our habits of thinking. It means intentionally ignoring the present reality to live joyously. It also means being conscious enough to catch yourself when you begin to think anything negative about a person or thing, by choosing a happy thought, and staying with that thought. Simply taking a walk in nature, remembering someone you love, or thinking about a wonderful moment in your life will raise your spirits. Optimism and open, uplifted hearts are good for us. And they may not only keep us healthy, but also heal us more quickly when we do become sick. Joy is the medicine we need right now. What we permit ourselves to think is up to us. Yes, it takes practice, yes, it takes commitment, intention, and insistence. And it is worth it. At the very least, we will all have happier days and live healthier lives.
Rabbi/Cantor Jill Hausman
The Actors’ Temple