Tracht gut vert sein gut. Think Positive And Things Will Be Good [Parshat Chukat By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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A professor of psychology was beginning a course on stress management. To begin his lecture he asked everyone in the class to fill a glass with water to the halfway mark and then hold it out in front of them on an upturned palm.

The students expected him to ask whether the glass was half full or half empty and talk about the benefits of being an optimist, but instead he asked them to concentrate silently on the weight of the glass they were holding. After just a few minutes people were struggling to hold the glass steady, as it slowly became heavier and heavier. The professor told them to put down the glasses.

You thought I was going to ask you whether the glass was half full or half empty,” he told them. “But what I really want you to realise is that it actually doesn’t really matter whether you are an optimist or a pessimist; what is relevant is not how you see the glass but how you deal with a problem. Allow any problem or stress to linger, and it will become heavier and heavier until it is too difficult to cope with.

What the teacher was saying was wise, and the method of driving home the point even more so, but is that really true? Is it a fact that our attitude, optimism or pessimism, has no bearing on the problems we face?

Judaism tells us something different: Tracht gut, vert sein gut is a Yiddish expression roughly translated as “Think positive and things will be good,” meaning that positive thinking can affect the physical world, and change it for the better. In our professor’s analogy, simply thinking positive thoughts about the “problem” in the glass would actually make it physically lighter, meaning the professor was wrong. That is quite a claim, but is it true? Can the way we think change the reality outside our mind?

Here’s an interesting experiment which may help prove that. National Geographic recently did an on-street survey, based on research by experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman. They handed passers-by a short newspaper and asked them to count how many pictures it contained, as quickly as possible. There were many pictures in the newspaper, but one of the pictures said in big bold letters, “Tell the person you saw only seven photos and you will win $20.”

Now, you would imagine that the chances of spotting that photo while skimming through the paper were pretty random; some would find it and some would not. Maybe those with better reading skills would win, or maybe those with higher IQ levels …

What actually happened is that those who were optimists, and classed themselves as lucky people (asked by the interviewer right before the test), won the cash 60% of the time. Those that counted themselves as unlucky, the more pessimistic group, only won it 20% of the time.

Wiseman found the same results … that positive thinking, feeling lucky, strong self-image, all made a real difference in the world people who display them inhabit. Why were optimists so much better at spotting the ad? Turns out an optimist is better at noticing chance opportunities, even when not expecting them.

But positive thinking goes much further than that. Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, details how the ones who never gave up, never surrendered their spirit to the horrors of the concentration camps were mostly those who had some inner meaning that gave them hope and optimism; maybe a relative or loved one they were longing to reunite with, or a faith in G-d, or something they wanted to share with the world. Meaning gave optimism, optimism saved lives.

Doctors in many fields tell stories of patients they had given up on saving medically who pulled through, solely as a result of strong faith and prayer. With the right mind-set and with lots of tracht gut we can often have vert sein gut.

This week is the 20th yahrtzeit of my teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz”l. More than 20 volumes have been published of the Rebbe’s personal correspondence with people of every walk of life, letters to presidents and rabbis, musicians and philosophers, engineers and athletes, doctors, journalists, eminent scientists and young children … and everything in between. One phrase of advice and encouragement keeps repeating itself in those letters: Tracht gut vert sein gut. Think positive, and it will be positive. Why? Because G-d responds to us in a reciprocal fashion; if we put on a happy face, if we live with hope, simcha and optimism, than G-d responds in kind, giving us things to be happy and optimistic about.

There are many stories of people whose lives were changed for the better after following this advice; think positive, act positive, strive to make the world a better place … and it will become that better place.

Right now there is no better time to test that theory. In Israel three families are grieving, stricken with panic, not knowing where their three kidnapped sons are; not knowing if they will ever see them again. Together let us think positively, that they will be found soon, in good health and good spirits, to return to the arms of their loved ones. Tracht gut, vert sein gut. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.



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