You Are What You Think

New scientific studies have reaffirmed a fact that has been known for generations,  aptly stated by the the Maggid of Mezeritch, zy”a: “Tracht gut vet zein gut — think good [thoughts] and it will be good.” A positive outlook gives you the power to change what you see.

Scientists have long known the power of the human mind to heal the body. Harvard Medical School has a department of mind/body medicine. And the evidence of the healing power of belief and positive attitude continue to mount in new studies. As reported on page B51, Boston researchers have concluded that it is important for doctors to carefully choose what they tell patients about a powerful medicine — because the message could either enhance its benefits or blunt them.

A study showed that patients’ reports of pain relief more than doubled when they were told a migraine drug they were given was real than when they were told, falsely, that it was a fake. In fact, patients reported nearly as much pain relief when they took a placebo that they thought was the real drug as they did when they took the migraine drug while believing it was a fake.

“Every word you say counts, not only every gram of the medication,” said Harvard University professor Ted Kaptchuk, who led the new study.

An acupuncturist by training, Kaptchuk is one of the few faculty members at Harvard with neither a Ph.D. nor M.D.

But it was precisely his background in acupuncture that inspired him to devote himself to researching this phenomenon.

He told Harvard Magazine that, although he found that patients who came to him for acupuncture treatments got better, sometimes their relief began even before he’d started his treatments. He didn’t doubt the value of acupuncture, but he suspected something else was also at work. His hunch was that it was his engagement with patients — and perhaps even the act of caring itself.

In his first study on the subject, Kaptchuk divided patients suffering from arm pain into two groups.

Half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments.

Some complained terribly of side effects they were pre-warned about, but most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill.

Yet the pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin.

As medical researchers ponder whether the cause is psychological or biological, the underlying message is a very relevant one to doctors and laymen alike in a great many areas.

The same way positive thoughts are beneficial, negative thoughts are harmful.

There is nothing new about the plague of negativity that afflicts contemporary society. It is a long-established fact that people prefer to prepare for the worst instead of hoping for the best, to talk about what has gone wrong instead of what went well, and about bad news instead of glad tidings.
But things shouldn’t be that way.

Chazal (Pesachim 3b) teach us that one should avoid being the bearer of bad news, and even when asked one should avoid answering directly about a tragedy.

In contrast, we are taught that one who delivers good tidings has a spark of Eliyahu Hanavi within him.

Even when a tragedy is the main focus of conversation, discussions about and descriptions of the precise details of how it occurred are actually a counterproductive and often insensitive distraction. The appropriate reaction is introspection, pondering how we should improve our own conduct, instead of hyper-analyzing someone else’s tragic fate.

The influence of the negative tone of secular culture is also likely to be the reason  why some have chosen to reacting to a tragedy by repeating libelous gossip about the victim. In their convoluted mindset, the myth that somehow the victim was at fault helps alleviate their internal fears that they might be next.

This doesn’t only apply to tragedies.

Well-intentioned but misguided individuals who come to be menachem avel often deluge the mourners with personal questions regarding the medical history of the niftar, also likely caused by fears for their own fates.

These questions aren’t comforting at all, and some mourners find them downright insensitive. Saying some kind words about the niftar — or about his family — would be far more appropriate. The halachah is that a visitor should remain silent at a shivah until the mourner opens the exchange.

In every situation, the topics we talk about, the choice of words we utter, the tone we use when we express ourselves, have an enormous influence on our actions and on our emotional and physical wellbeing.

The Bluzhever Rebbe, Harav Yisrael Shapira, zt”l, served as Rav for 70 years — the last 50 of which he also served as a respected Chassidic Rebbe. Though he lost most of his family — including his daughter, an only child — and most of his Chassidim in the Holocaust, he miraculously survived. He rebuilt and led his kehillah in the United States until his petirah at the age of 100.

It is told that after the war he never allowed fresh flowers in his home because, after seeing so much death, he couldn’t bear to have something around that would die after three days.

Three times a day we express our gratitude to Hashem for “Your miracles that are with us every day; and for Your wonders and favors in every season — evening, morning and afternoon…”

Spending time to ponder all the kindness that Hashem does with us on a daily basis is a sure way to achieve positive thoughts that will enrich our lives in countless ways.