Celebrating the Many (and the positives)

Posted on December 7, 2020

One of my favorite psychological experiments is the so-called marshmallow test. It was pioneered at Stanford by a psychology professor named Walter Mischel in the 1960s.[1] To refresh your memory; a child aged 3-5 years old would be left alone in a room with two identical plates, with different quantities of marshmallows, pretzels, cookies or another delicious treat. The adult researcher would leave the room “to do some work” and instruct the child that the single treat on one plate could be eaten at any time; but if they were able to wait for the researcher to return they could have a second, bigger treat instead.

The results Mischel collected suggested that the task was either very hard or pretty easy: 30% ate up the treat within 30 seconds of the researcher leaving the room, while another 30% were able to wait the 10 minutes, that was the maximum length of the researcher’s absence. Of the remaining children who did not manage to hold out for 10 minutes, they ate the treat within 6 minutes.

While this experiment has been used as a predictor of future behavior, it is also seen as a test of a child’s propensity towards immediate gratification. Interestingly the experiment has been tested again in the 1980s and the 2000s with results suggesting that children are getting better at waiting – I am guessing that is not what most of you expected. In the 1980s experiment, 16% of the children held out for just 30 seconds, while 38% lasted for 10 minutes. And in the 2000s that number improved further with 12% eating the treat within 30 seconds and a full 60% holding out for the full 10 minutes.

Perhaps we are getting better at controlling our urges, perhaps we are able to wait more patiently today, or perhaps our children are just so accustomed to treats that it is no longer a novelty that needs to be consumed immediately.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Geoffrey Mittelman offered an interesting reframe about the wearing of masks and last weekend’s Thanksgiving celebrations.[2] For many the decision to gather outside of the family unit or to travel to visit family was articulated in relation to a person’s attitude towards risk. In the current pandemic what are you willing to risk in relation to your behavior.

But Rabbi Mittelman offered a different approach. He suggested that instead we could consider the choices we are making in terms of reward. The decision to gather together outside of the family unit, with large groups of people, provided an immediate pick me up, a feeling of pleasure in that moment of celebration. They were eating the marshmallow today. For those who didn’t, as he continues, they decided to endure pain today, with the expectation of greater pleasure down the road, once this pandemic is defeated. They waited.

The challenge of that second choice is the uncertainty – what role do we have in the spread, how long will we have to wait to be together again, what difference can I make as an individual? His message was to remind us of the fact that this is hard and as such we should not be judging others for the way that they are behaving – we are all suffering, we are all facing challenges, we are all struggling. It is a message that echoed with the beautiful sermon that Rabbi Blumberg delivered last Shabbat.

This would have been an interesting enough observation and reframe to consider. But then Rabbi Mittelman took it a step a further and suggested that with all of the difficulty of that second choice; rather than focusing on the people who are ignoring guidelines and regulations, we should celebrate the many who are actually observing them. A New York Times article just before the holiday suggested that 73% of Americans were planning on celebrating Thanksgiving only with members of their household.[3] Interestingly among 635 epidemiologists the percentage was only marginally higher at 79%. These numbers far exceed the improved findings of the marshmallow test and suggest that across the country almost three quarters of us are making the necessary, difficult decisions to sacrifice now, so that we might all benefit tomorrow.

I have been reflecting on Rabbi Mittelman’s observation and become very aware of the fact that in this pandemic I have been concentrating on the negative rather than the positive. Over the last few weeks, when I have taken my children to the playground, I have been hyper aware and I will admit judgmental of those people not following Governor Baker’s mask mandate. But I have failed to look closely and appreciate the fact that each time, with the exception of one family, everyone else has been wearing a mask and protecting each other. I should be celebrating the many who are following the guidelines rather than focusing on the few who are breaking them. But I haven’t and I am sure that I am not alone.

In general it is such an easy trap to fall into, we fail to see the good and focus on the bad. We read about it in newspapers, see it on the television, and hear about it on the radio – almost always the news focuses on the bad, the negative, the problems. But there could be a different story that we could share.

In shops, playgrounds, schools, and in so many other locations around Massachusetts the overwhelming majority of people are putting on a mask, taking precautions, and protecting each other. We need to celebrate this, rather than focusing on the minority who are out there flouting the rules and ignoring the scientific advice.

Last year; Cantor Hollis, Rabbi Jordi, Alison and I studied some Mussar with our wonderful teacher Caryl Shaw. In one of the classes we focused on the concept of Hakarat HaTov, it is the middah, character trait, that our Hineini-Religious School students were studying last month. It is a very appropriate one for the month of Thanksgiving as this middah is generally translated as gratitude. We learned about the ways that Mussar encourages us to practice this attitude and make it a part of our lives. But we also considered the fact that the Hebrew might more directly be translated as “recognizing the good”. In this way Mussar teaches us that to be grateful is about looking for the good, searching out the positive, and then focusing on it.

In the midst of a pandemic that can be difficult, it can be hard to focus on the good when there is so much negative surrounding us. But we know how helpful this approach can be. The field of positive psychology has taught the importance of concentrating on the good, and how this change in perspective can alter the way that we actually feel. Each morning when we recite the Nissim B’chol Yom – the blessings for life’s daily miracles, we take the mundane and we open our eyes to see that it is miraculous. We focus on every element of the morning routine as a blessing, and it not only alters the way that we approach and experience the day – it actually changes the way that we feel.

For too long in this pandemic I have allowed the negative to eclipse all of the good that surrounds me; but I want a reframe. I don’t want to concern myself with the one person not wearing a mask, instead I want to celebrate the many people who are. Thinking back to Thanksgiving I will not focus on the fact that we couldn’t be with family; instead I will celebrate the way in which Zoom brought us together, the absence of any family squabbles and the fact that I could eat chicken instead of turkey. And as we come together for Shabbat I am not going to concentrate on the physical distance between us, instead I am going to celebrate the way that technology can bring us together.

As the marshmallow test teaches us, we are in this for the long haul, and the reward will not be immediate. But despite the challenge of this moment, we need to focus on Hakarat Hatov on recognizing the good that surrounds us. There is much that can be celebrated, many people to appreciate, and there is so much goodness around, if we only open our eyes to see it.

[1] https://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-marshmallow-test-kids-20180626-story.html
[2] https://www.facebook.com/gmitelman
[3] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/24/upshot/thanksgiving-dinner-survey.html