Please tell me if you agree or disagree: our generation seems to experience many more mental health challenges than previous generations.
Try as I may, I can’t picture my great-great-grandfather in the shtetel complaining about depression. Or my great-great-grandmother saying, “I am feeling anxious. I must go to my therapist!”
Okay, jokes aside, we do know that people knew very little about mental health back then. So even when they experienced mental health issues, they would not know what to call it. They might have been too ashamed to talk about it.
At the same time, it won’t be farfetched to assume that people in the shtetel did have some advantage over us, simply because they were so occupied.
According to a study titled “Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness” (good job, academic people, for making everything sounds so complicated!!), “people who are busy are happier than people
who are idle.”
And note this sentence: “Curiously, this last effect is true even if people are forced to be busy!”
You can easily see how people in the shtetel had so much to do! Drawing water from the well, feeding the cows, plowing and planting the fields, washing clothing by hand… tedious tasks, but most likely, being occupied improved their mental health.
Thank G-d, we are blessed to live in a time when we don’t have to do any of that. Instead of spending time on boring chores, we can find ways to keep ourselves occupied — but with things that will give us a sense of purpose.
Oh, I just stumbled upon the winning formula!
Researchers at the University of California found that if “you feel you have a purpose in life, you’re more likely to feel both physically and mentally well on a daily basis.”
Being occupied (good for mental health) + having a sense of purpose (also good for mental health) = are really good for us.
Because we know that whatever we are doing matters. We know that what keeps us busy also brings us closer to our purpose. We feel accomplished — and we feel excited.
When we are excited, we are uplifted.
And when we are uplifted, our mental health improves significantly.
Seventy-three years ago, on the 10th of Shevat, the rebbe assumed the Chabad movement’s leadership mantle.
Perhaps like no other Jewish leader before him, the rebbe devoted hundreds of hours to advising people on mental health. The rebbe’s responsa, collected in the “Igros Kodesh” series, contains hundreds of letters dealing with mental health issues. I often read those letters and find practical ideas that help me.
One of the rebbe’s ideas — which he never even presented as a mental health suggestion — is that we have tremendous power in our hands.
The rebbe would quote Maimonides’ words about how we must realize that “the world is hanging on a balance,” and even with a single good act, we might impact the entire world.
This is something that can fill our lives with excitement!
Imagine: how would we feel if we lived with the awareness that even one mitzvah we do can be the thing that will end suffering around the world? Even one mitzvah can be what will bring world peace. Even one mitzvah can change the lives of eight billion people.
We would be excited and doing good deeds all day long!
And we would have so much less time to spend on negative emotions.
This is a win-win: more positive energy, less negative energy.
As we mark 73 years of the rebbe’s leadership, I invite you to remember this message and strive to keep the excitement going. Let’s remember our incredible power and use it for good; this will lead to a healthier mind and a better world.
May all of our good deeds be the ones that tip the scale and transform the world for the better, with the coming of Moshiach, amen.
Mendy Kaminker is the rabbi of Chabad of Hackensack and an editorial member of Chabad.org. He welcomes your comments at rabbi@ChabadHackensack.com