Segal: Think and Fast
October 4, 2014
Today marks the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Called to observe a "Sabbath of complete rest," most Jews around the world spend the day in prayer and reflection. We look back on the past year to find room for self-improvement, and we look ahead to the coming year with hope and faith.
The Bible commands that we practice "self-denial" on this day, which has come to mean refraining from food and drink (unless you are pregnant or ill, in which case fasting is prohibited). Denying our appetites allows us to focus on the deep spiritual work of the holiday. We can better direct our attention to nourishing the spirit when we are not devoted to satisfying the needs of the body. Some also understand fasting as a purifying act — a "cleanse" of sorts — as we prepare to enter the new year.
There may be a very practical psychological benefit to fasting, as well. In August, a Time magazine story listed "The 10 Most Unexpected Ways to Be Happy, Backed By Science" (Kevan Lee, Aug. 26). The ninth item is: "Give up your favorite things," because "denying yourself something makes you appreciate the things you take for granted." Then, when you come back to those things you've denied yourself, you will savor them even more for having abstained. Anyone who sits down to a feast after a long day without eating will confirm that food never tastes better than when you're hungry.
Self-denial offers benefits beyond gratitude. It is possible to increase self-control and willpower through practice. Just the act of "exerting self-control leads to more self-control over time," Lee wrote. Willpower, ironically, seems to be not just a matter of will but of habit. Those who cultivate the virtues of self-control and delayed gratification will display more willpower over the long term.
The recent publication of "The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control," by Walter Mischel, reminds us of the power of this idea. If you haven't heard of this test, picture this: You're seated at a table in an exam room, and a facilitator makes you an offer. You can have one marshmallow right now, or if you wait 20 minutes alone in the room without touching the single marshmallow, you'll get two marshmallows. Mischel ran this experiment with children in Stanford's psychology department in the 1960s and 1970s. Following the children for 30 years afterward, the study found that those who had been able to wait for two marshmallows were generally happier and more successful in life. They had higher SAT scores and lower body-mass-index numbers, and they earned more advanced degrees and handled stress better. The early self-control they displayed as children equipped them to succeed later in life. The good news — especially for those who jumped at the first marshmallow — is that self-control can be taught.
But "self-control alone doesn't guarantee success," Pamela Druckerman wrote in The New York Times ("Learning How to Exert Self-Control," Sept. 12). "People also need a 'burning goal' that gives them a reason to activate these skills." Just as organizations need a mission statement, individuals need an end to which life can become the means. We need a bigger picture, a narrative arc that bends with purpose toward some impact we want to make.
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Quite beautifully, Yom Kippur's coupling of fasting and reflection lets us do just that — practice self-control while we contemplate our life's meaning. Needless to say, there are many ways to cultivate these virtues, with and without religion. It's a good idea to make some time in your life for both self-denial and self-reflection. Together, they are habits that lead to health, success and happiness.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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