by Dr. Robyn Cohen, PJ Library Philadelphia and jteenphilly Director
“Happiness comes from doing something kind for someone else.”
—Mitzvah Circle Foundation
One of my favorite Psychology studies is the pencil experiment. You can try this one at home. Hold a pencil in your mouth- hold it first with just your lips holding the pencil, and next with just your teeth gripping it.
Strack et al (1988) found that the participants who held the pencil in their teeth reported a more positive response to the task than the participants holding it with their lips. Why? What is the difference? By holding a pencil in your teeth, your facial muscles mimic a smile, and holding it in your lips mimic a frown. Wow! This experiment meant to me that it was not just emotions that affect behavior, but that behavior influences emotions (doing something good makes you feel good).
Judaism teaches that it is behavior that matters most. The Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.” For example, it is better to give tzedakah even when one doesn’t feel like it, rather than wait until one is in the mood to give. As my mother says, we don’t wait for our children to want to brush their teeth; we teach them to brush their teeth. Maybe they will feel nice and clean afterwards, maybe not, but it is the behavior itself that matters. Otherwise, many kids may never feel like brushing their teeth. Likewise, many adults and children may never feel like giving tzedakah, but given the opportunity to do so they might reap the benefit of positive feelings from making a difference.
The word tzedakah does not simply mean charity, the real meaning is justice. And, it is an important habit to teach our kids. When we as parents decide that as a family we are going to volunteer even when we all don’t quite feel in the mood, we set something positive into motion. We are modeling the behavior in the hopes that it will have a positive effect on our children today and in the future. It is perfectly okay if children don’t feel like helping—it is the act of giving tzedakah or volunteering itself that matters most.
This month it is Martin Luther King day– a perfect opportunity to kick off volunteering and/or get in the habit of giving tzedakah. This federal holiday is not only about remembering Martin Luther King, it is an opportunity to honor his vision with tikkun olam, repairing the world. There are many needs in our area, and also many opportunities to make a difference. We teach our children through modeling, and participating together. Whether you are looking for a first time volunteer opportunity or a way to deepen your connection, there are many opportunities just waiting for you and your family—feel free to contact me so I can help you find a place to volunteer or an organization where you can give tzedakah. After all, the best way to teach our children is to model with our own actions.
As a volunteer participant put it best about her experience, “JRA has taught me that both the helper and recipient benefit when doing acts of kindness.”