Thought For The Day - The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks - 12/07/2013

For me the most fascinating insight of the week came from a television documentary on Wednesday called “The Truth about Personality.” It was about ongoing scientific research into the nature and effects of optimism and pessimism. According to one major study in the United States, optimists live on average seven and a half years longer. Mind you, if optimists live longer than pessimists, does this not prove that optimists are right to be cheerful and pessimists right to be sad?

But seriously, the implications are huge. The mere possibility that we might be able to add years to people’s life expectancy by a change of attitude and mindset deserves serious attention. And what scientists are beginning to suggest is that with the right training we can change our disposition. It isn’t fixed forever in our genes. Even identical twins sometimes develop different temperaments as a result of events that happen to them during their lifetime.

How then do you switch from being a pessimist to being an optimist? The programme focussed on two techniques. One is meditation, which, as brain scans of Buddhist monks have shown, actually reconfigures the brain.

The other, known as cognitive bias modification, is done by repeatedly picking out the smiling face among the frowns on a computer screen. We saw how eight weeks of these two exercises made a measurable difference to the brain.

But this suggests something else as well, namely a new insight into two key elements in the life of faith. Meditation is a well known feature of many religions. And so is prayer, especially in the form of thanksgiving...

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