“Hi Kathy. Stan here. Called to say hello and wish you a good Shabbos. Give me a call when you get a chance. Love you. Bye.”
That was the message I could count on every Friday if I was not able to actually talk to my father-in-law when he called – until sometime in 2019 when his health started to fail. This past week, Stanley Albert Forster took his leave of life as we know it, and I will miss him dearly. He taught me many things over four decades, including at least five lessons on mental health from his simple, weekly practice of calling to wish me a good Shabbos.
1. Shabbos. Yiddish for sabbath. For Jews, the sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends after sundown on Saturday. Christians subsequently designated Sunday as their sabbath, and when Islam was founded, Friday became theirs. In all cases, it is a designated day of rest. This ancient practice of putting work aside and setting time apart to replenish one’s energy and emotional reserves predates smart phones, social media and our uber optimized schedules. The essential wisdom of this practice for mental health is reflected in research documenting the importance of play for healthy brain development in children and for improved mood and energy in adults, and the fundamental impact of rest and sleep on mental health.
2. Routine. Every Friday. For years. It was something I anticipated with pleasure. It was a practice that gave Stan structure and purpose. He had a long list of family and friends on his Shabbos call list. Some might find discussion of routine rather boring, but the dull practice of cultivating personal routines can have profound benefits, and the role of structure in promoting mental health is well documented. Kids with impulsivity and attentional problems do better when their families establish predictable routines. And routines can have far-reaching psychological benefits, including alleviating symptoms of bipolar disorder and attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) .
3. Connection. Stan’s Shabbos calls were filled with stories and experiences from the week. They united him with his network of loved ones near and far. It was a simple practice that promoted connection and prevented loneliness. Good thing since social connection is associated with positive wellbeing and loneliness really can be life threatening. Research on the relationship between loneliness and mental health indicates that social disconnection and loneliness are associated with many mental health disturbances, including suicide, impaired cognitive performance, cognitive decline, increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, and increases in depressive symptoms.
4. Headspace. Stan’s weekly calls were a reminder to create time for reflection apart from our busy days. He was a man ahead of his time. We have an abundance of data today on the mental health benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Practicing mindfulness can impact the development of skills like focus, self-regulation, judgment and patience during childhood – and we can see these benefits in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. And significant positive biological changes can be seen in adults after only three days of mindfulness meditation with increased activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to processing stress and cognitive focus. The benefits of mindfulness extend to ameliorating mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD as well.
5. Friday night dinner even better. I loved Stan’s calls, but it was even sweeter to celebrate the start of the sabbath with Friday night dinner together. Over the years, we had many occasions to do so. It is a tradition that we have carried on in our family that I hope my kids will carry forward as they establish their own families. Psychological, social and biological benefits accrue when we eat together. As social creatures with complex cultures, the dinner table is a place where customs, traditions, beliefs and values are communicated. Family stories are told, current issues discussed, diverse ideas are debated. It all contributes to our development of identify, self and belonging.
It is almost four years ago that I started writing Five on Friday. In my first blog, Why Five on Friday, I spoke about our family tradition of Friday night dinner and the opportunity it presented for us to pause and pivot and have conversations that matter about mental health. It is largely thanks to Stan that I knew the immeasurable opportunities swaddled in a good Shabbos. Like Stan’s calls, I hope that my routine musings on mental health promote connection, create space, and invite conversations that help us grow in health and understanding. Good Shabbos.