Gratitude & a Cup of Joe
Thanks a Thousand
by AJ Jacobs
I have my Oscar acceptance speech all ready. I practice it when life is feeling rather bleak. I’ll probably win for Best Screenplay as my acting career seems to have stalled in 10th grade and as far as I know Singing in the Shower is not yet an official category. When I do walk forward to accept my Oscar, I will have a long list of people to thank: my husband and child, my parents, the New Years friends, my agent (a part yet-to-be filled —hint! hint!), my high school drama teacher who told me that I would never make it as an actress unless I was ok playing “widows and mothers and old women”… and I will NOT let them play me off or cut to commercial, because here’s the thing: we are the result of the love of thousands. What we do, what we have, what we will be is the result of thousands of people, working together.
Writer A.J. Jacobs delves deep into that interconnected love in his new book Thanks a Thousand: a Gratitude Journey. Jacobs has lived biblically. He has attempted to live the healthiest life. He has read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He has turned life transformation into a fabulous writing career — and as a fellow writer, I say: way to go! Great niche! But in his new book he confesses that “even though I know that I’m ridiculously lucky — I don’t lack for meals and I have a job that I mostly enjoy — I still let all the daily irritations hijack my brain.” Don’t we all! In fact, as Jacobs discovered, “all humans are genetically programmed to pay attention to what goes wrong… but the result of this negative bias is that we are awash in modern-day anxiety.”
Yeah. Over here. I’m totally awash in modern-day anxiety.
So, Jacobs set out to do something about that. He cites Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast who says, “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” When I am frustrated and turn to making my Oscar speech, that exercise of mentally thanking people does make me feel better. But Jacobs took it one step further. He set out on a gratitude project hoping to “flip my ratio… to spent more than half of my average day experiencing gratitude and mild happiness. Or at least not outright irritation.” A noble goal!
Who does he set out to thank? Everyone who makes his morning cup of coffee possible.
He begins with his barista, a woman who is a hugger, a cheerful slinger of caffeinated beverages, and who stands on her feet all day despite a foot injury. Her name is Chung. He deeply thanks her. And then as his net of gratitude widens it takes him to hauling companies, warehouses of coffee beans, reservoirs of drinking water, steelworkers in Bethlehem, the inventor of the “Java Jacket,” restaurant inspectors, and finally to the mountains of Colombia. After all, thousands of people contribute labor to make one cup of coffee that is safe and delicious.
In the end Jacobs ends up thanking more than one thousand people — and they are all listed at the end of the book. And, as he discovers, it isn’t just a matter of a simple, “thank you.” Often thank yous are thrown around in our world without feeling and meaning. Think about the difference between a thank you text and a hand-written thank you note. Jacobs finds that his own gratitude deepens when his thanks come from that deep belly of gratitude — “I am grateful for…” instead of “Thank you!”
In one of my favorite episodes of Friends, Phoebe and Joey engage in a fantastic battle of wits and wills trying to answer the age old question: is there such a thing as a selfless good deed? And while, unlike Phoebe, I love PBS, I know that doing the right thing does make me feel better. There is gratification in doing good deeds — and there is gratification in gratitude as well. So is this a navel-gazing experiment that only really benefits Jacobs? As Jacobs points out there are some like Barbara Ehernreich who say that gratitude could stop social progress. Be grateful for what you have. Don’t ask for more. Your $8 an hour job plus the three other jobs you have to work to make ends meet is good enough for you. Be thankful.
Thankfully, that just isn’t true. “Research shows that people are more generous and pro-social when they feel gratitude,” according to Scott Barry Kaufman, Jacob’s “gratitude guru” and professor of psychology at Columbia University.
So feeling gratitude makes you happier. Engaging with that gratitude spreads joy in the world. And experiencing gratitude also helps us to make the world better.