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The Selfish Case for Becoming More Grateful

Happiness Psychology
The Selfish Case for Becoming More Grateful


  • Why some people believe that gratitude is dangerous for society
  • Why the “glass half-full or half-empty” question misses the point
  • How a simple cup of coffee inspired a thousand thank-yous

A.J. Jacobs is a renowned journalist and the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including The Year of Living Biblically, My Life as an Experiment, and Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. He recently sat down with Jordan Harbinger on the Jordan Harbinger Show to discuss why being more grateful is so beneficial, both for society at large and for every one of us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.

Jordan: A.J., tell me about the idea behind your latest book.

A.J.: I tried to thank a thousand people who had even the smallest role in making my cup of coffee possible.

The origin of the idea was that I had started this ritual before meals, where I would say a prayer of thanksgiving. But I’m not really religious, so instead of thanking God, I would try to thank some of the people who made my food possible, like the farmer who grew the tomatoes, and the cashier who rang them up.

My son, who was 10 at the time, wisely pointed out that this was totally lame, because those people can’t hear me. He said, “If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person.” I was like, “That is a nice idea—and a good book idea!” So he earned his supper that night, and that’s what set me off on the journey of going around the world thanking people for my cup of coffee.

And I went wide—so I thanked the obvious people, like the farmer of the coffee beans and the barista. But I also went out to meet the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. I called the woman who did pest control for the warehouse where my coffee beans were stored, and I said, “I know this is a little strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee.” And she said, “Yeah, that is strange—but thank you. I don’t get a lot of appreciation.”

In one sense, thanking a thousand people is insane. But on the other hand, I could’ve gone to a million. Think about the guy who drove the truck—you’ve got to thank the people who paved the road, and the people who painted the yellow lines on the road so the truck didn’t veer into oncoming traffic. And then the guy who made the paint, the guy who made the chemicals for the paint… It was an amazing lesson in how much goes into everything.

And that was one of the themes of the book, that we take hundreds of people for granted. Take my own life—I’m an author. The book says, “By A.J. Jacobs”, which is a total lie—there were the designers, the editors, the people who designed the font, and the people who cut down the trees for the paper. Everything we do requires hundreds, thousands of interconnected people, and making a mental switch is very good from a selfish point of view, because it helps you appreciate the hundreds of things that go right every day, instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.

“I know this is a little strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee.”

So really, there was a selfish motivation for this book—we all have our Larry David side and our Mr. Rogers side, and I was born with a very strong Larry David side. I love watching Larry David, but it’s not fun to be in the mindset of a grumpy pessimist. So this was an attempt to bulk up my Mr. Rogers side, because it’s so linked to happiness. There’s a great quote: “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” So forcing yourself to be grateful, even if you pretend for a while, actually sinks it in.

In fact, all of my projects have shown me how powerful acting is—this “fake it ’til you feel it” idea. I had to fake it for a long time. I would wake up in a grumpy mood, but I’d have to spend an hour calling and visiting people and thanking them, so it was like acting. I would force myself to do it, but by the end of that hour, the cognitive dissonance is too much, and your mind will switch over to gratefulness.

I’ve seen this hundreds of times in these life experiments I do—I did one where I had to try to be the best husband ever. It was a month of Kate Hudson movies and foot massages, and it was not always pleasant. But every day, even if I was annoyed at my wife, I would force myself to buy her a little gift, like a little scented candle, and I would bring it to her. And just by that act, I sort of convinced my brain, “Oh, I’m bringing a gift to my wife every day. I must really love her!” And I started to really feel that. There’s a great quote that says, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” So act as if you’re confident—that’s a big one for me, because I don’t think I’m naturally confident. But I pretend I am.

Jordan: So your default state was kind of grumpy and impatient. I get it, because there are many days where I’ll wake up and go, “I’ve got to do the gratitude thing, because it’s going to be one of those days.”

A.J.: Yeah, it’s hard. I was just trying last night, because I was having trouble falling asleep. So instead of counting sheep, I counted things that I’m grateful for, and I do it alphabetically. Like, A, the apple pancakes my kids made last weekend. B, the HBO show Barry. I read all these studies about the health benefits of gratitude, so I’m going to try to be more grateful.

Evolutionary psychologists will tell you that we are wired for the negative bias—we want to focus on the lion or the one mushroom in a thousand that is poisonous. That might have helped us on the savanna, but it is really not a great way to go through life.

Even take a couple of minutes every day to focus on what went right—if I’m in a line at a drugstore that moves quickly, I will make a point of noticing and even saying out loud, “I’m in this fast line. Remember this.” Because I know that when I’m in a slow line next time, I’ll be like, “This always happens to me! I have the worst luck.” But I don’t—sometimes you just get the fast line, and sometimes you get the slow line. So be aware of that.

“Highlight the times when something works, instead of just having your brain auto-highlight the times when it doesn’t.”

Jordan: Right, so highlight the times when something works, instead of just having your brain auto-highlight the times when it doesn’t.

A.J.: Exactly. Whenever I go to airports, for years, I would be like, “I always get the gate that’s four and a half miles away.” But I started to really pay attention. I was like, “Let’s see if that hypothesis is true.” And it’s not. Sometimes I walk through security, and I’m right at my gate. But you forget about those times because they’re so easy, and the other ones stick in your mind.

Jordan: Gratitude is hard to keep up with, because when things are done for us well, they’re kind of invisible. Like with great service at a restaurant—you’re just like, “Oh, that was enjoyable.” But you don’t think, “They nailed this from beginning to end. I wasn’t too cold. The food came in just the right amount of time. It was quiet. The server was polite. The seat was comfortable.” You don’t comment on those things.

A.J.: No, you don’t. One of my first interviews was with a barista who works at my local coffee shop, and I thanked her for the coffee. I asked her, “What’s it like to be a barista?” She said that it’s not an easy job because people wouldn’t even treat her like a human being—they would treat her like an ATM machine or a kiosk. They wouldn’t even look up from their phone, just thrust their credit card out in her direction. She said that just made her feel terrible. And as she’s telling me this, I realize that I’ve done that dozens of times.

So I made a pledge that when I deal with a human being in the service sector, I am going to look that person in the eye and say thank you. It’s good for that other person to be recognized as human, but it actually makes you feel better, too. So there is a selfish motivation for looking someone in the eyes and saying thank you.

Another big lesson of the book was that there are all these masterpieces around us that we totally take for granted. One of my favorite interviews was with this guy who designed the little plastic lid for my coffee cup. This guy was very innovative, sort of like the Elon Musk of lid designers. And his theory was that a lid can ruin your cup of coffee because it blocks the aroma, and aroma is a crucial part of the experience.

So he made sure to shape the lid so that you could really burrow your nose in. It’s got this indentation for your nose, and a bigger hole in the middle. He even talked about the opening for the mouth, which was this special crescent shape so that the liquid came out smoothly. He was so passionate, he could have gone on for hours.

“All these little things that make our life better are totally taken for granted.”

It made me realize that there are all these amazing designs that we take for granted, but that people have put years of their life into. Then I started to notice it all the time—my desk lamp at work, for example, has this little indentation for my thumb on the On-Off switch. And it just makes it one percent more comfortable. All these little things that make our life better are totally taken for granted.

Jordan: Gratitude is contagious in a way, right? Because people who are helped by others are more likely to help other people and pay it forward. Is that your experience?

A.J.: Well, there was a very interesting op-ed in the New York Times about the dangers of gratitude. This woman was very concerned that if you are too grateful, you become complacent. She saw it as this right-wing conspiracy in which Walmart can tell its workers, “Be grateful for your minimum-wage job. Just be grateful that you have a job at all.”

Jordan: Positive thinking keeps them docile.

A.J.: Exactly, like it’s the opiate of the masses. But the research says that that is not the way it plays out in real life. Actually, the more grateful you are, the more you want to help others.

And I’ve seen this anecdotally—I’ve battled depression, and when I’m in a depressed mood, I am not looking out for other people. All I care about is getting out of the depression—but being grateful makes you want to pay it forward.

And I saw it play out in small ways, like with the idea of water. Coffee is 98.8% water, so I went up to the New York reservoir system to thank them for giving us water. Hundreds of people make our water possible, and it’s just this crazy, miraculous fact that we can turn on a little metal spigot and get clean water. That was not true for 99% of all human history, and it’s still not true for billions of people who have to walk miles for water.

So it made me think, “How can I provide access to water for other people?” It made me get involved in this water charity. It was a real perspective shift. You know that cliché about, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty”? I think that might be the wrong way to look at it. It’s the fact that there’s water in that glass at all—that we can turn on this little lever and have clean water—that’s crazy. It’s unheard of in human history.

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