A few years ago, I started testing out a new ritual before dinner. I began to say a prayer of thanksgiving.
Well, prayer isn’t quite the right word.
I’m agnostic, verging on atheist.
So instead of thanking God, I’d thank some of the people who helped make my food a reality.
“I’d like thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes,” I’d say. “And the trucker who drove these tomatoes to the store. And cashier at the grocery where I bought these tomatoes.”
My wife and kids, eager to actually deliver the tomatoes to their mouths, put up with my new ritual. Barely.
I’d read enough about the benefits of gratitude (everything from boosting happiness to sleep to creativity) that I figured a pre-meal little delay might be worthwhile. At the very least, I hoped it would be a tonic against my default mood of generalized annoyance.
The ritual went along fine – if uneventfully – for awhile.
And then one night at dinner, my 10-year-old son said to me, “You know, dad, those people can’t hear you. They’re not in our apartment. If you really care, you should go thank them in person.”
Huh. Now that’s an interesting idea, I thought. It’d show my sons I’m serious about gratitude, and, as a journalist, maybe I could defray the travel costs by writing about my journey. So I took him up on the challenge.
It seemed relatively simple. And to make it even simpler, I decided to focus on just one item – an item I can’t live without: My morning cup of coffee.
As projects often do, it turned out to be not so simple at all.
The quest took me months. It took me around the globe, filling me with awe, concern and caffeine jitters.
I learned that to thank properly, you have to embrace radical interconnectedness, sort of a six degrees of gratitude. Consider this: The coffee beans are driven to my local café in a van (I had to thank the driver). But he couldn’t do his job without the road (thanks to the pavers). And the road would be dangerous without the yellow lines (thanks to the folks who made the paint). We’re talking a boatload of people (which reminds me, the ship designers too).
I thanked a thousand people in more than a dozen countries, some face to face, some by email or over the phone – all to wildly mixed reactions.
The project turned out to be more timely than I anticipated. First, in this troubling era, it gave me a much-needed reminder of the hundreds of things that go right every day as opposed to focusing on the three or four that go wrong (even if one of the latter is our electoral system).
It was also a crash course in the folly of isolationism. We’re in a moment of tribalism and rabid nationalism – but it doesn’t just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.
“It doesn’t just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.”
The first stop on my Trail of Gratitude was the barista at my local coffee shop, Joe Coffee on New York’s Upper West Side.
My barista’s name is Chung Lee, and when I thanked her, she responded by thanking me for thanking her. I decided to cut it off there. I didn’t want to risk an infinite thankfulness loop.
Chung explained that being a barista is difficult job. You’re encountering people in a very dangerous state: pre-caffeination.
Chung has had people scream at her till she cried – including an eight-year-old girl who complained about the whipped cream design Chung made on her hot cocoa.
The worst part, says Chung, is when customers treat her like a vending machine. They just thrust their credit card in her direction without even looking up from their phones.
As she said this, I realized I’ve pulled this putz maneuver countless times.
So I made a pledge: When dealing with others, I would take the two seconds to look up and make eye contact. I know! Alert the Nobel Committee.
But I’ve found that this small gesture can have an outsized impact on both parties. It reminds you that you’re interacting with a human being who has a family, aspirations and embarrassing high school memories.
“Hundreds of people spent a dozens of combined hours on this coffee, and I normally guzzle it like a dog at a bowl.”
After Chung, the next person I thanked was Ed Kaufmann, the buyer who selects the variety of coffee that fills my cup. Ed spends his days trekking across South America, Africa and Asia in search of the best coffee beans.
I thanked Ed, and in return, he showed me how to taste coffee like a pro. It’s quite a ritual. You dip a spoon in the coffee, and take a cartoonishly loud slurp, the slurp of an Adam Sandler character eating soup at a fancy French restaurant.
You do this because you want to spray the coffee all over your mouth. You want to soak the all the taste buds, even those hiding in your cheeks and the roof of your mouth.
Ed took a slurp, and his face lit up. “I’m picking up notes of maple syrup, soil and honeycrisp apple,” he said.
I took a sip. “I’m picking up…coffee. Tastes like coffee to me.”
But inspired by Ed, I decided to pay more attention to the taste. I’d let the coffee sit on my tongue for just a moment longer than normal, noticing the texture, the acidity, the sweetness. It seemed the least I could do. Hundreds of people spent a dozens of combined hours on this coffee, and I normally guzzle it like a dog at a bowl.
Psychologists tell me this idea of savoring is at the heart of gratitude. “Gratitude is about holding onto a moment as long as possible,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, author and psychology professor at Barnard. “It slows down time so that your life doesn’t pass by in an undifferentiated blur.”
Next up on my thank you list: Thanking those who made the cup – after all, I don’t drink my coffee out of a spigot. I thanked the lumberjacks who harvested the trees for the cardboard and the folks who created the logo on the cup.
One of my favorite conservations was thanking the man who designed the coffee lid on my cup. Never could I have imagined the amount of passion and thought that went into this three-inch piece of plastic. The designer, Doug Fleming, is quite a lid innovator — the Elon Musk of cup tops, but perhaps more emotionally stable.
In his view, a bad lid can spoil the coffee by blocking the aroma, which is so crucial to the experience.
“Coffee is not farm to cup,” he says. “It’s farm to face.”
Which is why Doug designed a hexagonal shape to allow your nose to really burrow in, along with an oversized opening to let the aroma escape. There’s tons more advanced Lid Theory, but you get the idea.
Talking with Doug was a mini-revelation, one that made me more thankful for all the everyday masterpieces all around me. I’m looking now at the on/off switch on my desk lamp, which has a smooth indentation that perfectly fits my thumb.
If something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible. But if you pay attention, if you notice the mini-masterpieces and refuse to take them for granted, it taps into your sense of wonder.
As the project progressed, I entered a thanking frenzy. I’d spend a couple of hours each day thanking people by email, phone call or in-person visits. Truth is, not everyone loved it.
“Is this some sort of pyramid scheme?” I was asked more than once.
“If you pay attention, if you notice the mini-masterpieces and refuse to take them for granted, it taps into your sense of wonder.”
But the vast majority were surprisingly receptive. Turns out, as reported in a recent study from the University of Chicago, most of us underestimate how much friends and strangers appreciate a simple thanks and overestimate the awkwardness.
I remember calling the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee is stored.
“I know this sounds strange,” I said, “but I just want to thank you for helping to keep the bugs out of my coffee.”
“That is strange,” she said, “but you made my day.”
It was like a bizarre version of the obnoxious crank phone calls I made to my middle school headmaster.
The thanks didn’t just affect the thankees. They affected me. I’d often start my day in my genetically–predisposed Larry David frame of mind. But I’d force myself to spend twenty minutes writing thank you notes.
After a couple of hours, my mind caught up with my actions. I became a bit more grateful for real. I’d tapped into the outside-in technique endorsed by such diverse sources as Ecclesiastes to cognitive behavior psychology.
One of the biggest challenges was containment: every stop on the Trail of Gratitude gave birth to a hundred other places I could thank. It was like a particularly vicious series of pop-up ads.
Consider my trip to Nieva, the mountain town where my coffee beans are grown. I was driven along curvy cliffside roads, thankful that the driver kept us from plunging over the edge despite his disconcerting habit of doing the sign of the cross every time we went around a hairpin turn (I would have preferred a mental prayer, with hands on 10 and 2).
We jounced up a dirt road to the small farm owned by the Guarnizo family, eight brothers and a sister. The Guarizos took me on a tour – the coffee trees with the red cherries that hold the beans, the chickens the size of adult pit bulls –and I thanked them for helping jolt me awake every day with their coffee.
The Guarnizos responded that they couldn’t do their job without 100 other people.
The machine they use to depulp the fruit is made in Brazil. They drive around the farm on a pickup truck with parts from all over the world. In fact, much of the steel in Colombia is made in the United States.
Which inspired me to go to a steel mill in Indiana to thank the steelworkers. I met with several crane operators who had been there for decades. They were thankful to still have a job, despite its hardships. They spoke at length about their bouts of carbon monoxide poisoning, which laid them out for days. “It was like the worst hangover ever,” one told me, much to the alarm of the steel PR woman nearby.
These folks may or may not be helped in the short term by Trump’s tariffs. Hard to say. But in the long term, as the majority of economists will tell you, trade barriers are an impediment to progress. Globalization, despite its downsides, has been an overall boon. The rate of global poverty has fallen, life spans have jumped. We shouldn’t succumb to the recent trend to tribalism and isolationism and return to our silos.
Which brings me to my final goal: To use gratitude as a spark to action.
“Most of us underestimate how much friends and strangers appreciate a simple thanks and overestimate the awkwardness.”
There are those who fear that too much gratitude leads to complacency. The brilliant writer Barbara Ehrenreich, for one, once argued gratitude is an opiate of the people, an impediment to social change, almost a right wing plot.
But several studies indicate precisely the opposite is true. The more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help strangers. When you’re in a bad mood, you’re more likely to focus on your own needs. Gratitude makes you want to pay it forward.
By diving into the supply chain, I was exposed to the ugly side of capitalism, the exploitation, the suffering, the unequal access.
Take water. Coffee is 98.8 percent water, so I figured I should thank the people who provide water to New York. I went upstate to meet some of the thousands of people who work on the reservoir so I can turn a knob and have drinkable water. I thanked chemists, engineers, rangers who scoop up deer manure before a rainstorm.
It reminded me that millions of people in the world need to spend hours walking to the nearest safe well. It finally forced me to pull the trigger on donating to an organization that helps provide clean water. (Dispensers for Safe Water).
Likewise, learning about all the resources used to make my disposable cup and lid (and the half-pound of CO2 produced), I became one of those people, the ones who bring their own coffee thermos to the café. (If you see me, I promise I try to keep my smugness to a minimum).
After I reached a thousand thank yous, I’ve been pestering my friends to go on these Trails of Gratitude themselves.
It doesn’t have to be coffee. It could be anything: a light bulb, a pair of socks, your toothpaste. And you don’t have to spend six months travelling around the world. It could just be a small gesture, like looking a cashier in the eye.
Or sending a note to the designer of a logo you love.
Mostly, it’s a mindset. It’s about refusing to take things for granted.
It’s being aware of the thousands of people involved.
Realizing someone works in a factory that makes the fabric on the chair you’re sitting in right now. That someone descended into a tunnel and mined the copper to make the wires in my laptop that I’m using to type this final sentence: Thank you for reading my story.
Excerpted from the new book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey by A.J. Jacobs. Copyright © 2018 by A.J. Jacobs and Simon & Schuster, Inc./TED Books. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, Inc./TED Books.