Author A.J. Jacobs
Photo by Lem Lattimer

The psychological value of gratitude is no surprise—these days, it is basically a commonplace. But moments of gratitude can have underrated benefits on physical health, as well. Science bears this out: studies show gratitude not only inspires generosity but also helps patients recover more quickly from surgery and improves sleep. Yet practicing acts of gratitude, some so simple as saying thank you, has become a lost art. Excuses are many. We are too tired, feel rushed, or, in a bad mood. Ironically, these missed opportunities for gratitude can boost our own happiness.

In his latest work, Thanks A Thousand, author AJ Jacobs sets out on a gratitude quest to improve his own attitude. The mission? Thanking everyone involved in the production of his most essential need: his morning cup of coffee. Or, as Jacobs puts it, that “water with a tiny bit of black powder” that costs three bucks. Crisscrossing the U.S., Jacobs and his journey do more, however, than exhibit the importance of gratitude. He empathically humanizes the coffee supply chain: the myriad people in dozens of countries who create the product we so badly need. The thank yous are far-reaching and often humorous: from the inventor of Zarfs, the official name for those cardboard sleeves that protect our fingers from burning, to Kaldi—the ninth-century Ethiopian goat-herd, who, according to legend, discovered his goats giddy from coffee berries. But gratitude isn’t always ethically simple. Jacobs also found himself thanking Exxon for facilitating his coffee’s arrival, as the company simultaneously helps destroy the planet. The process of recognizing one’s self at the end of the supply chain opened up questions about global commerce.

The book is Jacobs’ latest in line of self-experimentation: from an improbable quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in The Know-It-All to adhering to religious scripture in The Year of Living Biblically, among others, Jacobs’ approach to journalism is both narrator and guinea pig. His style—humorous self-deference blended with themes of humanity and interconnectivity has found a wide audience—Jacobs has a handful of New York Times bestsellers to his name and is a regular Ted Talker. Perhaps most importantly, Jacobs once opened for Seinfeld, though he is quick to admit he was not permitted to speak to Jerry.

Jacobs and I recently enjoyed an amusing chat, discussing the neglected complexities of that simple cup of joe, our nation’s descent into tribalism, and the significance of counting one’s lucky stars.

Phineas Lambert for Guernica.

Guernica: So, why coffee?

A.J. Jacobs: Coffee’s a basic human need. Everybody drinks it. I drink it every morning. I could have done anything: socks, toothpaste, whatever. Really it could be any item that requires the combined work of thousands of people. Thousands of people you take for granted. But coffee has such an amazing, crazy history: The Enlightenment was fueled by coffee. Balzac had fifty cups a day. Fifty cups! Maybe it was weaker back then. Also, it has a clear origin: the farm in a small mountain town in Columbia. I knew I could go in all sorts of directions but end up at that farm. I liked the idea of going backwards: starting with thanking my barista and going from there.

Guernica: Coffee is such an apt choice. Like diamonds: they have this incredible mythology.

Jacobs: Coffee really is brilliant at showing the good and the bad of the supply chain. We are so incredibly lucky to have all these products, and we never think about where they come from. I am a capitalist overall, but there’s incredible suffering and horror along the supply chain. I wanted to show both sides.

Guernica: You say in the book, if everyone in the supply chain earned minimum wage, a cup of coffee would cost $25.

Jacobs: That was one estimate. Might be more. Think about the thousands of people involved: the farmers in Columbia, the people separating the good beans from the bad—they are not being paid a tremendous amount. There are so many people it goes through. We complain about a $3 cup of coffee, which is crazy I admit. I still find it mindboggling: this water with a tiny bit of black powder costs three dollars. At the same time, it could be a lot more. So, it’s all how you look at it.

Guernica: Do you think people are aware of all that goes into manufacturing of a single, seemingly simple, product? How has your mindset changed?

Jacobs: I had no idea what it took to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world. Thousands of people in dozens of countries. I thanked a thousand people, but you could get to a million. Or a billion. I thanked peopled who drove the trucks with the beans, but then I found I needed to thank the people who paved the road, the people who made the yellow paint. It’s revolutionized the way I look at my life. Just the amount that goes into everything. The roaster: that needs iron, which is mined in Minnesota. It’s put on boats sent to Indiana to make steel with the iron. But those boats, they get ice on the bottom and barnacles. They need people in scuba suits in the middle of winter to go underwater and chop things from the bottom of the boat. It’s astounding: without that person, I might not be drinking my coffee. And I never had any knowledge of his or her existence.

It’s especially resonant now, because we have this crazy movement toward tribalism and isolationism and focusing on just your nation. But that’s not the way the world works. In one sense, life is just so easy. Turn on the tap; there’s the water. People talk about the glass half full, the glass half empty. But you need to take a step back and be like holy shit, the fact that we even have water in the glass, that we have the glass we turned on the tap for, is unbelievable. The fact that we have water that is safe to drink—99.9% of humanity throughout history didn’t have that.

Guernica: Not to mention the folks in Flint, Michigan.

Jacobs: Exactly! And millions of people outside the U.S.

Guernica: One cup of coffee requires the cooperation of so many. Yet, here we are, the most powerful nation in the history of mankind, isolating ourselves from a global community on which we are totally reliant. Coffee is quite a timely metaphor.

Jacobs: I’ve been lucky. My previous book was about how we’re all related and building a family tree. Again, tribalism is crazy. It’s ruining us. Us versus them? There’s no us versus them. It’s just us. Us versus an exploding earth. I felt lucky that book was timely. Same with this. I started this long before we seemed to be taking this long turn into…

Guernica: Oblivion?

Jacobs: Let’s hope not! Though it does kind of seem to be heading that way. I would say Balkanization, but my late great aunt thought that was unfairly targeting the Balkans.

Guernica: Your book is “A Gratitude Journey.” Why is gratitude important?

Jacobs: We have a negative bias. Psychologists tell you that made sense when we were cave people. You wanted to focus on the lion that might eat you. The one mushroom in a hundred that was poisonous. But it’s not good for our mental health now. We are naturally attuned to focus on the three of four things that go wrong every day, instead of the hundreds that go right. Gratitude is about forcing ourselves to notice: Oh, I pressed the elevator button, and it came. I got in the elevator, and it didn’t plummet to the basement. It’s unnatural to focus on the hundreds of amazing things that happen, but it certainly is a better happier way to live. There’s sort of a Mr. Rogers-to-Larry David happiness continuum that exists. I’m far more Larry David, very good at finding negativity. I’m working really hard to get to the Mr. Rogers side.

Also, gratitude gets you outside of yourself. For most of my life, I’ve been wanting to be happy and acting in ways to try to improve my happiness. But selfishly. I finally got it through my thick skull that, paradoxically, the way to be happy is not to focus on yourself, but to try to focus on other people. And it’s such a relief. Takes so much weight off.

Guernica: So how did the thanking go?

Jacobs: Ideally, it should be great for the thanker and the thankee. In reality, it’s often super awkward. We’re not used to it. I thanked hundreds of strangers. The responses were varied. Some people were like what’s going on? Is this a pyramid scheme? What are you trying to sell me? Happily, the majority were thankful. A little freaked out perhaps, but thankful. I remember calling a woman who does the pest control for where the coffee beans are stored, and I said, I know this sounds strange, but thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee. And she said: Yeah, that does sound strange, but I appreciate it. It made my day.

Guernica: Some of your thankees border on the hilarious. Pope Clement for baptizing coffee, protecting it from Satan. Members of The Boston Tea Party. Any particular favorites?

Jacobs: I did love thanking the historical people, because you realize this couldn’t happen without them. I couldn’t actually thank the Boston Tea Party participants; that event was a huge part of making coffee an American drink. I did write a note to their descendants, who are super proud. I guess the statute of limitations is over. I also thanked Teddy Roosevelt through his museum. He passed The Food Safety Act. There used to be horse liver in coffee! I got a lovely note back from the Teddy Roosevelt people, who said he would have enjoyed this project.

Guernica: You even wrote a thank you to the CEO of Exxon, though that seemed tongue-in-cheek.

Jacobs: I’d actually say more passive aggressive. I thanked him but asked him to please stop killing our planet.  I felt I had to thank Exxon because they provided the gas for the trucks. So technically my coffee wouldn’t get to me without them. But I also think they are part of the reason for the climate change catastrophe. So I thanked them, but asked if they would please switch to renewable energy. I said I wanted my coffee trees to be around in fifty years.

Guernica: You ascribe a lot of your personal success to luck: eighty-percent, versus twenty-percent hard work. How does luck tie in with gratitude?

Jacobs: Eighty percent may not be a totally scientific number, but a huge part of our lives is dependent on luck. It’s so important to literally thank your lucky stars. Where you’re born. Your genes. My first book, about Elvis, I sent out blindly, happened to land on an Elvis fan’s desk. Otherwise, I might’ve gone to grad school for psychology.

Luck is super important. It’s tied to compassion, which gratitude is also tied to. If you believe the myth that every success you have is solely because of your brilliance and hard work, studies show you’re less likely to help others. You work hard, that’s wonderful and you need to: it’s a prerequisite, necessary but not sufficient. There are thousands of talented people who could have been Meryl Streep or Steve Jobs, but they didn’t get those lucky breaks. My hope is that people become more aware of how much others contribute to their success.

Guernica:Your books are often paired with TED Talks, two very different mediums.

Jacobs: I love giving the talks: when you’re actually up there, I find the immediate response so delightful. You can actually tell if something is working in real time. The more I do talks the happier I am with my writing, because I can get immediate reaction, whether its laughter or people bored looking at the ceiling. With books, you’re writing something that’ll come out in two and a half years. You have no idea what the reception will be.

Of course, when I signed up to be a writer, part of the reason was that I didn’t like public speaking. My first radio event was cut off in the middle. I stuttered so badly. I was stuck on one word for ninety seconds. They had to be like, OK thank you very much, that was AJ Jacobs! But I forced myself to get up and talk. I’ve learned to like it. I actually like talking better than writing because writing is so solitary.

Guernica: Through the various manifestations of your career—writer, podcaster, lecturer, human guinea pig—you have developed into your own brand. How much do you think about the business side of your career?

Jacobs: It certainly wasn’t premeditated. It’s worked out mostly because I’m drawn to these topics, and I want to find an interesting way to write about them. Why not live them? I have become very fond of marketing the books, which I never saw coming. For the first ten years, I thought this was a necessary evil. A horrible albatross that you have to write it, then sell it. Then I did my cognitive behavioral therapy reframing, and I reframed it as a creative act. Marketing and getting the word out in the most creative way. Like writing a thousand thank-you notes to readers. It was so much fun brainstorming that idea. Or when I did a book about living by all the rules of the bible, I wrote an article about sex advice from the bible for Glamour. I have chosen to embrace that instead of running away from it.

Guernica: Not many writers take this approach.

Jacobs: It’s not natural. A totally different skillset. My previous book was about building a global family. I felt there was something I needed to drive for in the book. Some narrative arc. I decided to throw a global family reunion, where I invited all seven billion cousins. We didn’t get one-hundred-percent turnout, but we got about four-thousand in New York and ten-thousand at branch parties around the world. That was exhilarating and horrifying: I took six months out of my life to put on this event. Like throwing one-hundred bar mitzvahs at the same time. I was totally unqualified, but I had all these volunteers, which was an amazing thing. So many passionate people, who weren’t getting paid, pitched in. But again, totally out of my comfort zone. So, both delightful and totally stressful.

Guernica: Getting out of your comfort zone has yielded some good results.

Jacobs: It’s part of my job description. I was listening to Hidden Brain on NPR, talking about the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of experimenting and experimental mindset [liberals are more willing to experiment]. That cliché does have a kernel of truth. I’m a liberal so it certainly holds for me: I think more experimenting would make our world better.

Guernica: You’ve tackled genealogy, the bible, fitness, gratitude, what’s next?

Jacobs: Right now, my obsession is like many people’s: truth. How can we know what’s true? Who can we trust with truth? Can I trust my wife? Can I trust my doctor? Can I trust you? The media? How do we know? A fun take on a non-fun word, epistemology.

Guernica: I thought you were going to say climate change or global warming.

Jacobs: That’d be a nice experiment, to stop global warming.

Guernica: You seem just the person to do it.

Jacobs: [Laughs] I think about it a lot, of course. It could be the extinction-level event. It’s also related to another one of my obsessions: how our brains love villains. It’s one thing to turn an immigrant who takes your job into a villain; it’s not as easy to turn carbon dioxide into a villain. Much harder to visualize. Finding a common enemy is one of the best ways to unite people, so if we turn global warming into an enemy, personify it somehow, that could be huge.

But I don’t know how to do that. Maybe you do.


Phineas Lambert

Phineas Lambert is the former Publisher and Director of Guernica.

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