Live Well, Do Good

Book Explores Gratitude for the World in a Cup of Coffee

Brandon Sun, September 9, 2019 - David McConkey

Have you ever considered all the people involved in bringing you your morning cup of coffee? I mean everyone: from the farmer to the shipper to the staff at the grocery store or coffee shop? Have you ever thought of expressing your gratitude to all those folks? American writer A.J. Jacobs does that with his new book: Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

You may have heard of Jacobs – he’s the writer who conducts his life as a series of experiments. In one, he spent a year strictly following the Bible. “The Year of Living Biblically” became a book and also a TV series.

His latest effort was sparked by his fascination with the notion of gratitude. He reports that gratitude – regarded by ancient Stoic philosophers as a major virtue – is a modern-day wonder. Being grateful is a psychological boon: “it can lift depression, help you sleep, improve your diet, and make you more likely to exercise.” Jacobs points to one study finding “gratitude is the single best predictor of well-being and good relationships.”

Why aren’t we more grateful? Jacobs notes that evolution favoured humans who were alert to what was going wrong. There was no evolutionary advantage for those who were grateful for what was going right. That worked well for the survival of our ancestors, but today means we are awash in anxiety. “We spend far too much time fretting about what we’re missing instead of focusing on what we have.”  

Jacobs figures that he was “mildly to severely aggravated” more than half the time, which was “a ridiculous way to go through life.” Deciding he needed “a mental makeover,” he thought a personal gratitude project could do the trick. He resolved to thank all the people who were responsible for his morning cup of coffee, which he gets at a café near his apartment in New York City.

His gratitude journey took him to many locations, meeting – and thanking – people who played a part in his cup of coffee. Included were those who staff the coffee shop, make the paper cup and plastic lid, and transport and roast the coffee beans. He travelled to Colombia and visited coffee farmers. He met workers who ensure health and safety like inspectors and manufacturers of cleansers. And he went to a reservoir and treatment facility that provide the city with water. Coffee is, after all, 99% water.

Thanks Jacobs cautions that gratitude should not be confused with complacency. Coffee is a big business with a huge global impact, good and bad. Jacobs raises concerns about economic inequality; he notes with approval that the café he patronizes pays above fair-trade prices to their farmers. Another issue: billions of coffee cups and lids are used and thrown away every year. Research and ethical reflection prompt Jacobs to switch to a reusable container for his own coffee.

Gratitude starts by slowing down and paying attention to what is around us. “It’s hard to be grateful,” Jacobs says, “if we are speeding through life.”

There are benefits to stopping and smelling the roses – or, in this case –savouring a cup of coffee. Noticing a small simple thing can open a window to seeing the big interconnected world. And brief refreshing pauses can boost overall well-being. Jacobs quotes a psychologist who compares gratitude with mindfulness, both of which “can make our life’s petty annoyances dissolve away, at least for a moment.”

Thanks a Thousand is short, informative and entertaining. The book is on order at the Brandon Public Library. It is published by TED Books, whose mission is to produce “small books about big ideas.” Each of their books is paired with an 18-minute (or less) TED Talk, available for free viewing online.

Paying attention and being grateful can be a chance for more appreciation, more understanding and more moments of enjoyment. Opportunities are there for us, all the time, at no cost. Inspired by the book, I plan to practise this more in my own life, and I invite you to consider it as well. Here’s an example: tomorrow take a moment to be grateful for everyone helping us citizens exercise our right to vote.

Oh, and one more thing: thanks for reading!

* * * 

See also:

Thanks a Thousand . . . on Amazon.com

Effective Altruism Poised to Make Major Impact

A Year of Living Generously

Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories

How Can We Learn to Think and Argue Better?

How Do You be a Good Person?

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