A.J. Jacobs has made a name for himself with books about immersive life experiments. Take his Year of Living Biblically, where he lived according to all the tenets of the Bible for a year and among other things, grew out a pretty intense beard. Or Drop Dead Healthy, about his attempt to make over his body and become the “healthiest man in the world.”
For his new book Thanks a Thousand, available Nov. 13, Jacobs decided to become more, in a word, grateful. While that might sound a little abstract — the type of platitude a celebrity might drop into an Instagram post that sounds meaningless over time — Jacobs went about it in a very deliberate way. He decided to explore what goes into making his morning cup of coffee and, upon finding out just how many people are responsible for his cup o’ joe, thank a thousand people in the process.
Jacobs’ journey takes him from his local coffee shop all the way to a farm in Colombia where the coffee beans are grown. He interviews everyone from coffee tasters to farmers to factory workers with care and attention to detail, painting vivid pictures of the unsung heroes that help make vital parts of our day possible. Along the way, Jacobs also interviews social psychologists who explain the tangible benefits of gratitude, and establishes gratitude as an actionable force, not simply a blissed out state of mind.
Thanks a Thousand could’ve been a coffee table full of banal inspirational phrases, but Jacobs unique take on gratitude delves so deep into the intricacies of coffee-making that it reveals the larger interconnectedness of society as a whole, and even reveals some of the glaring flaws of systemic injustice.
EW talked to Jacobs (on Election Night!) about how writing the book changed his daily happiness, why he’s grateful for the FDA (it has to do with arsenic), and the wisdom of Chris Rock’s Tamborine.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At this point, you’ve written several books where you took on a pretty dramatic life experiment. How do you balance immersing yourself in the experiment versus noticing everything you need in order to write such a detailed book?
A.J. JACOBS: I feel I have to totally dive in, but at the same time be an observer. I take notes and keep extensive journals, 20 times the amount I could ever use in a book. A friend of mine who’s a writer said all writers have to have two heads — the normal head for living and experiencing life, and then a little head on your shoulder who’s just observing and saying, “That’s interesting. That’s weird. That’s funny.”
You thanked people very explicitly in your book, at times even saying “I am grateful for this coffee” to your barista. Was it weird or awkward putting yourself out there in that way?
Yes, it was weird and awkward at times. The reactions were mixed, because I was thanking people out of the blue. I called or emailed or visited them in person. Sometimes people were very suspicious. They’d be like, “Is this a pyramid scheme? What are you trying to sell me?” But I will say, the good part is the majority, the vast majority, were very receptive once they got used to the idea. I mention in the book, that scene where I call the woman who does pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And I said to her, “I know this is weird, but I want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee.” And she said, “Yes, that is weird but I really appreciate it.” I compared it to an anti-prank phone call, like I was paying penance for the obnoxious calls I made in high school.
People tend to use gratitude as kind of a meaningless platitude a lot these days. In your book, you put effort into showing that gratitude is an actionable thing, even specifying that gratitude is different from complacency. How did you go about making your gratitude actionable when writing the book?
[Gratitude] can become kind of robotic, so the key is to jolt yourself out of the robotic knee-jerk thank you, which doesn’t mean anything and actually try to put yourself in the place of the person. There was actually one interesting study about how if you mix up the way you say thank you, like “I’m really grateful” or “I can’t thank you enough” even just mixing up the phrase helps both sides because it seems more genuine. I actually said to my wife, “I’m deeply grateful for you taking our kids to the orthodontist.” That backfired because she thought it sounded creepy. But in general, mixing it up. I love that question of complacency versus gratitude, because you don’t want to be so grateful you think “Oh, everything’s perfect.” But as I mentioned in the book, [gratitude] is exactly the opposite. Being more grateful makes you think more about other people and all that they do. Just the fact that I can turn on a lever and get clean water, that is astounding. So, realizing how many hundreds of people it took to make that happen, it inspires me to think more about where water comes from and how many millions of people don’t have access to clean water. So, it makes you a lot more thoughtful.
That aspect of it kind of reminds me of mindfulness practice, where you notice everything you do as a meditative practice.
For one of my other books I did a mindfulness tasting, where it took us 20 minutes to have one blueberry and it drove me insane, but at the same time it was quite interesting and illuminating. I think that’s exactly right, gratitude is a very close cousin, maybe even a sibling to mindfulness and savoring. One psychologist said, “It’s like taking one moment and stretching it out and slowing down time.” I am not a patient person, so that was hard for me. But just letting the coffee sit on my tongue for just two extra seconds and just thinking about the acidity and the sweetness and the texture. And I don’t have a sophisticated palate like the guy I interviewed, the professional coffee taster — [Ed Kaufmann] could taste maple syrup and almonds and dirt and all this crazy stuff in the coffee. But still, there’s something lovely about slowing down, even if it’s for two seconds and stretching the moment out. It’s just so important for your happiness.
I noticed when you were interviewing people, you included a lot of details about them that might not have been included in a different context, like where they’re from and what their parents do for work. And I was wondering how that factors into gratitude, noticing other people in that way?
I’m not sure how much I thought consciously about it. But I think you’re right, that this is one of the things I tried to learn was that there were hundreds of human beings who helped make my coffee, it didn’t just appear, it wasn’t made by robots. So even just when the barista told me that people don’t even look up from their phones when they hand them their credit cards and how important it is for her to just be acknowledged as a human being. So I think that was the inspiration, to be like, these people have families, they have embarrassing high school memories, just trying to flesh them out as people as opposed to, in modern day, you order from Amazon and the package shows up and you just have no idea how many human being were involved in making it.
That’s making me think of the part of the book when you talk about the “lead singer myth,” the idea that the lead singer is the most important part of the band, and everyone should aspire to be that, and how that’s flawed. Because there’s so much value in the bassist or the drummer. Sometimes they’re doing all the work. Do you think that realizing that everyone is as important as the “lead singer” would inspire gratitude in other people?
I just think it’s crucial to do that for everyone’s happiness. It’s funny because after I finished the book I watched Chris Rock’s stand up special Tamborine. And he put it so hilariously about how in marriage you can’t always be the lead singer, sometimes you’re in the background playing the tamborine, and you can’t play the tambourine with a scowl on your face. Which I thought was so great, because we forget about all the tamborine players. As I mention in the book, even the book itself has my name on the cover, but that’s super misleading, because there’s hundreds of people [who contributed], editors and designers, lumberjacks who cut down the trees. So a more honest book would actually have a hundred names on the cover in addition to mine. And I kind of proposed that half-jokingly and it was shot down. But I think it would be interesting, maybe the byline for this piece could have a list of a hundred other people who made it happen. The people who designed the phone.
It would be a lot of people. Another thing I thought was interesting about the book, by exploring how a cup of coffee is made, you’re basically exploring how society functions. You talk about capitalism and how you think it’s the best option we have, but you also acknowledge that there are casualties of capitalism, and you give some pretty potent examples. And I was wondering if writing this book made you think differently about capitalism or any other societal system?
I do think it was eye-opening. Because, as you say, there are hundreds of people involved in the supply chain for anything, not just coffee, but for your socks or your lightbulbs. And some of these people have a good life, but some don’t. There’s lots of exploitation and misery. And so being aware of it makes you want to help in any way you can. And I do still hold that right now capitalism is the best system we have. But we can improve it. We can make laws that guarantee safe working conditions. We can get involved with organizations. It’s very interesting once you dive deep, it’s a mixed blessing. Because, on one hand, you’re seeing how much wonderful work and craftsmanship and thought and passion goes into every little thing in our lives, but also at the same time, it is not all pretty.
You showed the flaws in these systems but you also acknowledged all the government agencies that make important things in our daily lives possible, that most people don’t even think about, like the FDA making sure there’s no arsenic in our coffee.
It’s easy to get annoyed at the government, and they do a lot wrong, especially the current administration, but I also think [certain agencies] are totally under-appreciated. As you mentioned, I am so grateful for the FDA because if I had had a cup of coffee a hundred years ago God knows what would’ve been in it. Just reading what was in coffee… everything from baked horse liver to arsenic. It was just not safe. So thank God someone is keeping an eye on that. So I am far more grateful for the government and government regulations than I thought I would ever be.
You entered into your gratitude journey by exploring how a cup of coffee is made. What kind of things can an average person do to be more grateful?
That is part of what I tried to do in the book, to give really concrete suggestions of how to increase the gratitude in your life. And they could be as simple as the trick I use to go to sleep, which is, I go alphabetically from A to Z and try to think of something to be thankful for for every letter. And also I’m a believer in actually talking to myself and saying things out loud, because sometimes if I don’t, I forget them. So I tried to remind myself and it looks crazy, but I put on headphones so it looks like I’m talking on the phone. When I’m in a short line at the drugstore I try to say to myself out loud, “Remember, look at this, this is a short line. Next time you’re in a frustrating long line, just remember it’s not always the case. You sometimes have good luck and sometimes not.” Being aware of that will make you so much happier. Because otherwise, I think we’re wired as humans to remember the super annoying parts of our lives. I talk in the book about the battle in my brain between Larry David and Mister Rogers, the pessimist cynic and the grateful optimist. So a lot of the book is about how to build up the Mister Rogers side of your brain.