Have you ever thought about all the different people in our globalized economy who are involved in providing the simplest things that you purchase? Like an article of clothing, or a meal, or even a simple cup of coffee? 

AJ Jacobs is known for his bestsellers in which he conducts experiments on himself, such as Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. His latest experiment is an experiment in gratitude. 

Jacobs has for the past couple of years kept a tradition where before eating dinner, he expresses gratitude for the food on his plate and the many people who worked to get it there. But one day his 10-year-old pointed out a flaw in the system: The people Jacobs was thanking would never know about his gratitude. And so he embarked on a two-year project to thank everyone who contributed to one simple thing--the cup of coffee he drinks every morning.

This involved not only thanking his barista, but also the person who selects coffee for the coffee shop, the Colombian farmers who grew the coffee, the truckers who brought the beans to the store, the highway people who laid the asphalt that the truckers drove on, and well, you get the idea. The project became a book, and a TED Talk in which Jacobs describes the globe-trotting he did in order to find and thank all these people. 

Jacobs claims he learned dozens of lessons from his project, and he highly recommends what he calls "following a gratitude trail." You don't have to take a hair-raising ride up a mountainside in Colombia as he did, but even taking a few small steps toward thanking some of the people who help provide the products you use and the foods and beverages you consume every day can be highly worthwhile. Here are some of the benefits of following a gratitude trail, even if only for a short distance:

1. It will make you more likable.

Jacobs began by thanking the barista at his local coffee shop, whose name is Chung. Caffeine is highly addictive, so Chung spends her working life literally standing between junkies and their fix--and she's borne the brunt of their frustrations and bad moods. But she told Jacobs that what hurt the most was when customers barely acknowledged her existence, ordering their coffee and hand her a credit card without looking up from their phones. 

"And while she's saying this, I'm realizing I've done that," Jacobs said in his TED Talk. "I've been that a-hole." But no more. Jacobs promised himself then and there that whenever he dealt with anyone from then on, he would take a moment to make eye contact, to make that connection. "Because it reminds you, you're dealing with a human being who has family and aspirations and embarrassing high school memories," he said. And that little moment of connection is so important to both people's humanity and happiness."

2. It will make you more mindful.

Following a gratitude trail means paying attention to all kinds of things that you typically take for granted. Take the flavor of coffee. When he met Ed Kaufmann, the man who selects the coffee beans for his coffee shop, Jacobs had the chance to take part in a professional-level coffee tasting. He discovered that it involved taking a great big slurp so as to hit the taste buds in your cheeks and the roof of your mouth as well as your tongue. 

"So Ed would do this," Jacobs recalled. "His face would light up and he would say, 'This coffee tastes of honey crisp apple and notes of soil and maple syrup.' And I would take a sip and I'd say, 'I'm picking up coffee.'"

But inspired by Kaufmann, Jacobs decided to try and really taste the coffee, holding it on his tongue for several seconds and focusing on its acidity and sweetness and the other flavors it contained. "And I started to do it with other foods," he said. "This idea of savoring is so important to gratitude. Psychologists talk about how gratitude is about taking a moment and holding on to it as long as possible. And slowing down time. So that life doesn't go by in one big blur, as it often does."

3. It may inspire you to help others.

Some people worry that gratitude can lead to complacency, Jacobs said, but the opposite is actually true. "The research shows that the more grateful you are, the more likely you are to help others. When you're in a bad state, you're often more focused on your own needs. But gratitude makes you want to pay it forward."

This dynamic worked on him, Jacobs said--his gratitude project made him keenly aware of many things most Americans take for granted and that millions of other people don't have. "Like water. Coffee is 98.8 percent water," he said. "So I figured I should go and thank the people at the New York reservoir, hundreds of them, who provide me water, and this miracle that I can turn a lever and get safe water."

Not everyone is so lucky, he realized. Millions of people in the world have no easy access to safe water and must walk for many hours to get it. So Jacobs did some research and found Evidence Action and its project Dispensers for Safe Water which provides chlorination equipment and supplies to 4 million people in Africa. Chlorinating water kills bacteria, including the bacteria that causes cholera, and helps prevent recontamination. It also saves people from having to boil their water, which can be wasteful in drought conditions. Jacobs got involved and began supporting the project. 

"I'm not expecting the Nobel Prize committee to knock down my door, but it's a baby step, it's a little something," he said. "And it's all because of gratitude." 

4. It will make you happier.

Jacobs started his gratitude project as a result of his pre-dinner thanking ritual. But what inspired that ritual in the first place? Believe it or not, it was because Jacobs wanted to be happier. "Unfortunately, the human brain is wired to focus on the negative," he explained. Now, this might have been helpful when we were cave people, trying to avoid predators, but now it's a terrible way to go through life. It is a real major component of anxiety and depression."

Research shows that one of the best ways to counteract the brain's tendency to focus on the negative is to practice gratitude, and so Jacobs started his pre-dinner gratitude ritual as a way to combat negativity and experience some of gratitude's positive effects. Following his gratitude trail just vastly increased that effect, he said. "It's why I encourage people, friends, family, to follow gratitude trails of their own," he said. "Because it's a life-transforming experience."

Published on: Nov 22, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.