How Gratitude Inspired a Global Quest

When A.J. Jacobs told his son they should be thankful to the farmer who grew their food, his son challenged him to thank the farmer in person. The idea sparked his new book, Thanks a Thousand (November, Simon & Schuster). Tracing the path of his morning cup of coffee, he learned not only that coffee sleeves are called zorfs and have been around for centuries across cultures, but also how incredibly connected we all are.

coffee berries

Once ripe, coffee berries are picked, processed and dried.

Why did you start your gratitude journey with something so seemingly insignificant?

Coffee is not insignificant! Without it, I’d be a zombie. That said, I wanted to start with something small because I wanted to show that even the simplest items require hundreds of people—designers, biologists, miners, politicians, financiers, truckers, goat herders. I chose coffee because I’m an addict. But it could have been anything. I could have chosen to follow the gratitude trail for my socks, toothpaste, light bulbs, you name it.

What was the most surprising discovery?

That it takes the world to make the smallest things in our lives. I could have spent years travelling the globe and thanking folks for my coffee. I could have gone to Chile and thanked the miners who get the copper for the wires in my coffee roaster. I could have gone to China to thank its manufacturers for making the special bricks in the steel factory that can withstand extreme heat. I bet I could have visited almost every nation on earth.

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Ground coffee seeds

Dried coffee seeds (or “beans”) are then roasted and ground.

You say a crucial part of gratitude is the act of noticing. Travel is, of course, an ideal time to do this. How do we cultivate this ability even when in familiar territory?

Even at home, I try to have a travel mindset. I try to pretend I’m a tourist and notice the small things, like the cool light bulbs in my local café. I know we’re all rushed, but maybe let your food stay on your tongue for five seconds longer—just five seconds—and notice the interplay of flavours, the sweetness, the acidity, the texture.

What’s the difference between feeling and being grateful?

To me, the big difference is between feeling grateful and acting grateful. Both are good. But feeling grateful is more of a one-way street, whereas acting grateful makes it a two-way street. Both you and the other person come away happier. Acting grateful could be a small gesture. It could be just saying “thanks,” looking the person in the eye, giving them a non-fake smile. Acting grateful is the opposite of a vicious cycle; it’s a virtuous cycle. You thank the other person and they act kinder, then you act kinder, and eventually you are hugging each other. Well, maybe not hugging. But you are both happier.

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Coffee roast

The type of roast and grind determines flavor.

Your gratitude quest followed the coffee bean’s journey backwards – from the café back to the farm. Why?

I like starting small and then following the ever-expanding circles. It lets you go down unexpected paths, and there are hundreds of them. But starting small makes it manageable.

How can someone plot their own gratitude quest? How do they choose between all the different paths they could follow?

First, choose something you’re really grateful for. Maybe wine or chocolate or even Coca-Cola. That way you know where you’ll end up—in a vineyard, a cacao farm or Atlanta’s Coke factory. Then make a list of all the parts that go into your product. There will be hundreds. Choose what interests you. There’s no wrong way to go.

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A.J. Jacobs

Distributors help small coffee farmers supply your favorite roasts and beans to coffee shops around the globe.

Here, A.J. recounts his top three travel experiences while reporting the book – plus, where his gratitude might take him next.

  1. I loved visiting Colombia, where I went to a farm where my [coffee] beans are grown. It’s in a tiny town in the southwest of the country. I was driven to the farm on a series of winding mountain roads, but it was worth the scary hairpin turns. The view of the fog-shrouded mountains was astounding. And there were the biggest chickens I’ve ever seen – the size of adult pit bulls!
  2. I also flew to Chicago and drove two hours to a steel mill in Indiana. It was fascinating to take a tour of the factory. It looked like the Fourth of July – the showers of sparks resembled an extended fireworks display.
  3. I live in New York City and drove 100 miles north to the Catskills. It’s a gorgeous area – and home to the reservoirs that give New York its water. The reservoirs are actually open to the public – you can hike and fish and rent boats there.

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Coffee

Up Next

In the spring, our family is taking a vacation to Japan. There will certainly be a lot of thanksgiving on that trip. My kids are huge Nintendo fans. Since the company is based in Kyoto, we’re going to thank as many Nintendo employees in person as possible.

A.J. Jacobs is a journalist, a lecturer and the author of It’s All Relative and My Life as an Experiment, among other titles. He lives in New York, where his Thanks a Thousand journey began.

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