Taking a Gratitude Journey

Recently, a colleague introduced me to a book by A.J. Jacobs. The title of the book is Thanks a ThousandA Gratitude Journey. The idea of the book is deceptively simple: New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey took him across the globe, transformed his life, and revealed secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.

In a recent webinar offered by the Indiana University School of Philanthropy, Jacobs talked about the way our brains are biased for negativity–it’s biological. Gratitude helps us overcome that negative bias. We are programmed by nature to say, “that’s bad,” and to notice the potentially dangerous. Yet even with the pandemic, our life is not as dangerous as it was for early hunter-gatherers. Saying “that’s good” over and over through the day helps us keep things in perspective.

Jacobs said that gratitude is “a reminder of the hundreds of things that go right every day.” As part of his coffee project, he discovered and personally thanked hundreds of people he takes for granted who make his simple cup of coffee every morning possible – the farmers, chemists, artists, truckers, mechanics, biologists, miners, smugglers, and goatherds. His journey included airplanes, boats, trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets, and shoulders. The quest took Jacobs across time zones, and up and down the social ladder.

So how did this whole coffee project get started? Jacobs has done a lot of reading and studying about gratitude. He knew from all his research that gratitude did not always come naturally. But what he had come to know is gratitude is one of the keys to a life well lived. Gratitude’s psychological benefits are amazing! It can lift depression, help you sleep, improve your diet, and make you more likely to exercise. Heart patients recover more quickly when they keep a gratitude journal. A recent study has also shown that gratitude causes people to be more generous and kinder to strangers.

Jacobs began to wonder what it would be like to personally thank everyone who helped make his morning cup of coffee such a rich experience. Coffee is something he decided he could not live without. He also knew that coffee has a huge impact on our world. More than two billion cups of coffee are drunk every day around the globe. The coffee industry employs 125 million people internationally. The Enlightenment was born in Europe’s coffeehouses. So, that is what got it all started. He called it the “Great Coffee Gratitude Trail.”

Jacobs’ trail led him on a path that began with his favorite barista to the roasters who selected the beans for his favorite kind of coffee. He even set out to thank the people who made the cup in which the coffee was poured. His journey took him as far as finding those who transported the coffee, those who get the raw materials, and the farmers who grow the coffee. By the time he was finished, he had thanked nearly a thousand people either in person, by phone, or by email. It is a delightful journey, and I have found it to be somewhat overwhelming to think that one small cup of coffee required that much energy to create to get me into my day.

I am sharing this story with you as a bit of an extreme example of how easily we take for granted all the little pleasures of life and never pause to consider how they came to be and who and what may have been sacrificed for it to happen. I invite you to begin your own gratitude journey. I would suggest you find a trail that does not require you to head off to some faraway place around the world since that kind of travel is a bit limited now. It might, however, involve a trip around your community or your neighborhood. It also might involve reaching out to people you have unintentionally taken for granted. And it will mean taking the time to “thank” them for what they do for you.

Let me make some suggestions on paths you might take:

  • Who do you need to thank who makes sure you have food in your house for meals each day? Begin with the person who cooks the meals in your family and the grocery where you shop.
  • Who do you need to thank for providing you a comfortable place to live? Begin by thanking the water company and the electric company.
  • Who do you need to thank for making sure you have clothes to wear? You might start with your favorite local clothing store. Do you thank them for what they do?
  • Who do you need to thank for providing worship for you every Sunday? Start with the pastor but make sure you thank the custodian or sexton as well as the musicians and those who make the coffee.
  • Who do you need to thank in your family for getting you to the place where you are in life? You might want to start with your parents or your grandparents, and make sure you thank your children and grandchildren (and even great-grandchildren) for making your life so special.

We are blessed in many ways, and some of them are not always visible to us most days. We take life for granted and do not always pause to give thanks the way we should. Today is a good time to begin your own gratitude journey. Enjoy wherever it takes you. May your gratitude grow with each “thank you” you offer.

Deborah Rexrode, PhD
POJ Associate for Stewardship

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