AJ Jacobs: How Can We Thank Those We Take for Granted? How many people helped make your morning coffee? AJ Jacobs set out to thank them all, from the farmer to the barista and everyone in between—and discovered the list was much longer than he thought.
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AJ Jacobs: How Can We Thank Those We Take for Granted?

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AJ Jacobs: How Can We Thank Those We Take for Granted?

AJ Jacobs: How Can We Thank Those We Take for Granted?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

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RAZ: So is it possible that two little words could change how you look at the world, could ripple out and affect not only yourself but everyone around you, two words that we may say without much thought or thoughtlessly forget to say at all - thank you?

A J JACOBS: Oh, yeah.

RAZ: This is A.J. Jacobs.

JACOBS: Yeah. To practice gratitude, you really have to slow things down and notice.

RAZ: A.J. is a writer, professional lifestyle experimenter and self-described curmudgeon.

JACOBS: I talk about, I think, in every - everyone has the two sides, the Larry David side and the Mr. Rogers side - so the grumpy pessimist and the optimistic, grateful side.

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FRED ROGERS: So many people have helped me to come to this night.

JACOBS: And I believe I was born with a very strong Larry David side. I was very good at finding things to be annoyed about. And I think a lot of us are. If you hear a hundred compliments and a single insult, what do you remember? The insult.

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ROGERS: Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are?

JACOBS: I was aware that I had this negative bias, this Larry David side, but I wanted to bulk up the Mr. Rogers side.

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ROGERS: Ten seconds of silence. I'll watch the time.

JACOBS: It's not something that comes naturally to me. And to most people, I don't think it comes naturally. You have to cultivate this idea of gratitude.

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ROGERS: Whomever you've been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they've made.

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RAZ: What happened to you to say, you know, wait a minute, I'm not appreciating people? I'm not being grateful. Was there an epiphany? Like, what - what was it?

JACOBS: Well, I think it was partly intellectually, I knew the power of gratitude. There are tons of studies about how good it is for you, how it helps ward off depression. You recover more quickly. You sleep better, eat better. You're more generous. So intellectually, I knew, like, I should be grateful. But, like, how do you do that?

And that's when I decided, you know what? I'm going to try this ritual at home, where I'm going to try to say thanks to all the people who helped make my meal a possibility. So I would, before a meal, say, you know, I'd like to thank the farmer who grew the tomato and the cashier who rang the tomatoes up at the grocery store.

And that's when my son, who was 10, very perceptively said, you know, Dad, that's fine. But it's also totally lame because those people can't hear you. They're not in our apartment. So if you really are committed, then you should go and thank those people in person.

RAZ: A.J. Jacobs picks up the story from the TED stage.

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JACOBS: Now, I'm a writer. And for my books, I like to go on adventures, go on quests. So I decided I'm going to take my son up on his challenge. It seemed simple enough. And to make it even simpler, I decided to focus on just one item, an item I can't live without - my morning cup of coffee. Well, it turned out to be not so simple at all.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: This quest took me months. It took me around the world because I discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people I take for granted. So I would thank the trucker who drove the coffee beans to the coffee shop. But he couldn't have done his job without the road. So I would thank the people who paved the road.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: And then I would thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement.

And he couldn't do his job without the folks who drew the yellow lines on the road because they kept my truck driver from smashing into oncoming traffic. And...

RAZ: This is like splitting an atom, right?

JACOBS: (Laughter).

RAZ: Because you can thank the people who mixed the paint for the lines on the road and then the people who made the machines to enable the paints to be mixed and then the people who mined the iron to make the machines to mix the paint, and then on and on. Where, like, you can - there's lots of people to thank. It's never-ending.

JACOBS: Oh, infinite - I could have spent the next 50 years of my life thanking people. And I could have given a TED Talk that was about 400 hours long because, yeah, that's what it made me realize, is how interconnected everything is, how many people it takes. It doesn't just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.

And it was really a lesson in how interconnected we are - and sort of timely, too, because this trend towards tribalism is, I find, quite disturbing. And this was a reminder of how we all depend on each other.

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RAZ: Sometimes a simple act of kindness toward another person - a thank-you, a compliment, a vote of confidence - can have a much bigger effect than we realize and can even change the way we look at ourselves.

So today on the show, we're going to explore those ideas about what can happen when we stop and recognize the power of showing kindness, the worth of others and why it all matters, even when it's not easy. And for A.J. Jacobs, that kind of appreciation turned into a journey of a thousand thank-you's, all for just a cup of coffee.

JACOBS: I decided to go backwards. So I started with the barista at Joe Coffee, which is the coffee chain in New York where I go. And I thanked her. And she thanked me for thanking her.

RAZ: What'd you say to her? You said, hey, I just want to - I just want to thank you for making my cup of coffee this morning.

JACOBS: That's it.

RAZ: Yeah, that was it.

JACOBS: I just expressed my gratitude. And I think she was pleasantly surprised because she doesn't get thanked all that often.

RAZ: So did you, like, draw out a timeline on a piece of paper and then put barista on one end and coffee on the other and then sort of reverse engineer every step of the way and then - all the people that you would have to thank?

JACOBS: Well, I had a huge list of people. And it wasn't like a line, it was more like a forest. So for instance, you know, I thanked all the people who helped with my coffee. But what about the cup? So I wanted to thank the people who made the cup, including the inventor of the modern zarf.

That was one of my favorite words I learned. Z-A-R-F is the cardboard sleeve that goes around your coffee cup to keep your fingers from being uncomfortably hot. You know, this guy has made people's lives just that - a little, tiny bit better. But we never thank him. We never acknowledge that.

RAZ: All right. So you - so after thinking the barista and then the people who made your cup, I guess you decided to meet with a guy named Ed Kaufmann, who works for Joe Coffee?

JACOBS: I - so yeah, I met Ed Kaufmann, who is the guy who goes around the world - to South America, to Africa - testing the beans, tasting them. And I loved that because he was so passionate about this brown liquid. And I - he taught me how to differentiate the tastes.

Because he would take a sip, and his face would light up, and he would say, oh, I'm sensing honey crisp apple and maple syrup and pineapple upside-down cake. And I loved that idea of savoring and appreciating. It so tied into gratitude.

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JACOBS: By the end of the project, I was just in a thanking frenzy. So I was - I would get up and spend a couple hours - I'd write emails, send notes, make phone calls, visit people to thank them for their role in my coffee. And some of them, quite honestly, not that into it. They would be like, what - what is this? Is this a pyramid scheme? What do you want? What are you selling?

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: But most people were surprisingly moved. I remember I called the woman who does the pest control for the warehouse where my coffee is stored. And I said, this may sound strange, but I want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee. And she said, well, that does sound strange, but you just made my day.

And every place, every stop on this gratitude trail would give birth to a hundred other people that I could thank. So I went down to Colombia to thank the farmers who grow my coffee beans. And it was in a small mountain town. And I met the farmers, the Guarnizo brothers. It's a small farm. They make great coffee. They're paid above fair-trade prices for it.

And they showed me how the coffee is grown. The bean is actually inside this fruit called the coffee cherry. And I thanked them. And they said, well, we couldn't do our job without a hundred other people. The machine that depulps the fruit is made in Brazil. And the pickup truck they drive around the farm in, that is made from parts from all over the world.

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JACOBS: I think, in the end, they kind of got into the spirit of the project. And they did not kick me out. And they actually invited me back. So maybe I'll go and enjoy their coffee again.

RAZ: So as you were, like, really immersing yourself in this thing - right? - because part of this is - it's like, I'm just going to try this thing out. But part of you has to become that. Like, you had to become Mr. Gratitude. Like, you had to believe in it, almost like it was a religion. Did you start to kind of feel differently on - on that trip?

JACOBS: Well, yeah. And one of the revelations that runs through many of my projects is just how powerful that is, how much our behavior shapes our thoughts. So I saw this. Like, I would wake up in my typical, grumpy mood. And I would force myself to spend an hour writing thank-you notes or calling people. And by the end of that hour, my mind had caught up. I had sort of tricked my mind and made it realize, oh, my God, look at all these things that went right.

And that ties into something that is one of my pet passions, which is that gratitude should not be the same as complacency - 'cause some people are worried that when you're grateful, like, you think, oh, everything's wonderful. And we don't need to change a thing. But my argument - and it's backed up by some fascinating research - is that gratitude actually is the opposite of that. Gratitude makes you more aware and more open to trying to make things better.

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JACOBS: And I know this personally. When I'm in a bad mood, I'm not thinking about other people. I'm just thinking about myself. But when I'm grateful, that's when I realize all of the people who helped make this possible. And can I make their lives better?

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RAZ: That's A.J. Jacobs. His latest book is called, "Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey." You can see all of A.J.'s talks at ted.com. On the show today, Approaching With Kindness. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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