Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey

Image from Simon & Schuster

“Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.”

David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine Monk, the introduction to Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey

I am so excited to be sharing this with you all. I’ve been sitting on this book for a while, just waiting for this post to gleefully shout from the mountain tops about how wonderful it is.

Today I’m writing about the book Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. I took this book in through audio-book form, read by the author. It’s a short audiobook (a little over 4 hours) and A.J. Jacobs’s voice is very…distinct. Please keep in mind, I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t love it.

Some background. A.J. Jacobs gets his book premises from wild ideas. He’s the guy that wrote The Year of Living Biblically (which I think had to have helped inspire A Year of Biblical Womanhood by the late Rachel Held Evans) in which he tries to follow every law in the Bible for a year in order to experience something profoundly spiritual. (He focuses deeply on Old Testament law and, spoiler alert, his profound spiritual experience ends up being a 10 second out-of-body experience during a dance with his toddler daughter. Well…what can you say? Mysticism is weird.) So, now back in his daily life, over dinner he says a form of grace and says thank you for the food they are about to consume. He thanks the farmers and all of the people who worked hard to make and provide their food. His young son points out, “Dad. They can’t hear you. Why don’t you say thank you to them so they can hear it?” Boom. Book idea.

A.J. Jacobs embarks on a quest to say a thank-you to everyone who worked to provide his cup of morning coffee. He ends up making hundreds of phone calls and traveling internationally. He doesn’t just stop at the coffee shop staff and the distributors. He even thinks to consider the truckers who haul the freight and the pest-control services who service the coffee warehouses. Not everyone readily accepts his gratitude. But some are taken aback and have their day turned around for the better. This excerpt, from the publisher’s website, gives a great taste of how this book reads:

“I’ve decided to do this project in reverse, starting with my local café and working my way backward to the birth of the coffee. My coffee shop is a block’s walk from my apartment. It’s called Joe Coffee and has survived for twelve years, despite two Starbucks within a three-block radius.

On a Thursday morning, I get in line, prepping myself to say the very first “thank you” of Project Gratitude. While waiting, I force myself to stash my smartphone in my pocket and actually notice my surroundings. The act of noticing, after all, is a crucial part of gratitude; you can’t be grateful if your attention is scattered.

On the wall, there’s a photo of a pink Cadillac that, for some reason, is perched on top of a tower. There are moms pushing strollers, dogs tied up outside, the frequent hiss of the espresso machine. Glowing indigo lamps the shape of doughnuts hang from the ceiling. That indigo light is lovely, I think to myself. You don’t see enough indigo lamps.

I get to the counter and am greeted by my barista, a twentysomething woman with hair gathered in a ponytail atop her head. She hands me my order—a small black coffee, the daily blend.

“Thank you for my coffee,” I say.

“You’re welcome!” she says, smiling.

And there it is. My first thank you. It’s fine, but no lightning bolts yet.

I slide my credit card to pay the three-dollar fee. (Three dollars is, of course, ridiculously expensive. But in a weird sense, as I’ll learn, it’s also wildly underpriced.)

I hold my cup of coffee and stand there, trying to figure out what, if anything, to tell the barista about my quest. I pause five seconds too long, somewhere on the border between awkward and creepy. I glance at the line of customers behind me and slink out.

A couple of days later, I’ve worked up the nerve to tell the barista about Project Gratitude. I asked her if she’d be willing to share with me a bit about what goes into making my coffee. She said she’d be happy to talk after her shift.

“Thanks again for the coffee,” I say, as we sit down at one of Joe’s small tables.

“Thanks for thanking me,” she says.

I consider thanking her for thanking me for thanking her, but decide to cut it off lest we get caught in an infinite loop.

She tells me her name is Chung. Her parents are Korean immigrants, and she grew up in Southern California before moving to New York for college.

“So . . . ,” I say. “Um . . . What’s it’s like being a barista?”

“It’s not always easy,” she says. This is because you’re dealing with people in a very dangerous condition: Pre-caffeination.

“You get some grouchy people?” I asked.

“Oh, they can be grumpy.”

Chung tells me tales of customers who refuse to even make eye contact. They just snarl their order and thrust out their credit card, never looking up from their smartphone.

She’s had customers berate her till she cried for mixing up orders (which she swears she didn’t). She’s been snapped at by a bratty nine-year-old girl who didn’t like the milk-foam design that Chung created on top of her hot chocolate. Chung made a teddy bear. The girl wanted a heart. “I wanted to tell her that she did need a heart—a real one.”

And yet, Chung says the cranky customers are the minority. Most folks are friendly, especially when Chung sets the mood by being friendly first. And man, Chung is friendly.

She is a smiler and a hugger. She’s like a morning-show host, but not forced or fake. To give you a sense: During our half-hour chat, Chung got up no fewer than five times to hug longtime customers and former coworkers.

“I first realized I might be good at customer service when I was working as an usher at my church,” she says. “I saw that it takes a certain personality.”

And like at church, when she’s at Joe Coffee, she sometimes watches as people are transformed, their faces lighting up when they get their cups. “I see my job as getting them coffee, but also making them happy.”

I ask her if she’s planning on being a barista for the long haul.
She shakes her head. “Actually, this is my last week.”

She’s moving back to California to take care of her parents. Plus, nowadays, she’s having trouble staying up on her feet her entire shift.

“Let me give you a visual of why,” Chung says.

She takes out her smartphone and swipes to a photo. It’s a startling image of her left foot, bloody, bruised, and with more than a dozen metal pins sticking out of it.

“A year and a half ago, I got hit by a bus,” she says. “I broke every toe, the heel, the ankle. The skin was gone.”

“Oh my God.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty.”

Chung says it’ll be sad to leave the regulars. She talks about Nancy and John, who arrive every morning as soon as the glass door is unlocked. “I always say, ‘How’s your day going?’ And John will say, ‘Now it’s going well.’”

She’ll miss her coworkers, whom she says always have her back.

She won’t miss the occasional feeling that she doesn’t exist at all. “What’s upsetting is when people treat us like machines, not humans,” Chung says. “When they look at us as just a means to an end—or don’t even look at us at all.”

I thank Chung, and she gives me a hug (her eleventh of the day, by my estimate).

On my way home, I make a pledge. Though I probably won’t hug any other baristas, I promise to look them in the eyes—because I know I’ve been that asshole who thrusts out the credit card without glancing up. I’m not sure if I ever did it to Chung, but I know I’ve treated many others—waiters, delivery people, bodega cashiers—as if they were vending machines. I sometimes wear these noise-cancelling headphones when running errands, so that just makes me look more aloof and unfriendly.

And this is an enemy of gratitude. UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons—who is considered the father of gratitude research—puts it this way: “Grateful living is possible only when we realize that other people and agents do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Gratitude emerges from two stages of information processing—affirmation and recognition. We affirm the good and credit others with bringing it about. In gratitude, we recognize that the source of goodness is outside of ourselves.”

From now on, when I have an interaction with anyone else, I’ll try to affirm and recognize them. I’ll try to remember to treat them as humans—at least until robots take over all service jobs. I’ll try to keep in mind that they have families and favorite movies and embarrassing teenage memories and possibly aching feet.”

A.J. Jacobs, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey

This passage reminds me that I have learned that every human being deserves to be acknowledged. When I was younger I used to be afraid to make eye contact with people when walking in the hallway at school, or at work, or in the grocery store. “What’s the point?” I would think and “I don’t want them to think I’m a creep.” But the bigger risk is that the other human being feels less than a human being for not being acknowledged. So I risk whatever people will think of me, and venture the eye contact, smile, and nod. Think whatever you’d like of me, but remember, we are human beings and we’re all in this together.

Gratitude has been a crucial aspect of my journey. Existence is highly underrated and we should all be thankful to even be breathing (let’s address suffering at a later time). When I was in the hospital and preparing for any possible outcome I would tell my friends that it has been an amazing ride. I got to live like a king, I got to travel the world, I got to experience marriage, and having a son and a daughter. Even if it all ended for me at the age of 38, what more could I ask for without showing greed and forgetting what I did not already have? 

Even now, on the other side of that time filled with dark possibility, I have given up alcohol, desserts, and sweets of any kind. And seeing those things does not make me sad, instead it makes me happy. As CS Lewis wrote, the joy of something is also in the memory of the experience- this is living in the moment! I see my friend drinking a cold beer and I am happy because I remember how good that felt when I could do that. I see my friends eating cookies and I am full of joy because I remember how delicious they taste. But that is my past and that’s okay- I still feel joy in the present. I still get to exist and that’s enough for me. I am grateful for all of the experiences I had before my diagnosis. I am grateful for every day that I still get to experience. I am grateful for a future that I know I will live, even if it’s different than the one I imagined a few years ago. 

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