As his books demonstrate, humorist A.J. Jacobs is an immersive writer. In previous works, he set out to practice all the biblical commandments in the most literal of ways. He was so dedicated to the project that he grew a bushy beard to obey the prohibition of cutting off facial hair. He read the entire encyclopedia to research another book. In his newest book, he charts his quest to thank as many people as possible who were involved in the making and serving of his morning cup of coffee. As the title indicates, “Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey” follows him on his pursuit of gratitude to thank over 1,000 people.
Jacobs went all over the world in search of the many steps it takes to serve a cup of joe. Obviously, there are the farmers, the roasters and the baristas. His curiosity took him to the farm in Colombia that grows the beans for his coffee. He traveled to a steel plant in Indiana to see how his beloved coffee is preserved and transported. There are also a variety of designers—think of the coffee lid and the java sleeve. Think of the folks who drive the trucks, keep mice and insects out of coffee warehouses, the lumberjacks who cut down trees for the paper and cardboard and the scientists involved in making sure a person is served a healthy, balanced cup of coffee.
Along the way, Jacobs learned a thing or two about the salutary effects of thanking people in general. Gratitude helps with depression, diet and even recovering from illness. Jacobs, who is based in Manhattan, recently spoke with JewishBoston about his morning cup of coffee and his newfound gratitude for it.
How Jewish is it to be thankful?
Growing up as a cultural Jew, I didn’t think gratitude was a Jewish emotion. I thought anxiety and guilt were Jewish. But I have discovered in my research that gratitude is super Jewish. I interviewed a rabbi who told me that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from the Hebrew word Judah, which means “to thank.” So gratitude is extremely Jewish.
What gave you the idea to write about gratitude vis-à-vis coffee?
My kids were hoping I would thank everyone who made my s’mores. That would increase the number of s’mores in the house. I saw coffee as a basic need, like food, shelter and clothing. It has such a huge impact on the world. Two billion cups of coffee are drunk every day around the world, and the coffee trade employs 125 million people. Coffee is also wrapped up in history. The Enlightenment was founded in coffee houses. It’s a simple product, but it has such a complicated, huge network.
How did you decide which people to thank?
That was the challenge. I could have spent 50 years on this topic alone and written 100 different books. My book could have been as long as the Talmud! You can just go in any direction. Everyone you thank leads to 100 other people you could thank. I could thank the lumberjack who cut down the trees for the cardboard of the coffee cup. From there, I could thank the people who made the chainsaws and the safety helmets. I interviewed a whole bunch of people and chose what I thought were the most interesting, funniest and touching stories.
Who were the most surprising people you thanked?
I loved learning about these little masterpieces that I had given no thought to. I talked to the guy who designed the java jackets, which is the little cardboard coffee sleeve that goes around the cup. I loved that it has a name: “zars.” Back in ancient China, zars were made of gold and tortoise. This little piece of cardboard has kept my fingers from burning. I also loved interviewing the guy who came up with it. It was a nice, simple story of how he burned his fingers, so he invented his java jacket. Then there was the guy who designed the coffee cup lids. I loved the passion this man had for that little three inches of plastic!
What changed for you in keeping a gratitude journal?
I think that in my brain there is a battle between the Larry David side and the Mr. Rogers side of me. Larry David is sort of the cynical and negative side; the more grateful, optimistic side is Mr. Rogers. I was born with a very strong Larry David side. These gratitude practices were to build up that Mr. Rogers side—get him in shape and get him ripped so he can take on Larry David. It definitely worked. It’s still a struggle. I love Larry David and would rather watch a Larry David show than a Mr. Rogers show. But living inside the Larry David mindset all the time is not necessarily where you want to be. It’s not conducive to happiness.
What are some of the benefits of being grateful?
I love this quote from a Benedictine monk, who said that happiness does not lead to gratitude—gratitude leads to happiness. I have found that if you can force yourself to be grateful and do this discipline—because it is a discipline—all sorts of good things can happen. It’s good for your stress level, sleeping and even recovering from illness. I’m not perfect at it. I’ll probably go into some dark places in the future, but I’ve certainly improved with these practices.
How did coffee affect the outcome of the Civil War?
During the Civil War, the Confederate coffee was dreadful. It was made from chicory, roasted corn seed and even okra. The Union soldiers had actual caffeinated coffee, and that’s why I believe coffee saved America.