Your morning cup of coffee, A.J. Jacobs wants you to know, is a miracle of human cooperation. Jacobs writes in his book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, “This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.” Jacobs continues:
It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers, and goatherds.
It required airplanes, boats, trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets, and shoulders.
It needed hundreds of materials—steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.
Worldwide, over two billion cups of coffee are drunk daily, and over 125 million are employed in the coffee industry. All this economic activity occurs without a mastermind’s direction.
Gratitude for What We Can’t Create Alone
Jacobs realized gratitude was in short supply in his life. His "deficit mindset," he observed, "often put [him] in a miserable mood":
I’ll forget the hundreds of things that go right every day and focus on the three or four that go wrong. I’d estimate that in my default mode, I’m mildly to severely aggravated more than 50 percent of my waking hours.
Seeing that his “negative bias” was “a ridiculous way to go through life,” Jacobs resolved to thank at least 1,000 people involved in the production of his morning cup of coffee—from the barista who serves him to the farmer who grows the beans in Columbia.
Jacobs interviewed those he thanked. In those interactions, they became more than invisible objects, here on earth to meet his needs. He learned the barista at his local coffee shop struggled to stay on her feet through her shift; her foot had been smashed in an accident.
Visiting a steel plant, he learned how difficult and dangerous those jobs are:
There’s often the smell of sulfur at the plant, an odor that soaks into the steelworkers’ hair and clothes and oozes out of their pores when they sweat.
After talking to Ed, the coffee buyer for his local coffee shop, Jacobs wrote:
I may not fully appreciate the subtleties, but on some level, I know that Ed’s wisdom in choosing the best beans benefits me. The very fact that Ed thinks so deeply about my coffee is part of the reason I don’t have to think about it at all. It’s a key reason gratitude is so difficult to maintain, and why it takes so much effort and intention: if something is done well for us, the process behind it is largely invisible.
Have you ever wondered how coffee is roasted? Are the beans dropped in the machine and someone takes them out when the timer goes off? Hardly, Jacobs explains:
You don’t just turn the roaster to 350 degrees and go do the crossword, [the coffee roaster] explains. Every minute of the twelve-minute roasting cycle must be at a different temperature to produce the ideal coffee. You need someone adjusting the dials, an employee monitoring it second by second.
As Jacobs makes the invisible visible, he teaches why we lack gratitude. Since our expectations are met most of the time, we don’t appreciate the miracle of human cooperation.
Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude, along with love of learning, are the character traits that best predict emotional well-being. A study reported in the Scientific American found gratitude is a better predictor of well-being than 24 other attributes, including humility, hope, love, forgiveness, honesty, and kindness.
Robert Emmons is one of the world’s leading researchers on gratitude. He writes in his book The Little Book of Gratitude:
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.
If you are waiting for your stars to line up before you feel more gratitude, you’ve reversed cause and effect. Jacobs quotes the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, who says, “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.”
Jacobs spoke with Columbia University psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, who explained to Jacobs that
Gratitude can shift our perception of time and slow it down. It can make our life’s petty annoyances dissolve away, at least for a moment.
Some, such as Barbara Ehrenreich writing in The New York Times, believe feeling gratitude stops people from feeling “solidarity” with the less fortunate. Grateful people can be “chumps,” Ehrenreich writes, if they feel gratitude for wealthy entrepreneurs.
Academic research shows Ehrenreich is dead wrong. Kaufman told Jacobs,
Research shows that people are more generous and pro-social when they feel gratitude.
Capitalism-bashers take note: when people feel gratitude for entrepreneurs who enrich their lives, they become more generous, not less.
The Lid and Sleeve
Since I don’t drink coffee, I couldn’t have imagined how vital the lid on a takeout cup of coffee is. Jacobs writes:
When I google the name on the lid—“Viora”—I discover that I’m sipping my coffee through a superstar cover. Viora is a small newcomer but has been written up in tech publications including Wired and Gizmodo. It’s sort of the Tesla of the lid world.
Viora lids are superior because they mimic the experience of drinking from a ceramic cup. Coffee shops seek superior lids because that enhances the experience of their customers. Jacobs learned,
as with almost everything I take for granted, humans have put an astounding amount of thought and care into creating this unassuming piece of plastic.
The inventor of the Viora lid explained to Jacobs his entrepreneurial struggles:
No one wanted to manufacture the oddly shaped hole. Everyone told him it couldn’t be done.
Entrepreneurs, like Viora, persist to meet the needs of their consumers.
By learning about lids, Jacobs begins to appreciate “all the other little hidden masterpieces of industrial design in my life.”
How about the coffee sleeve that keeps your hand from getting too hot? The coffee sleeve is a relative newcomer to the coffee experience. The first sleeve, the Java Jacket, came to market in 1992. Jacobs began to ponder the complexity of the “simple” sleeve:
When I ponder the number of gratitude recipients involved, I start to get dizzy. There are the folks at the paper factory where the cardboard is made. The lumberjacks who cut down the trees for the wood pulp to make the cardboard. The metalworkers who manufacture the chainsaws the lumberjacks use. The miners who dig up the iron that is turned into the steel for the chainsaws.
Sounds Like, “I, Pencil”
If you think Jacobs’s book resembles an extended version of “I, Pencil,” you are correct. Midway through writing his book, a friend sent Jacobs a copy of “I, Pencil.” Jacobs observed:
When I started to read the essay, I was alarmed by how similar it was to my coffee project—minus the gratitude and caffeine.
Jacobs didn’t read Leonard Read too carefully; he missed the gratitude that not only infuses “I, Pencil” but all of Read’s writing. At the beginning of “I, Pencil,” Read gives the pencil a voice to say,
Sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background.
From the pencil’s point of view, Read points the reader toward forces greater than our minds can comprehend: the miracles of spontaneous human cooperation that make our modern life possible.
Far different from Read, Jacobs concludes,
I had the opposite reaction. I found that tracing the origins of a pencil or cup of coffee shows that we need smart, visionary politicians to help us.
Over and over, the gratitude journey Jacobs describes reveals that while striving to earn profits, firms are driven to act in the consumer's interest. Not seeing the real lesson of his journey, Jacobs writes, “I’m in favor of long-range thinking to balance stockholders’ lust for immediate profits.”
Faith in government visionaries seems almost obligatory to Jacobs rather than deeply thought through. I would explain to Jacobs why there is no such thing as government visionaries who, via their brilliance, lead us to the future. I would also explain why politicians’ stated good intentions don’t matter and they can only get in the way.
Read uses this sentence twice in “I, Pencil”: “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” Jacobs might want to reread his own book. I suspect that Jacobs’s book might instill in the reader a deeper faith in what free people can accomplish. Read writes:
For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand—that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding—then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people. Freedom is impossible without this faith.
No matter that Jacobs feels he must add an homage to government; Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey is a wonderful case study on how free people cooperate, without direction, to better the lives of us all.