A Look On The Lighter Side: A time – and a place – for gratitude

A Look On The Lighter Side: A time – and a place – for gratitude

In this Thanksgiving season, it is sometimes hard to give thanks in all the right places. Luckily, you can sometimes get some help.

A.J. Jacobs is a writer and editor who has become fairly well-known for his literary “stunts.” He read the entire “Encyclopedia Britannica” from A to Z, an experience which he turned into the best-selling book, “The Know-It-All.”

He tried to follow every commandment in the Old Testament for a year, which became another best-seller, “The Year of Living Biblically.”

In his latest offering, “Thanks A Thousand,” Jacobs travels the world to thank everyone who had any part in producing something he considers essential to his way of life: his morning cup of coffee.

He made it a point to thank everyone in person, because eye contact is important and, as his 10-year old son reminded him when he mentioned the importance of gratitude at the dinner table one night, “You know (all) these people can’t hear you, right?”

Even before starting what he calls his “gratitude journey,” Jacobs explains what gratitude does for us. According to research, a regular practice of gratitude — say, listing three positive things nightly — can fight depression and help us to sleep; improve our diet, and even speed up recovery from illness.

Most importantly, it can make us just plain happier. As Jacobs points out, “Happiness does not lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.”

Jacobs starts at his local coffee shop, thanking his barista, and works his way back through the production chain to the roaster, the importer, the truckers and warehouse workers, even the steelworkers who make the metal for the roasters… all the way back to the farm where they grow the coffee. Jacobs doesn’t stop till he’s indexed at least a thousand names along the way (the “thousand” in the title).

Of course, it helps that his local coffee shop isn’t Starbucks, but a relatively small company —Joe Coffee — whose coffee buyer he can meet and eventually travel with, to Colombia.

This working backward is a stroke of brilliance. It reminds me of the way I wish they had taught us history: Start with the here and now, right in front of you — “This particular situation is messed up in this way because of this other thing that happened before it. That, in turn, was a reaction to something else…” — and go step by step, leading from the familiar present, back into the unknown. It still might not stick in memory, but it’s worth a try!

Jacobs explains that he started practicing gratitude precisely because it does not come easily to him: “I’m naturally more of a Larry David than a Tom Hanks.”

He is hardly alone. Many of us pay much more attention to the negative than to the positive in our lives.

This might have helped us survive in pre-historic times: It might be a matter of life and death to remember how the birds all fell silent just before the saber-toothed tiger pounced, or which berries made you violently ill for two days. But in modern life, it is probably only hurting us to obsess on things that infuriate and depress.

This little book is a lively antidote to negativity, and an easy read — perfect for stashing in your bag for when your train, plane or bus is stalled on your way to Thanksgiving, or back home.

I, like Jacobs, am intensely grateful every day for my morning coffee. Also like him, I spend a lot of my time being grumpy…although you might not know it, from what makes it past my personal panel of censors into this column.

Then again, you might:

“Mom, you’re complaining about us again!”

“Even if he’s my brother, he has a point — nobody wants to hear you whine!”

“Where did you ever hear a line like that?”

“From you, for twenty years!”

In fact, I started “looking on the lighter side” in the first place precisely as a way of forcing myself to spend more time in positive territory. As my friends and family will tell you, I still have a ways to go. But my “bile” attacks are fewer, these days, and I remember, more often than I used to, to just stop… and smell the coffee. And to give thanks.

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