A.J. Jacobs (@ajjacobs) is a journalist, lecturer, human guinea pig, and best-selling author; his latest book is Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey.

What We Discuss with A.J. Jacobs:

  • What’s the difference between true gratitude and positive thinking?
  • How acknowledging the role of luck in our lives allows us to have compassion for and empathize with others.
  • The lifelong lessons that stick with A.J. long after the conclusion of his unique experiments.
  • Why gratitude leads to happiness — not the other way around.
  • If possible, why you might consider thanking your parents on your birthday.
  • And much more…

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Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey by A.J. JacobsA.J. Jacobs is a big weirdo, but that’s really why I like him. He’s spent a year living according to the Bible in the most literal way possible. He’s endeavored to build the biggest family tree in history. He’s read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to become the smartest person in the world. He’s gone to great lengths running social experiments that make most of us cringe just thinking about them. He’s got a knack for putting himself in situations where he’s able to examine current rules and think in a totally different way — and then break our default mode that we get from culture and social programming and replace it with something else entirely.

In this episode, A.J. joins us to share the yields of the experiment that resulted in his latest book, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. We’ll find out what he discovered while thanking a thousand people along the supply chain responsible for his morning cup of coffee — from the bean farmers in Colombia to the truckers who get the stuff to the States to the barista who hands him the cup. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

When A.J. Jacobs commits to one of his perspective-bending social experiments — such as the time he grew a beard and lived as closely to the rules outlined in the Old Testament as possible — he emerges with a view of the world seen through a lens ground by absurd extremes, astute observation, and good humor. Luckily, he has the expansive but accessible vocabulary to share this unique vision with the rest of us.

But have any of these views remained long after his conclusions were conveyed on the printed page?

When he was in the process of writing The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, A.J. found himself following some pretty obscure rules that may have once made sense in the distant past, but seem irrelevant to current-day sensibilities. And then there are some rules that have proven to be surprisingly timeless.

Among expressing gratitude and cutting back on gossip, A.J. found the deliberate weekly break of the Sabbath — as prescribed by ancient scripture — relevant to reducing modern-day stresses.

“The Sabbath is almost like a digital detox from 2,000 years ago,” says A.J., “this idea, starting Friday at sundown (or depending on your religion, Sunday)…stop working. Devote it to what’s around you. Look around. Devote it to your friends, to your family, to having meals, having wine.”

This also brought A.J. to an understanding about the difference between how we view the role of the individual in the community today versus days of yore.

“It really did make me realize that in biblical times, they didn’t have this idea of an individual,” says A.J. “It was all about the community — like “respect your elders.” You’d have to stand when an old person comes into the room, so I would do that, and I went to Florida once, in Sarasota, and I was just up and down all night! But it was lovely, because I think we don’t value the elderly in our culture. It’s a youth-oriented culture. And now that I’m getting old, those old people are so wise!

“But it made me realize that, and it made me realize they were all about the responsibility to the community. And we are all about individual rights. I think there’s a balance, and I think we’ve gone too far to the individual side. I’m all for individual rights, but also: what is your responsibility to the community?”

While looking for an angle for his next book — which became It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree, A.J. got a note out of the blue from someone claiming to be his eighth cousin.

“I of course thought, ‘Okay, he’s going to ask me to wire $10,000 to Liberia.’ But he didn’t. It turned out he was legitimate and he was one of this group of thousands of people — scientists and researchers — who are trying to do something unprecedented, which is to build the biggest family tree in history. And it’s not a tree. It’s a forest…right now it’s about 150 million people all connected…from over a hundred countries, every ethnicity you can think of.”

“One part of me was like, ‘Do I really want 150 million cousins?’ I have some members of my family now that I’d be happy to cut out! But another part of me was like, ‘This is astounding! We’ve been taught this cliche from when we were kids that we’re all one big family, but now you can see it concretely through DNA, through these massive Wikipedia-like family trees where thousands of people are working together…Barack Obama is my fifth great aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh great nephew!”

While the Thanksgiving invitation he sent to the former president has so far gone unacknowledged, A.J. was able to secure an audience with another formerly presidential cousin, the late H.W. Bush. During their conversation, A.J. pointed out other well-known cousins they had in common, including George Clooney, Teri Hatcher, and even Bill Clinton.

“Part of the Relative book was all about connection, and that we are, in fact, connected,” says A.J. “And the hope was, which is a little idealistic, that we would treat each other with a little more kindness. And I do believe it happened. I call it ‘The Judge Judy Effect.’ You know Judge Judy? I always found her to be abrasive, obnoxious, one of the least pleasant people on Earth. But then I found out she’s my sixth cousin, and I was like, ‘You know what? She’s not so bad! She’s just Judge Judy!’ And it’s a little irrational, I know, but this idea of connection is very strong.”

A.J. was inspired — by the connections he discovered while exploring his family tree and its extended forest — to see how other parts of our lives are connected in ways we don’t even think about. While expressing gratitude for the people responsible for his breakfast and morning coffee, his son gave him the idea for his next book: to personally thank those people. But A.J. aimed high: to thank a thousand of those people.

“It was way more than I anticipated!” A.J. admits. “I went wide, so I thanked the obvious people, like the farmer of the coffee beans, and the barista, but I also would go out and meet the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. I remember I called the woman who did pest control for the warehouse where my coffee beans are stored, and I said, ‘I know this is a little strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee!’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that is strange, but thank you! I don’t get a lot of appreciation!’

“And that was one of the themes of the book, that we take hundreds of people for granted, and everything we do requires hundreds, thousands of interconnected people…that we take for granted. And just making this mental switch, just from a selfish point of view, is very good, because it really does help you appreciate the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how A.J. has learned to temper his pessimistic Larry David side with his kinder Mister Rogers side through gratitude, why gratitude leads to happiness (but not the other way around), why it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting, what George Clooney taught A.J. about the power of delusional optimism, how creativity is really a numbers game, that time A.J. passed as a famous actor at the Oscars, the two stages from which gratitude emerges, and much more.

THANKS, A.J. JACOBS!

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