About the Episode
When A.J. Jacobs set out to thank everyone who made his morning cup of coffee, he realized the chain of thank-you's was endless. This hour, Jacobs shares ideas on gratitude — and how to make it count.
About A.J. Jacobs
A.J. Jacobs is an author and journalist, best known for writing about his lifestyle experiments. He is also editor at large at Esquire magazine, a commentator on NPR and a columnist for Mental Floss magazine.
Jacobs' works chronicle his self-experiments, which have involved taking a vow of total honesty, following the Bible literally for a year, and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. In addition to his books, Jacobs has written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine and Dental Economics magazine.
He holds a BA from Brown University.
Tony Fadell: The First Secret Of Design Is... Noticing
As humans, we easily form habits and get used to our surroundings. But at what cost? Designer Tony Fadell says the first step towards innovation is to stop and notice the things we take for granted.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger Of A Single Story
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie shares the story of finding her authentic cultural voice—and warns that if we only hear a single story of another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
Mónica Ramírez: Passing The Mic To Migrant Farmer Workers
From wage theft to sexual harassment, migrant farm workers experience injustices that often go unseen. Mónica Ramírez advocates for "passing the mic" so these communities can tell their own stories.
David Steindl-Rast: Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful
Humans want to be happy... and Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast says gratitude and happiness go hand in hand. He shares ideas on how we can all slow down to appreciate the world around us.
Robin Ince: Science Versus Wonder?
Does science ruin the magic of life? Comedian Robin Ince says the more we learn about the astonishing behavior of the universe, the more we stand in awe.
MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, The Gratitude Chain - one man's quest to deliver something as deceptively simple as a thank you to hundreds of people across the globe.
A J JACOBS: It doesn't come to me naturally. My default mood is more Larry David than Mr. Rogers.
ZOMORODI: This is writer and TED speaker A.J. Jacobs. And A.J. has brought us a selection of talks that have influenced his work, talks that he is grateful for, with ideas about the benefits of gratitude.
JACOBS: It is a discipline that you have to work at.
ZOMORODI: You might be familiar with A.J.'s work. His specialty is experimenting on himself, trying out different kinds of behaviors and then documenting how they change him, for better or worse.
JACOBS: So I wrote a book about living by all the rules of the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to growing an alarmingly huge beard.
JACOBS: I tried to be the healthiest person alive. I tried to practice radical honesty, where there's no filter between your brain and your mouth. So that was terrible...
JACOBS: ...But interesting. Yes, yikes.
ZOMORODI: One of his most recent experiments was about trying to see if gratitude really would make him happier. And so in his book, "Thanks A Thousand," A.J. documents his journey to thank every single person who had even the slightest hand in making his morning cup of coffee.
JACOBS: And that turned out to be a crazy amount of people. So I thanked the barista, of course. And I went to South America when we were still allowed to travel, and I thanked the coffee farmers. But I also thanked the logo designer, the botanist, the truck driver who drove the coffee beans. I got a little out of control, I think. The person...
ZOMORODI: A.J. ended up thanking over a thousand people in what he calls a gratitude chain.
JACOBS: The gratitude chain is the idea that it doesn't just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
JACOBS: And it doesn't have to be coffee. It could be anything.
ZOMORODI: This is A.J. Jacobs on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
JACOBS: It's more about a mindset, being aware of the thousands of people involved in every little thing we do, remembering that there's someone in a factory who made the fabric for the chairs you're sitting in right now, that someone went into a mine and got the copper for this microphone.
ZOMORODI: And in the spirit of the gratitude chain, A.J. has also done something pretty meta for this episode of the show. He has thanked everyone who helped make his TED Talk possible.
JACOBS: So I actually went out and made a list and called the people and thanked them.
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ISAAC WAYTON: Hello?
JACOBS: Hi, Isaac?
JACOBS: Hey, it's A.J. Jacobs...
COREY HAJIM: Hello?
JACOBS: ...The TED speaker.
JACOBS: Hello, Corey?
HAJIM: Hi, A.J. How are you?
JACOBS: I'm good. How are you?
HAJIM: I'm good.
JACOBS: So I thanked Michelle Quint, who edited the book on which the TED Talk was based.
MICHELLE QUINT: As, like, a book editor, you get thanked but it's, like, so rarely with voices. And it's just, like, never...
JACOBS: I thanked Corey Hajim, the curator who helps choose who does that TED talk. You know, you're a curator. But you are a director, a producer, an editor, a cheerleader. So - I thanked Crawford Hunt, who is one of the producers of the book.
CRAWFORD HUNT: You're welcome. That's so sweet.
JACOBS: I thanked Isaac Wayton, who edited the TED Talk. So thank you for letting me.
WAYTON: (Laughter) Thank you for thanking me.
JACOBS: Brian Greene (ph), who manages, really, ted.com website.
BRIAN GREENE: You are very welcome. And there's many people behind the scenes, not just me, who would make, let's say...
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)
JACOBS: I thanked the folks at the DPA Microphones. And your company made those amazing microphones. I wore on my...
Francisco Diaz (ph), who is the fact-checker.
FRANCISCO DIAZ: You're welcome. I'm glad to have been able to do that.
JACOBS: Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, without which, my TED Talk would have been seen by about two people.
TIM BERNERS-LEE: Well, you're welcome, as I tell everyone. Use it anytime. Be my guest.
JACOBS: So, yeah, there are a lot of people to thank.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh. Thanks, sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man responsible for making the Web accessible. You really left no one out. OK, so, A.J., you have actually brought us a selection of talks that inspired you and influenced you as you wrote your book. And let's go to the first one that you brought us. The speaker is Tony Fadell. His talk is called The First Secret of Design is Noticing. Why would you bring us a design talk to start our discussion about gratitude?
JACOBS: Well, yes. Tony is - he's, like, a serious designer. So he was one of the designers of the iPod and the Nest. And he says that you've got to notice those little details in life that we take for granted. And that is such a key to gratitude, because the first step to gratitude is noticing. You can't be thankful for something that you don't notice.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
TONY FADELL: Why do we get used to everyday things? Well, as human beings, we have limited brain power. And so our brains encode the everyday things we do into habits so we can free up space to learn new things. It's a process called habituation, and it's one of the most basic ways as humans we learn. Now, habituation isn't always bad. Remember learning to drive? I sure do. Your hands clenched at 10 and 2 on the wheel, looking at every single object out there - the cars, the lights, the pedestrians. It's a nerve-wracking experience.
But then something interesting happened. As the weeks went by, driving became easier and easier. You habituated it. It started to become fun and second nature. So there's a good reason why our brains habituate things. If we didn't, we'd notice every little detail all the time. It would be exhausting, and we'd have no time to learn about new things.
JACOBS: When I did my project about coffee, I couldn't believe all the little masterpieces out there that I totally glossed over, like even the coffee - the lid for the coffee cup was - the design, the innovation that went into that - the little crescent. They thought about the way the little hole was shaped and how your nose had to get in there and get all of the aroma through a hole. It was just remarkable. And I'll never look at a coffee lid the same way. So his talk is just a brilliant summary of that, of, really, an exploration of this idea of noticing.
ZOMORODI: OK, so we need habituation to simply, like, get on with our lives. But then the flipside of that is that we stopped noticing the details and maybe take things for granted, like that coffee lid.
JACOBS: Absolutely. And I love that he says it's got its good side and its bad side. And I think the key is to fight against habituation some of the time so that you are really - I remember when I was standing in line for my coffee for the book. And, you know, I don't like standing in line. But I said, OK, I'm going to I'm going to try to notice things because I never do that. You know, my face is buried in my iPhone. So anyway, savoring is a big theme in gratitude. So I remember that one of the people I thanked was this guy, who is the coffee buyer. So he goes around the world and buys all these coffee beans from South America and Africa, and he tastes them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JACOBS: And the tasting is this hilarious, elaborate ritual, where he will take a sip - and really loud. You got to slurp...
(SOUNDBITE OF SIPPING)
JACOBS: ...Because you got to spray it all over your mouth. Apparently, there are taste buds in your - the roof of your mouth. But anyway, he would taste it. And he would say things like, you know, I'm tasting notes of mango and cedar and overripe pineapple. And I would take a taste. And I'd be like, well, I'm tasting coffee.
JACOBS: But the idea was he taught me to just pause for those two seconds and let the coffee sit on your tongue and really focus on that acidity and the sweetness and the texture of the liquid. And that moment, that slowing down of time, that is what savoring is all about. And that is sort of the antithesis of habituation.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, and that is exactly what Tony Fadell says, that the savoring of the moment is what has sparked, really, the greatest designs. And he tells a story that I had never heard before.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
FADELL: See this, this person? This is Mary Anderson. In 1902 in New York City, it was a cold, wet, snowy day. And she was warm inside a streetcar. As she was going to her destination, she noticed the driver opening the window to clean off the excess snow so he can drive safely. When he opened the window, though, he let all this cold, wet air inside, making all the passengers miserable. Now, probably most of those passengers just thought, oh, it's a fact of life. He's got to open the window to clean it. That's just how it is. But Mary didn't.
Mary thought, what if the driver could actually clean the windshield from the inside so that he could stay safe and drive and the passengers could actually stay warm? So she picked out her sketchbook right then and there and began drawing what would become the world's first windshield wiper.
Now, as a product designer, I try to learn from people like Mary to try to see the world the way it really is, not the way we think it is. Why? Because it's easy to solve a problem that almost everyone sees, but it's hard to solve a problem that almost no one sees.
ZOMORODI: Mary Anderson, inventor of the windshield wiper. I love this story. And I think it's such an important reminder that everything we use on a daily basis, it comes from somewhere. And a ton of work went into creating it. And, you know, we should definitely send a thank you out into the universe for Mary Anderson...
ZOMORODI: ...And her ability to push past habituation and notice something that annoyed her, frankly. A lot of times, we notice things that annoy us, right?
JACOBS: Right. Well, yeah, she is such an unsung hero. I love this story. And what you said is right. Like, that's not just windshield. That's everything. I remember I learned a new word in my coffee journey, which is zarf, Z-A-R-F, which is the name for the little sleeve that goes around your coffee cup.
ZOMORODI: So good - why are we not all using that word every day?
JACOBS: It is an important word, good for Scrabble.
JACOBS: And by the way, there are, like, ancient zarfs made of gold in China and...
JACOBS: ...In the Arab world - yes. So it's got a long history. But the modern zarfs, the cardboard one was invented by this couple in Seattle, who just - you know, the guy burned his fingers while driving and drinking coffee. And he said, well, this will never happen again. And, you know, he saved billions of fingers from, if not burning, uncomfortable heat. So thank you to him.
ZOMORODI: In just a minute, how saying thank you isn't just about noticing others. It's also about noticing their stories. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, we're spending the hour with writer A.J. Jacobs and following the gratitude chain. Before the break, we talked about the first step in practicing gratitude, which is to pause and notice all the things we have to be grateful for. And A.J. says the next step is going deeper and understanding that behind everything we use, eat or drink, like a cup of coffee, there are thousands of stories.
JACOBS: It's not just a single story. It's the story of the migrant farm worker, the sailors who had to haul the burlap bags from South America to New Jersey, the barista, the story of the barista. And some of those stories are uplifting, and some are full of suffering and oppression. And we shouldn't prejudge. We should let people tell their own stories. But we need to remember those stories and that it is - there's not just one perspective.
ZOMORODI: And that actually brings us to the next talk that you chose, which happens to be one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time. It's called The Danger of a Single Story by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And she starts with a very, very personal example. It was just something that happened to her when she went to college in the United States and she met her new roommate for the first time.
(SOUNDBTIE OF TED TALK)
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my tribal music and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.
ADICHIE: She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove. What struck me was this. She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me, had default position toward me as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa, a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
ZOMORODI: I love this story. And clearly, this idea, A.J., of the danger of a single story stuck with you. And part of training ourselves to be more grateful is trying to unpack the story of each person so that we don't flatten or stereotype them.
JACOBS: I think that's a huge part of it. I think what the stories do, is they make you realize you're dealing with human beings, that this coffee didn't just appear. And like the barista that I got to know, my barista and hearing about the good and the bad of her job, how, yes, she loves seeing people's faces light up. Like, literally, their face changes when they have that first sip of coffee but also how it's really not an easy job. You're dealing with people in a dangerous state of precaffeination.
JACOBS: You know, her feet ache. And she had a car accident, which made it worse. And so just seeing them as humans as opposed to a step in the chain.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, I mean, sometimes we don't even stop to think about a person, other than how they are helping us or how they're relating to us, right? And to Chimamanda, that is an expression of power.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ADICHIE: There's a word, an Igbo word that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It's a noun that loosely translates to, to be greater than another. Like economic and political world, stories, too, are defined by the principle of nkali - how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.
The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, secondly. Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states and not with the colonial creation of the African state and you have an entirely different story.
ZOMORODI: I mean, A.J., to me, that reminds me of a certain very big coffee chain that...
ZOMORODI: ...Really did use stories of the coffee farms as a marketing tool to make them look good, right? There's a difference between telling someone else's story and really telling the story and all the multitudes and putting yourself first as how their story reflects upon you, that you are a thoughtful and kind coffee chain company.
JACOBS: (Laughter) Yeah, absolutely it is. I think the word that I love that she uses is flattening. So making it all pollyannaish and making it all like, oh, isn't this wonderful? - that's not the whole story. And making it all about suffering and oppression - also not the whole story. There - everything is complicated. Everything has nuances. So we should advocate for changes when we can, but we shouldn't assume we know what those changes should be without listening to people's stories. And, yeah, it was - when you bring up that large coffee chain, it kind of reminds me of this point I made in the book where, you know, I know it's - in one sense, it is insane that I pay $3 for this cup of water with a little bean dust.
JACOBS: But once I know the stories and the hundreds of people involved, it's not so crazy. And in fact, I saw one estimate that said if we paid everyone along the supply chain the U.S. minimum wage, you would be paying $25 for a cup of coffee.
JACOBS: And I think that we can use that fact for good. We can use that fact when we hear the stories of the people along the supply chain. Maybe it'll make us appreciate that cup of coffee or that toothbrush or whatever. It'll make us appreciate it more.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ADICHIE: I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this - it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity. When we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
ZOMORODI: I think this is a lovely point to turn to the next speaker that you have brought to us. It's a woman named Monica Ramirez, and her talk is called "Passing The Mic To Migrant Farmers." And it's exactly that, that the people on the supply chain need to tell their own stories.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MONICA RAMIREZ: When I was growing up, my father, who started working in the fields when he was 8 years old picking cotton in Mississippi, would often recount for myself and my siblings some of the conditions that existed for farmworkers. It was from these stories and from learning from my family that I didn't only understand that there are things that were happening that were wrong in the world, I also understood that there are people who are doing things to change these situations, beginning with the people themselves who are living in those circumstances. My family taught me the value of my voice, and they showed me what power looks like.
And it was with those early lessons that when I was 14 years old and the area newspaper had a spread that said, welcome back, fishermen on it, I was bothered. And I went to my father and I asked him, well, why isn't there a welcome back farmworker section of the newspaper? Because every year, around the same time, farmworkers and fishermen arrived in my town. And my father said he didn't know and that I should go and ask. And so I did. I went to the local newspaper and I asked them why there was no welcome back farmworker section. And the editor, he could have turned me away, but he said, well, why don't you write about it? And so at the age of 14, I started my beat writing about farmworkers and Latino community in my rural Ohio town.
ZOMORODI: The newspaper editor passed the mic to her. Tell me why Monica has stuck with you and why it's part of your journey to understand the importance of gratitude.
JACOBS: I think one of the main reasons I love her talk so much is that she says that stories should lead to action. She's an activist. She's a lawyer. And to me, that is huge because gratitude - the dark side of gratitude is that it could lead to complacency, to be like, oh, everything's wonderful. And actually, I think the research shows that it's not usually that way, that actually gratitude makes you want to pay it forward. It sparks you to action. And I found that on just, you know, me as one data point, knowing all that went into my coffee, I wanted to help make those steps on the chain better, you know, whether that's finding a great water charity since coffee is 98.8% water or it means switching to a reusable mug. I mean, neither of these are going to get me the Nobel Peace Prize. I realize that. But every action counts. And just being aware of these stories sparks you to action.
ZOMORODI: You know, speaking of action, Monica actually tells an incredible story about the impact that lending a voice can have. And in this case, it was about how women farmworkers used telling their own story to support women in Hollywood.
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RAMIREZ: One powerful example in which this happened was in November of 2017. Time magazine published a letter from Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization that I co-founded that represents the interests of 700,000 farmworker women across our country. The letter was written to women in the entertainment industry who had experienced widespread sexual harassment. And the farmworker women who were part of the Alianza began to hear the stories and felt compelled to speak out. And so they did so through this letter. And in the letter, they wrote, we understand the isolation, betrayal and harm that you have felt because we have felt it, too. We understand. And we believe you.
And it was this letter from farmworker women to women in the entertainment industry that helped the world see farmworker women in a way that they'd never seen them before. And it helped to bring together partners who, on any other day, might have been considered unlikely partners to take on an issue as difficult as sexual harassment. Farmworker women demonstrated the power of solidarity and empathy. And by doing that, they helped spark a movement, a movement that brought women from other industries forward to also take action.
ZOMORODI: Action, as you were saying - it's great to have gratitude. It's great to say thank you. But without actually doing something to rectify the wrongs, words can ring very hollow.
JACOBS: Right. Exactly. It should not be - gratitude should not lead to complacency. It should be a two-way street. It should be a spark to action.
ZOMORODI: OK. So our next talk, the one that you have brought us, it is by David Steindl-Rast. He is a Benedictine monk and teacher on the subject of gratitude. So we're going right to the heart of the matter here. His talk title is "Want To Be Happy? Be Grateful." I mean, that's what we've been talking about, right? Like...
ZOMORODI: ...Has all this gratitude made you happy? According to David, it would have to.
JACOBS: Well, yeah, I mean, yes and no. I mean, it's still a struggle. I've got the two sides. And I'm often, you know, gloomy, depressed and cranky, especially during COVID. But I just cannot imagine - without gratitude, my mental state would be just a disaster. So I am grateful to gratitude for helping me. But, yeah, you know, I don't think it's all rainbows and unicorns. It is a discipline that you have to work at.
ZOMORODI: And that's exactly what he's saying. So let's play a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DAVID STEINDL-RAST: How is the connection between happiness and gratefulness? Many people would say, well, that's very easy. When you are happy, you're grateful. But think again. Is it really the happy people that are grateful? We all know quite a number of people who have everything that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have lots of misfortune, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have. And they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. We are surprised - why? - because they're grateful. So it is not happiness that makes us grateful. It's gratefulness that makes us happy. If you think it's happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It's gratefulness that makes you happy.
ZOMORODI: He's quite a figure, David Steindl-Rast. He's wears these awesome Birkenstocks onstage.
ZOMORODI: And you really feel that you are in the presence of clarity in some ways. But I have to say, just hearing that clip, it reminds me, like, I've only really known you since you've written this book. And when - I remember when I first met you, I was like, A.J.'s so - like, you are one of those people who radiates happiness. I don't know if that's a new thing for you, but you do.
JACOBS: (Laughter) Well, that is very nice of you to say. And I would say that that is not really what's going on inside.
JACOBS: But I love that there is the radiating. I mean, one of the most powerful lessons I've learned - and it runs through all my books - is the importance of faking it until you feel it. And I saw this in the gratitude project. I would wake up in a very - my default mode of grumpiness. And I would force myself to call people and thank them. And it was often very awkward. But if you act in a certain way...
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) As we'll hear.
JACOBS: (Laughter) Exactly. It does - yeah. I mean, one of my favorites was I called this woman who does pest control for the warehouse where the coffee beans are stored. And I said, I know this is weird. But I just want to thank you for keeping the insects out of my coffee. And she said, well, that is weird. But thank you.
JACOBS: I don't get a lot of positive feedback. And she said it was like an anti-crank phone call.
JACOBS: So the idea of forcing yourself to do things, eventually, you can trick your mind. So there's a great quote - I wish I had come up with it - that it's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting, so how important the external is to changing the internal. You know, I may not always be happy. But I'm sometimes trying to trick my mind and saying - acting as if, what would a good person do? What would a compassionate person do? What would a happy person do? - and trying to do those actions.
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ZOMORODI: When we come back, more from writer A.J. Jacobs about how showing gratitude isn't just about being nice. It can actually change our brains. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today we're spending the hour talking to writer A.J. Jacobs about his journey on the gratitude chain with TED Talks that have inspired him along the way, including one by a Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
STEINDL-RAST: Grateful living, that is the thing. And how can we live gratefully? By experiencing, by becoming aware that every moment is a given moment, as we say. It's a gift. You haven't earned it. You haven't brought it about in any way. You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you. And yet that's the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us, this moment with all the opportunity that it contains. If you didn't have this present moment, we wouldn't have any opportunity to do anything or experience anything. And this moment is a gift. It's a given moment, as we say.
JACOBS: I mean, to me, what I love about this is that he's basically talking about memento mori, reminders of death and just being aware that you only have a certain amount of moments. And I love momento moris. And, you know, I've written about the history of them and how in classic paintings, you have little skulls to remind people that you are only here for a little bit. And I actually - on my computer desktop, I have a picture of a skull. And it's not like a scary skull. I got, like, one fun, psychedelic, colorful skull because I didn't want to, like, freak myself out.
JACOBS: But I love just looking at it and be like, yeah, you know what? Maybe I shouldn't be so worried about, you know, that my Wi-Fi goes out for three minutes, you know? I'm going to die. So I better carpe the diem.
ZOMORODI: And do you feel like - are you hearing - I mean, I certainly am hearing from more people who are experiencing gratitude these days because of the pandemic. I mean people stopping to be grateful for their health, their job, their family, that restaurant on the corner. But at the same time, you know, there can be a lot of mental health challenges if you're thinking about how imminent death can be. And if - in this case with COVID-19, it is actually, for some people, extremely close. So I guess I'm wondering, you know, when you hear David talking, do you hear it in a different light, considering what's been going on for the past year?
JACOBS: Yeah, I mean, COVID has been so emotionally gutting. But it also has those tiny silver linings, like making us realize not to take things for granted. I mean, I have certainly experienced what Michelle Obama calls that low-grade depression during COVID. And I think the gratitude has been a huge part of helping me survive, gratitude as an outward-facing emotion. And when I've been more severely depressed, I think the way I have gotten out of it is by looking outward and trying to help other people.
ZOMORODI: You know, that makes me think of another thing that David says, which is that this idea that gratitude compounds itself, that not only does it make you feel better but it actually makes you brave enough to take action to help other people, which then sort of - it grows, this feeling of gratitude and empowerment.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
STEINDL-RAST: As a wave of gratefulness because people are becoming aware how important this is and how this can change our world. It can change our world in immensely important ways, because if you're grateful, you're not fearful. And if you're not fearful, you're not violent. If you're grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity and you're willing to share. If you're grateful, you're enjoying the differences between people and you are respectful to everybody. And that changes this power pyramid under which we live. And it doesn't make for equality, but it makes for equal respect. And that is the important thing.
JACOBS: Oh, that's good. That is good.
ZOMORODI: That is good. I feel that your book actually is that. Each chapter is giving equal respect to each contributor to your cup of coffee.
ZOMORODI: Because without the parts, you don't get a whole.
JACOBS: Absolutely, you know? It is - as I said earlier, it doesn't take a village. It takes the world. And now, you know, we're in a global world, which has its pros and cons. But we should be aware of the amazing interconnections. And I also love what he says. I talk about in my book, the idea of a deficit mindset, how we're really obsessed as humans with what we're missing, as sort of - that's our built-in wiring - instead of focusing on what we have. And if you get rid of the deficit mindset, then I agree with David, that you are much more likely to help other people.
ZOMORODI: This brings us now to the last talk that you've brought us and a speaker who's kind of the antithesis of David Steindl-Rast and his sort of magnanimous joyousness that only a monk can have. You've brought us a rather dower comedian, actually, Robin Ince. And his talk is called Science Versus Wonder. And actually, I found it no less moving. So let's listen to a clip. It's pretty existential.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ROBIN INCE: Science actually says we will live forever. Well, there is one proviso. We won't actually live forever. You won't live forever. Your consciousness, the youness (ph) of you, the meness of me, that gets this one go. Every single thing that makes us, every atom in us has already created a myriad of different things and will go on to create a myriad of new things. We have been mountains and apples and pulsars and other people's knees. Who knows? Maybe one of your atoms was once Napoleon's knee. That is a good thing. Unlike the occupants of the universe, the universe itself is not wasteful. We are all totally recyclable. And when we die, we don't even have to be placed in different refuse sacks. This is a wonderful thing.
JACOBS: Oh, man. That is - first of all...
JACOBS: ...You are so right. I didn't even realize I was doing that. But I went from a monk to a hardcore atheist.
JACOBS: And yet they were both talking about this idea of awe and wonder and - so interesting. And I love this talk because, you know, it argues that you can be a naturalist, a rational, science-minded person and still experience this wonder and this sense of gratitude. And I - you know, I'm pretty agnostic, secular. But I love the way he puts it, this idea that our atoms have been stardust. They could've been Napoleon's knee. They - just the idea that there is something instead of nothing is just mind blowing. And I think all the time about this story my grandfather told me. He once attended - when he was young, he attended a lecture by Clarence Darrow, who was this legendary lawyer.
JACOBS: And I said, well, what did he say? And my grandfather said, Darrow talked about just how unlikely it is that we exist, that there were 250 million sperm and ours was the one that got to the egg. And it was very weird talking to my grandfather about sperm. But (laughter)...
JACOBS: ...It was also amazing because it was like, yes, it is so remarkable. The odds of us existing are just infinitesimal. And again...
ZOMORODI: I like that...
ZOMORODI: ...This idea of you looking into your grandfather's eyes and being like, oh, my God, you exist. I exist. We exist here together - ah.
JACOBS: It was very weird. And we weren't even smoking pot. So it was...
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) But I think, you know, with Robin Ince, he takes pains to say, yes, we can be existential. But this is not a nihilist thing. It's just a reminder.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
INCE: Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate, once said the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless. Now, for some people, that seems to lead to an idea of nihilism. But for me, it doesn't. That is a wonderful thing. I'm glad the universe is pointless. It means if I get to the end of my life, the universe can't turn to me and go, what have you been doing, you idiot? That's not the point. I can make my own purpose. You can make your own purpose. We have the individual power to go, this is what I want to do. And in a pointless universe, that to me is a wonderful thing. I have chosen to make silly jokes about quantum mechanics and the Copenhagen interpretation. You, I imagine, can do much better things with your time. Thank you very much. Goodbye.
ZOMORODI: Man, I love that. It's like basically saying you can't get this one wrong.
JACOBS: I know. It is very freeing. It is very liberating. And, you know, I do actually think you can get it wrong. You can devote your life to, you know, being a total asshole. But I also love how empowering it is to say, you know, you can create your own purpose, which I do believe. And I do believe that.
ZOMORODI: So tell me a little bit - do you think about this idea of free will and agency in an indifferent universe when you have decided to embark on these projects that - you know, there is a greater purpose to them. They make for great stories. But they also - it's also some pretty profound A.J. Jacobs, where you land, you know, in your gratitude book, of course, and all of the things you do.
JACOBS: Well, thank you for saying so, Manoush. That is lovely. Yeah, I mean, I try to send out a positive message, partly because if I didn't, you know, I would just descend into darkness and cynicism, which is...
JACOBS: And I do think a lot about luck. I think the idea of luck is huge, and it really relates to gratitude. If I believed that whatever success I've had is all because of my brilliance, then I think I would be a very different person. But I am so aware of how much luck plays a part in life and where I was born and how lucky I was to be born where and when I was and all the lucky breaks that I've gotten along the way. And that makes me much less judgmental, much, much more thankful. There is so much luck involved.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about the perversion of the word humbled and how, you know...
ZOMORODI: ...Kim Kardashian is humbled that she gets to spend her vacation on an island or whatever. And I think what you're actually pointing out is we can be more grateful for what we have if we don't think that we deserve it in some way.
JACOBS: Yeah, to believe that you were given this destiny because you deserve it, no. And I love - Obama talks about this. And he says, you know, I think I was born with some natural talent. And I worked hard. But there are millions of other people who were born with natural talent, who also worked hard but didn't get the lucky breaks I got.
ZOMORODI: I want to just circle back to being grateful because there must be some people who are listening to this and are thinking like, oh, please. This is exhausting. I cannot be grateful for every piece of sand in the concrete of the sidewalk outside my house...
ZOMORODI: ...Or the - you know, the actual bag that my groceries get delivered in.
JACOBS: Yes, you don't have to write a book about...
JACOBS: ...You know, thanking the people who make the asphalt for the roads where the trucks go. And it can be little things. It can be, you know, just once a day. A little ritual can - every day, I send a note to my mom of some small, tiny thing that I'm grateful for, you know? Just that the elevator didn't crash and break my collarbone.
JACOBS: Could be something as crazy as that. So, yeah, try not - I hope it's not exhausting. In fact, I find it a little addictive. I mean, the psychologists will tell you that there - that gratitude actually is hooked into the reward circuits of the brain, and it is a little hint of dopamine. And I think making that gratitude a creative act instead of just like the sort of the pro forma thanks, thanks a lot, thank you. You know, making it really specific and interesting and creative, that, I honestly think, is better for both people.
ZOMORODI: Do you know when someone is being genuine or not with their thank you's?
JACOBS: Not necessarily. And again, I'm not sure how much that matters. Because, as I said, I am a believer in the idea that if you act in a certain way for long enough, then you can trick your brain. So sometimes, I really don't feel like saying thanks and I'm feeling, you know, really dark and pessimistic. But I'll say it anyway. And I think if you do it enough, it does have this positive effect on you.
ZOMORODI: You know, I can think of a couple of instances where I feel a little, like, resentful or resistant to saying thank you. Like, I don't think I should have to thank you, dear son, for setting the table. You know what I mean? Or I've noticed recently that people do say thank you to each other more in the work setting. And I sort of feel like, well, there is a danger of by saying it as often as you do, it doesn't mean anything anymore. I want each of those thank you's to land in a way where they are felt.
JACOBS: That is interesting. I actually think that we under thank so much that, that is a bigger problem than over thanking. I mean, just calling these people on the coffee chain. Like I said, when I called that woman who did pest control for the warehouse, she she'd never been thanked. And you listen to some of the people - when I thanked Michelle Quint, the editor of the book, she was gobsmacked. She didn't know what to do. She was like, I've never had an author thank me...
JACOBS: ...In person. This is so awkward. But sometimes, awkward is good. And I think, in the end - you know, I think, in the end, it boosted both of our moods. So I would say err on the side of over thanking instead of under thanking. And I do. I thank my kids for setting the table. I thank - you know, listen. It may be their job, but they're still doing it. And that itself, I should be grateful for.
ZOMORODI: A.J., thank you so much for - no, and I feel like I need to say that again. A.J., thank you so much for spending this hour with us. I truly am grateful to you for you unpacking how you linked together your gratitude journey. You took us along on the ride, and it was fun and made us feel good and made us feel so grateful for all we have in this world.
JACOBS: Oh, man. Well, thank you. You know, as I say, I'm kind of obligated to say that, but I truly mean it. Thank you for having me.
ZOMORODI: That's writer A.J. Jacobs. He's the author of "Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey." And thank you for listening to our show this week on gratitude. To learn more about the talks on today's show, go to ted.npr.org. And to see A.J.'s many talks, along with hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.
We couldn't possibly think everyone who made the show possible. But I want to thank our TED radio production staff at NPR, which includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier and Farrah Safari, with help from Daniel Shchukin. Our intern is Janet Woojeong Lee. And our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. And a thank you to our partners at TED, who are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.