Lessons in Gratitude from a Jewish Humorist
A.J. Jacobs has written four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor, and a dash of self-help. He is also editor-at-large at Esquire magazine and a commentator on National Public Radio. I sat down with A.J. to talk about the lessons he’s learned about thankfulness from his over-the-top social experiments.
ReformJudaism.org: For your first book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, you read all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Does your proclivity for extremes emanate from your lawyer father, A. J. Jacobs, Senior, who holds the world record for the most footnotes in a law review article (4,812)?
That’s it. I’m really inspired by my dad, who likes to take things to the limit. When I was a kid, he started reading the Encyclopedia Britannica because he wanted to learn everything there is to know about the world. He got to about “Bolivia” or “boomerang,” when he decided that maybe this wasn't the best use of his time. So he abandoned ship, and I jumped aboard.
What did having all that world knowledge make you feel thankful for, aside from scoring your first bestseller?
I’m grateful for all the scientific and social advances we’ve made since those horrible, smelly, disease-ridden, homophobic “good old days” of our forebears, who faced surgery without anesthesia and wore wooden dentures.
Did your immersion in biblical practice for the book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible raise your gratitude quotient?
Yes. I took literally the Bible’s oft-repeated commandment, Thou shalt be grateful, and started saying thank you for every little thing happening in my life. After a while, I began to appreciate the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of habitually focusing on the three or four irksome things that go wrong.
Having written about the mind and the spirit, you turned to the body in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection. What lessons of gratitude did you draw from your yearlong quest for health and fitness?
I learned that being part of a social circle has a huge positive effect on our physical health. Studies show that regular churchgoers have longer and healthier lives because of the social support system the group provides. It’s not because God hates non-believers. I’m agnostic and have found community at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, where my son will soon become a bar mitzvah.
Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey chronicles your quest to thank personally everyone in the world responsible for your morning coffee. What led to your writing that book?
Having realized how important thankfulness is to happiness and good health, I started gratitude rituals in our home, including thanking the people who made our meals possible. I’d thank the farmers who grew the tomatoes and the grocer who sold them to me. One day my 10-year-old son said, “That’s fine, Dad, but it’s also kind of lame, because those people can't hear you. If you really cared, you’d thank him in person.”
So I spent the next several months traveling around the world thanking everyone I could find. The experience drove home for me how many people we rely on for every little thing in our lives and how interconnected we are.
One of your other takeaways in that book was “Fake it till you feel it.” How does that work?
As I see it, we all have our Larry David side and our Mister Rogers side – our cynical negative side and our more optimistic and hopeful side. I was born with an 80 percent Larry David disposition. I love Larry David's show, but being in that mindset is not very pleasant. So I try to strengthen my Mister Rogers side by faking it till I feel it. So, for example, I wake up in my default grumpy state and force myself to spend two hours each morning thanking people by mail, phone, or a visit. After those two hours, I invariably start to feel grateful, optimistic, and hopeful.
Do you celebrate Thanksgiving differently now than in the past?
Yes. One of the things we do is go around the table saying what we are grateful for in alphabetical order. So the first person starts with the letter A, the second with B, all the way to Z. Yes, it's a lot easier just to say I’m thankful for my family or my health. But, unless you dig down, you’ll never know who is thankful for apple pancakes or zucchini bread.
Following the publication of this piece, author AJ Jacobs was a featured speaker at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, the largest Jewish gathering in North America.