The Discovery & Gratitude Experiment

“Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

Aesop

At mealtime, A.J. Jacobs started a family tradition of thanking the many people who helped make the meal before them possible. He thanked the farmers all the way to the people at the grocery store. One day, Jacobs’s son challenged him to take this a step further. Why don’t you thank these people in person? This challenge launched Jacobs on a grand adventure of discovering the many people who helped make his morning coffee a reality, traveling to them, and personally thanking them. For the full story, check out this TED talk.

Think of the many people who not only make the world better, but they make your life better, even if just in small ways like contributing to your morning cup of coffee. How about a simple challenge to reach out and offer a thank you to those people?

This isn’t about meeting famous people. It isn’t about networking. It isn’t about getting anything from these people. This experiment will create the conditions for you to experience the joy that comes from showing gratitude, connecting with new people, learning more of those who contribute to meaningful things in your life, and sharing kind words with others.

This is another gratitude challenge, because I’ve yet to find the limits of exploring, learning about, and discovering the rich benefits that come from embracing a life of gratitude. While this challenge is similar to the Gratitude Email Experiment, this one is different in the intended audience. The prior experiment was about expressing gratitude to people who are already a part of your daily life at home, work, and among your friends. This one is about reaching out to those whom you’ve never met before, and discovering the many people in the world whose work and efforts benefits, even bless, your life in small or significant ways.

  1. Begin by making a list of at least 20 things that give you joy or enrich your life in some way. For the sake of this experiment, focus upon artifacts, systems, and experiences. Your list might look something like this: doing yoga in the morning, my first cup of coffee each day, going on an evening run, listening to the _____ podcast on the drive to work, hiking my favorite nearby trail, reading a great book on a rainy day, watching my favorite TV show, or hanging out with friends at the local pub each Friday.
  2. Looking at your list, try to find out one or more key people who are responsible for making each of those items possible. If you have a favorite morning coffee, which company makes it and who are the key people how helped make that company a reality. Who are the people who keep it running today? For the nearby trail, who maintains it or who helped make it a reality in the first place? You get the idea. Part of the fun in this project is doing the research of learning about specific people who contribute to that thing that you value. Take your time with it, but continue until you identify one or more key people behind at least 7 of the items on your list.
  3. Next, block off 7 consecutive days on your calendar, assigning one of the 7 items (and the associated person) to each day.
  4. For each of the 7 days, your task is to locate an email address or contact information, and write a brief but considerate thank you letter to that person. Obviously, traveling to people and thanking them in person could a grand adventure indeed, but for this experiment, you might want to just start with a letter.
  5. Be sure to send the email or letter by the end of each day.
  6. At the end of the week, or maybe even during the week, set aside time to journal and reflect upon the experiment. What did you learn? Did this experiment impact your mood or outlook? How did this experiment increase your awareness of the countless people who contribute to that which you value? Are there any lessons or practices that you might want to continue even after this experiment is over?

Tips:

  • Doing the work of finding contact information in advance of your 7-day challenge might help you stay on track. Sometimes this will require a bit of detective work.
  • While you can certainly find and contact the primary source for some things, like the musician who wrote or performed that song that means so much to you, you can also think about some of the other people who contributed to the song making its way to you. In other words, sometimes you might want to thank the key figure or celebrity, but it can be just as meaningful (maybe even more so) to contact the others who get far less recognition.
  • This is an experiment about three different things. First, you are cultivating thoughts of gratitude. Second, you are putting faces and names to the things in your life, finding delight in discovering the many people who contribute to what you value. Third, you are connecting with others and sharing kind words. Our world can always use more kindness, and by taking on this challenge, you are making that happen. Thank you.

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