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The Power of Gratitude – Econlib


Yesterday my friend Danny Shapiro recommended a 2018 EconTalk episode in which Russ Roberts interviewed A. J. Jacobs on his book Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey. I loved the episode.

Various parts of it immediately caused me to think of my own experiences, including my own expressions of gratitude to people.

Here are a few.

Thanking the barista for the coffee

Jacobs says:

And, I said, ‘I know this sounds strange, but I just want to thank you for keeping the bugs out of my coffee.’ And she said, ‘Well, that is strange; but I really appreciate it. I don’t get a lot of gratitude.’

That reminded me of when I was on a flight from Newark to San Francisco and started a conversation with the guy beside me. One of the things I find most interesting about people is what work they do. So I asked him. He answered that he worked for a pharmaceutical company and named the company. I asked him what drugs they produced and what diseases they were aimed at. He told me a few. Then I said, “Thank you.”

“What?” he asked.

“Thank you. I appreciate your role in getting these drugs out to the public and helping them.”

“I’ve been in this business for over 20 years,” he said, “and you’re the first person who has ever thanked me.”

By the way, I wrote an op/ed 23 years ago titled “Make Money off My Sickness, Please.” In it I expressed gratitude to the local hospital (Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, which we locals call CHOMP) for saving my life for $2,000 in 1995 dollars.

Gratitude for a Doctor

Russ tells this story about people expressing thanks to a doctor dying of cancer. People gathered to thank him for the treatments he had given them.

This doesn’t directly relate, but somehow it reminded me of the memorial service for my friend Harry Watson last month. I was wandering around their New Hampshire compound (there are 7 buildings on it) an hour or so before the service when I saw someone show up in a nice Porsche. He rolled down his window to ask where he should park and I introduced myself. He then introduced himself. He was Dr. Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania medical center. He had been Harry’s hero because his destruction of various malignant tumors in Harry’s body probably bought Harry 3 or 4 more years of life while he had stage 4 colorectal cancer. Dr. Hunt flew from Philly to Boston and then rented a car to drive 2 hours to New Hampshire. Now that’s dedication.

Gratitude for a Parent

Russ states:

You mention your parents. That’s an obvious example where, for me, when I first had, when I was blessed with a child, one of the things that it does to–it does a lot of things to you–but one of the things it does to you is it makes you realize what your parents did for you. Because–tragically or not, realistically, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. And when you have your own child, you realize, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And you should be overwhelmed by gratitude. And I think how often you tell you tell your parents how grateful you are for what they did for you.

My mother died when I was 19 and so it never occurred to me to express gratitude to her. My father died when I was 46 and fortunately I knew it was coming (I had visited him for that reason less than 2 weeks earlier) and when I found out from the nursing home that he was near the end, I faxed him a very brief appreciation that they told me they had read to him.

I did get a glimpse of the fact that he had thought about his kids when I went through his papers and found a carbon copy (remember those?) of an application he had written for a job as a school principal when he was wanting to resign as a school principal where he was. He mentioned that he had 3 kids and his youngest (me) was 9 and then something I forget. But still it was neat to see him even mentioning me when I had had the working assumption that he took me for granted.

Gratitude Replacing Annoyance

Jacobs states:

I think my default mode, like many people’s, is to be annoyed: Find the three or four things wrong with everything and focus on them. I think of it almost like a battle between my inner ‘Larry David’ and my inner ‘Mr. Rogers.’ And I think my Larry David is very strong. So, this was partly an attempt to strengthen my Mr. Rogers. And I do think it was successful. I mean, I still get annoyed a huge amount. But, just doing a practice of focusing on the hundreds of things that feel right in every part of our lives, it really is a radical shift in perspective.

I have worked on this a lot over the last 5 decades and I’m now at the point where my “Mr. Rogers” is dominant. Two stories from the last 2 weeks.

Two weeks ago my wife and I rented an expensive house for 5 nights in Novato, California. We had to pay a lot to get a private swimming pool. All kinds of things went wrong. First, there was no set of directions. So we had to contact the owner to get the WiFi password. Second, I had bought ice cream the day we arrived and by that evening, it had turned to soup. The freezer didn’t work. Third, it took us 2 days to find where the towels were hidden. I could mention a couple of other upsets, but I think you get the picture.

We contacted the owner about the freezer and he told us he had ordered a new one and it would arrive the day before we left. So it wouldn’t help us much. I don’t know if this was a response to our complaint about the ice cream or if he had already ordered it and it was due to arrive. He asked us if we could be there to accept delivery. My immediate response was anger, but by this point my anger quickly turned to laughter. This really seemed like a comedy. We said we could be there if they specified the time, and the guys who delivered it were only a little later. The owner also showed up and he was a really nice guy. The power had gone out that morning and when we had told him that, he said we should go out for breakfast and he would pay. My sister in law and her boyfriend were visiting and so we took them out and treated. I had no intention of charging him for them, just for us. So when I told him that the bill was $107, but that he should give us half of that, he pulled out 6 $20s and said that that should compensate us for breakfast, the ice cream, and another dish that had spoiled in the fridge.

When the fridge arrived and the guys pulled out the old one, of course there was all kinds of dirt on the floor. Although the owner was 10 years younger than me, he wasn’t in as good shape and it was difficult for him to clean the floor. He tried to do it with wet paper towels and using his foot to sweep them back and forth. It just wasn’t working. I like to be helpful and I also felt gratitude for his being so accountable. So I got some wet paper towels, got on my hands and knees, and cleaned the floor.

The other story is about something that happened this morning. My wife is having a knee replacement early next month and a friend who had had it recommended that we get a big piece of plywood and put it under the cushions on our couch. That way, she could get off the couch more easily. So I went to Home Depot this morning to buy a piece of plywood. It turns out that Home Depot has a great deal where you can rent a truck for 75 minutes and pay only $20 plus gas. So I did that. The guy who checked me out told me to make sure I returned it full, because the gas gauge said “F” for full. I also noticed that it said 394 miles until empty. After I dropped the plywood off at home, I went to gas station. I had driven only 9 miles but I pumped 1.9 gallons and it hadn’t quit. So I stopped. There was no way I had got just over 4 miles per gallon. When I returned the truck, I pointed out that the gas gauge now said 414 miles until empty. I wasn’t upset. I think I just wanted to tell them and maybe I wanted to get a little credit for being a responsible customer. A different guy was there and he said something that disarmed me and got me laughing: “Welcome to the Home Depot business model.” I never had any anger. But this one line brought out my Mr. Rogers big time.

Thanking People in Your Life

Around the 22 or 23-minute point, Russ talks about thanking people who have done nice things for you and he tells a nice story about a family friend who was generous to him. It made me think of someone who arguably saved my life. When I was 24 and about to go to the University of Rochester as an assistant professor, I was visiting friends in Winnipeg. I wasn’t sure that the Immigration “Service” would okay the extension of my F-1 student visa for “Practical Training,” I was way further behind on my dissertation than I had expected to be, and I was afraid of moving into a new job where I was around people, at least some of whom I had already figured were smarter and more productive than me. Everything hit at the same time one evening. I had borrowed the car of my friend I was staying with and I told Edwin, “I want to go out in your car and get it up to 80 and crash it into a tree, and I want you to talk me out of it.” My brother had committed suicide 5 years earlier and that had, unfortunately, made suicide quite plausible to me. Edwin could have said, “No way are you going to wreck my car.” He didn’t. He gave me what I needed. He talked me down, having me look at each problem in turn and convincing me that I could deal with each problem. That is the only time in my life when I seriously thought about committing suicide. For that response, I feel a lot of gratitude to Edwin.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor