On the first day of 2013, Justin Smith put 365 white pieces of paper inside a Mason jar, thinking it could change the world.
On each slip of paper, he'd written a name. Some were his old coaches or teachers. Others, a mentor, pastor or friend. His mom. His dad. Friends from summer camp long ago. Colleagues from work.
"People I admire or look up to," he added.
Every morning since Jan. 1, Smith has done the same thing, almost like a monastic vow: He reaches inside that Mason jar and pulls out one name. Then Smith, 31, sits down with his computer or phone and calls or writes to the person named on that white slip.
With every message, to every person, he says the same thing:
"Thank you for being in my life," he said.
He's 335 names into his yearlong, personal gratitude project. He's called or emailed family, friends, people from years ago. In each message, he explains his yearlong project, then specifically describes the difference that person made in his life. Smith's pastor from Calvary Chapel loved his message so much, he asked if Smith would put his name back in the Mason jar.
"When I was a high school senior it was a dark time in my life and you never gave up on me," Smith wrote one person. "You just loved me for who I was."
Centuries ago, the German mystic Meister Eckhart said that if the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, then that's enough. Cicero said gratitude was the parent of all virtues. St. Paul urged us to be thankful for all things.
"I give thanks for inspiration," the old Beastie Boys lyric goes. "It guides my mind along the way."
Yes, our minds. They can get so smogged over with negative thinking and complaints, we don't know whether to curse or kick the dog. It's a contagion: negativity begets negativity.
Like a smiling inchworm, gratitude seems to wiggle its way into all of that mind pollution. You start to intentionally give thanks on a regular basis? Things change. The world seems ... lighter.
"Trust me," said Smith, who works at Cumberland Trust and Investment.
The other day, a reader called and told me how her mother used to sit down every day and name the things for which she was grateful.
"Helps you realize how much you have," she said.
Gratitude does this. It wakes us up, wipes the smudges off our glasses, gooses us out of disappointment and anger at the world. You start to count your blessings, and realize you can't stop. Too many blessings. Not enough numbers to count them by.
Smith drew his mom's name a few days ago. His dad cried when Smith told him how thankful he was. One of the first names he drew was a beloved cousin. When Smith called, his cousin told him he'd just been diagnosed with cancer.
"It's taught me," Smith said, "to be thankful for every day."
The field of positive psychology continues to publish studies that illustrate how giving thanks -- a gratitude journal, written letters, literally counting your blessings -- makes us healthier and happier. I asked Smith what the project has taught him.
"What hasn't it?" he responded. "It's taught me that people just want to be loved, valued and appreciated."
He's onto something. When such a message arrives in the middle of our busy lives, it's like a firework, some joyous landmine that resets things. Oh, yes, we remember. That's what life is about. Giving, receiving, others.
"If you value people in your life, it will make all the difference in the world," Smith said.
One Monday morning in March, he sent me an email, thanking me for some things from more than 20 years ago. Funny how the things we do can stick for so long. How sobering, humbling. What a reminder.
"All this negativity is in the world. I wanted to change my culture," he said. "This is my interpretation of the Gospel. To change your culture for the good and value people."
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at David CookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...