By the time I was 27, I had started two successful businesses. First, I launched a cookie company in 2014 called Kitchen Millie, a literal childhood dream come true. Then, two years later, I co-founded a kitchen incubator space for local food companies like mine to launch and grow, because I'd made a lot of my own mistakes and I wanted to help others.
On paper, things looked great. But I was struggling. I felt stressed and trapped for reasons I couldn't put my finger on. "Living the dream" wasn't checking out for me, and I knew I needed to make a change. In the summer of 2018, I got an idea: a documentary I would direct and produce called "American Happiness."
My goal was to travel across the country in my Jeep, visit strangers from all walks of life, and ask them about the things that make them happy. I hoped to discover the things people do every day to create more joy and fulfillment in their lives. If I had this question, I was sure others would too.
After about six months of budgeting, planning, and finding my interview subjects, I left my businesses behind with teams in place to run them, and spent three months crisscrossing the country. On my journey, I interviewed more than 500 self-identified "happy" people in all 50 states.
Here are some of the most valuable lessons I've learned about money, work, and happiness.
A strong majority, 70%, of the happy people I interviewed pivoted at some point in their career, and often that meant taking a pay cut. Many of them told me that their friends and family were concerned that they were taking what seemed like "a step back."
One of those people was a Massachusetts woman in her 30s who found herself getting burned out by her consulting career. She had always thought about getting into the food industry, and she decided to quit her job and secured a gig at a local bakery to see if it was really for her. After that year, she went on to start her own food business.
She told me she felt as though she was living her calling each day. It may have taken a few years of not seeing as much money in her bank account, but she said that her happiness levels increased over time, because she took that risk.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Happiness studies conducted by psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, David Lykken, and Auke Tellegen found that the way our brains internally process our circumstances is more important than the external circumstances themselves. According to their research, an external factor, like income level or money in the bank, accounts for about 10% of your long-term happiness.
This bore out in my 500 interviews. Many of the people I spoke to shared that financial goals and professional accolades drove them, until they got to a point where they felt drained or anxious and couldn't understand why.
When they developed a happiness building tool set that worked for them — like keeping a gratitude journal, self auditing what is bringing them joy, giving back to the community, reframing situations with a positive mindset or having a personal mission statement — wealth became a mechanism for both financial freedom and a means to help others.
Video by Courtney Stith
Although I experienced living what I thought was my "dream" firsthand, it turns out that was only supposed to be my dream for a short while. It takes consistent effort to keep evaluating whether what you're doing from day to day is truly making you happy. And it takes courage to walk away when the answer is "no" for enough days in a row.
Most of the time, no one will understand why you'd walk away from your "dream" except for you. But that's OK. If you understand, and if you have a better plan, that can be enough.
I met a couple in Friendsville, Tennessee. Up until a few years before, they had lived in Florida. They were constantly stressed with bills and expenses and were unhappy with their jobs — but they felt they were doing what they "should." Then the wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and had surgery that left her in a coma. When she recovered, she and her husband agreed that they needed to make a change.
They decided to move to a tiny farm in Tennessee. Their friends and family didn't think they'd last more than two months there, but today, they're still there, enjoying every moment of their different pace of life. The wife decided to start teaching art lessons, a lifelong dream, from the farm. The husband still works in his industry, just at a different company in Tennessee. They recently adopted goats and chickens, sharing eggs and any other vegetables they grow on the farm with neighbors.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
If you are thinking about making a career change or taking a leap to start something new, my best advice is to focus on the skills you do have.
I didn't have any background in filmmaking when I started the American Happiness Project, but I did have plenty of experience making budgets and business plans. So I made a list of everything I'd need to get myself across the country: camera equipment, gas, food, lodging, even backup hard drives, along with a buffer amount for each category.
I ran a Kickstarter to fund about half of the trip and used my personal savings for the remainder. I'd run a Kickstarter before, funding the build-out of my kitchen space for the cookie company, and I knew it was a great way to raise awareness while also alleviating costs.
Beyond that, I'd always bootstrapped my ventures and had learned to be scrappy, so I knew I could be fairly minimalist about the trip. I budgeted about $12,000 for the trip – about $50 to $60 a night for housing and more for food, gas, and other small expenses.
There were some real challenges. I had no experience interviewing people, and I was a one-woman show. I was motivated to learn, though, and I was used to navigating my way through uncharted territory thanks to experience running my businesses. That gave me confidence in myself that I could figure out anything I needed to.
After my time on the road, inspired by my research, I launched a new company.
Today, as the founder of American Happiness Project, I get to create my own joy every day. I run workshops and programs for companies, organizations, and schools to help people manage stress, increase happiness, prioritize mental health and wellness, and build positive habits, especially right now as so many of us work remotely.
The "American Happiness" documentary premieres on February 25. And 2021 will also see the start of our latest initiative, Connection, a virtual program dedicated to helping people form new friendships. Good timing, after an isolating year.
Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness Project, which works with companies, schools, and individuals to create more joy and meaning in the everyday, and create accountability around prioritizing purpose and happiness across all areas of life.
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