More than 20 years ago, Pamela Gail Johnson — a life and leadership coach — began digging into a question that was gnawing at her: Why are people largely so unhappy? She fully understood why people facing the devastating loss of a loved one or their home or their livelihood would be unhappy. But why were those who seemed to be largely unscathed miserable, too?
Johnson, who started her career working in the mental health and substance abuse field at Hazelden Foundation, founded the Society of Happy People in 1998. The now global organization celebrates three "happiness holidays," including Happiness Happens Month (it's August, so listen up!). Johnson lives in Dallas and is the author of the upcoming "Practical Happiness: Four Principles to Improve Your Life."
Q: Your research concludes that humans are wired to be unhappy. Why do you think that is?
A: Our brains are hardwired to quickly recognize and help us get away from things that can hurt us. This goes back to our caveman days, when we had to protect ourselves from gigantic, hairy, scary creatures and such. Our brains evolved to help us recognize danger and keep us safe. That's why it's always easier, and maybe even more natural, for us to see what's wrong before we can see what's right.
Q: So it's harder, naturally, to be happy?
A: Having a positive outlook usually requires a conscious effort until it becomes a habit or our go-to mind-set. Happiness is not the absence of problems or difficulties. You may have to train yourself to be a little happier.
Q: Can we point to the pandemic as the beginning of the plunge into malaise?
A: Part of it can be attributed to COVID, but this American trend of unhappiness started before COVID. We already were stressed, angry, anxious. So many people want to say that happiness is about materialism, and it's not. I really think we've moved to this place of focusing on things that separate us, to recognize more what's wrong than what's right.
Q: I think it's interesting that your original organization was called the Secret Society of Happy People. Do happy people feel they have to hide that fact?
A: People kept saying to me, "When you start it, I want to join." People who were more happy than not didn't really have a tribe. It didn't mean they didn't have problems. It just meant they were bonding around happiness. Many of the stories in my book are about people dealing with cancer, anxiety, depression, OCD, other health and life challenges, but they were putting a lot of effort into being happy. It was kind of a secret at a time when we were really focused on what's wrong. I don't know if it's that people are jealous... When I do coaching, I try to figure that out, but we can still be uncomfortable being happy for other people.
Q: You also make the point that toxic positivity is not helpful, either. Might you say more about that?
A: We were never a mantra of "pretend to be happy if you're not." Being happy all of the time isn't realistic for anyone. We just ask that you don't rain on other people's parade. That's still a challenge.
Q: So, we're almost halfway into Happiness Happens Month. Help us catch up! How do we start our practice?
A: If you google the Society of Happy People (sohp.com), you'll find a ton of people who celebrate in different ways and that's totally cool because happiness is personal. The mission of the society is to expand our vocabulary to notice that happiness is already taking place in our lives.
Q: In fact, you have identified 31 types of happiness that we might be experiencing without realizing that they are happy moments. Might you share a few?
A: Satisfaction, contentment, peace, creativity, pride, kindness, motivation, nostalgia. Sometimes, happiness is just feeling relieved. We have to sometimes wake up and say, "Hey, maybe I'm in a funk, but I'm going to make sure I notice everything good that happens today. I am going to make note of it."
Q: Would we be happier if we consumed less news?
A: Choose carefully but don't dismiss the news entirely. I watch a lot of news; it's important to be informed. It's important to pay attention to local news, especially. If you get overwhelmed, go take a walk.
Q: So, create boundaries?
A: Manage unhappiness so it doesn't manage you. Make a decision: Take a walk, pause and reframe, smile (the act of smiling actually does make you feel happier), vent. Indulge in a 10-minute pity party, then stop.
Q: Why do you feel it's important for us to do this happiness work?
A: Happiness is a holistic approach to mental and physical health. Happiness creates harmony within our life. We feel healthier, we live longer, we're more productive at work. Happiness is helpful in all those things and, besides, while you're alive, don't you want to live feeling the best you can emotionally? We all have happiness zappers, but we get up the next day and start again.