Tapping Into Happy

The author of Live Happy shares insights for choosing joy in business and life.
by : 

Maggie Feeney

June 1, 2016
Tapping Into Happy

What does real happiness look like, and how do we achieve it in our daily lives? Those are the questions at the heart of Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy. Deborah Heisz, the author and co-founder, COO, and editorial director of Live Happy magazine, recently spoke with Retailing Insight about her new book and how to apply the solutions in business and life.

Maggie Feeney: What inspired your research on happiness?

Deborah Heisz: I spent some nine years previous to Live Happy magazine working at Success Partners, which publishes Success magazine. I already had a love of publishing content to improve your own life, and Success was a nice outlet for that. The owner of Success, Stuart Johnson, attended a meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association and came back just lit up by the actual scientific evidence that you can be happier. A good friend of his, Jeff Olson, said “You know what? I love this! Let’s do a magazine!” He became the founder of Live Happy. We started doing the magazine, and I realized I had finally found something that I not only believed in personally but that had scientific evidence behind it.

The fact that you can choose happiness was a revelation. I am a naturally optimistic person—I don’t believe your success takes away from my possibility of success. But, even people who seem naturally negative or fearful or who approach life from a position of scarcity can actually can train themselves to be happier.

My goal in life for the past three years at Live Happy, and hopefully for the next 20 years, is to build a realization that people can be happier and that tools and techniques are out there that are proven to work.

Raising your happiness setpoint

Feeney: You say in your book that we all have a happiness setpoint, and regardless of whether our setpoint is high or low, we can raise it. What are some ways to do that?

Heisz: When we talk about raising our setpoint, what we’re talking about is improving your perceived well-being, because happiness is a self-determined issue. Are you happy or not is a question only you can answer. Of course, “Live With Perceived Well-Being” is not a good title for a magazine or a book (laughs), but that’s what we mean by happiness—your perception of how well you’re doing. Am I doing good? Do I feel good? Do I feel I have the life I want?

There are lots of things you can do to impact your happiness setpoint. Some of my favorites are working on your attitude and working on how you see the world.

Here’s a great exercise: At the end of every day, write down three good things from today. You can’t do it once; you have to do it for a length of time, 30 days or so. What you’re doing is changing the way you approach the day, because now you start looking for good things. Auditors spend their day looking for mistakes, and what do they find? Mistakes. But, if you spend your day looking for good things, you find more good things and you pay attention to them. It really does frame your attitude, because now you’re not looking for what’s going wrong in the world, you’re looking for what’s going right.

Another practice that is also very simple to do, and very similar, is a gratitude practice, where you write down three things you’re grateful for each day. It doesn’t matter which time of day you do it, but it should be the same time each day.

We spend a lot of time worrying about what other people have without taking time to recognize what we already have. Be grateful for the fact that your car works even though it may not be a Mercedes or a Rolls-Royce. You have a car, it works, it gets you to work. Or, you can take the train to work, and isn’t it great that you live in a city where you can take a train rather than having to invest in a car? Of course, the thing you’re grateful for can’t be your car every day. It has to be something new and specific; otherwise, the practice won’t work.

Another favorite practice of mine is being present—being present in your conversations, being present in what you’re doing, being mindful. A lot of business books touch on this, about how you can’t really multitask, you’re just time slicing, but that’s true for everything. If you’re going out to dinner with someone, don’t put your phone on the table, even if it’s off. It’s been shown that, even if a phone is turned off but on the table, it distracts the other person because it’s sending a subliminal message that they’re not as important as somebody who might be calling you or something else that might be going on in your life.

The step beyond that is if you set aside time to do your gratitude practice or your mindfulness practice or whatever it is you set aside time for, do that. Don’t be sitting there thinking, “I’ve got to rush through this because I have to get to the next thing.” If it takes 10 minutes a day, give yourself the 10 minutes to be present in that activity.

For a while it’s a struggle to be present, particularly in our connected world, but once you get there and you understand how it makes you feel not to be worried about the next thing or the last thing, it really does benefit your peace of mind. My life is as busy as anybody’s, but I put things on my calendar, and I honor those things and the people involved in those things, because positive relationships are built that way and positive relationships are a key component of our happiness.

Happiness is something that actually grows when you share it. You can help somebody else be happier, and they’ll help the next person be happier. It’s a cascade; you provide movement to happiness by doing happy acts.

Feeney: Each chapter in your book ends with a “Happy Act.” What exactly is a Happy Act?

Heisz: A Happy Act is typically a small activity you do to promote happiness in somebody else’s life, or in your own life. They can be things like opening a door for somebody, leaving a positive note for a coworker, or taking the time to thank somebody in a Facebook post. Happy Acts are about sharing and spreading happiness.

Feeney: I noticed the theme of fostering positive relationships throughout your book.

Heisz: Positive relationships are probably the most fundamental key to whether you’re living a happy life or not. Do you have someone to share things with? Do you have someone to cry over things with? These things are really, really key, but what most people don’t realize about positive relationships is they don’t have to be family and friends and your dearest confidant. You can cultivate positive relationships with somebody by smiling at them while they hand you your coffee.

You could have several positive connections during the day that aren’t with people you have meaningful relationships with long-term. Yes, you need the meaningful, positive relationships in your life, but you also need to be filling up people and therefore filling up yourself with micro-positive relationships, micro-positive interactions. Barbara Fredrickson’s research, which she published in Love 2.0, speaks to this, about how positive relationships of any kind feed our happiness.

Feeney: What are some other benefits of living a happy life?

Heisz: The kind of happiness we’re talking about also leads to improved physical health, improved mental well-being; it reduces stress, so when we talk about happy, we’re talking about something that, if you work at it, will improve your life in ways you may not realize.

A recent study showed happier people make 30 percent more than their coworkers, are more likely to get promoted, miss less work, and cost businesses less money because they are healthier. These are all positive things that come out of paying attention to whether or not you’re happy. Happiness can’t be your goal any more than being rich can be your goal; you know, no one can ever be rich enough or happy enough, because no one can ever be rich enough or happy enough. If that’s your goal, you’re never going to get there. It’s really about the journey to leading a happier life.

Feeney: That goes back to the idea that happiness comes from within instead of someone or something making you happy.

Heisz: Yes, because what makes me happy might not make you happy, right? People might look at my life and say, “How do you do all that? Aren’t you exhausted?” Yes, it is full time, full bore, full speed ahead almost all the time, but it doesn’t stress me out at all because I love it.

Feeney: You’re in your flow.

Heisz: Exactly. I spend a lot of my day in flow. Now, there are things I don’t like doing just like everybody else. I don’t like status reports but I have to do them. It is about finding that place where you feel like, “This is where I need to be.” To me, that’s what happiness is.

Happiness is good business

Feeney: One of my favorite parts in your book is about the mission of Zappos to deliver happiness to the world, not just to sell shoes.

Heisz: Yes, Zappos is really focused on how a customer feels when they interact with the business. They know that to get the customer to feel good about what they’re doing they have to get the employee to feel good, too. The employee has to feel connected to the business. The employee has to have meaningful relationships with the business and with their coworkers, because relationships matter. I think one of the great quotes from their Chief Happiness Officer, Jenn Lim, is people don’t show up to work because they have to—they show up because they want to be with their friends and their tribe. They’ll show up for a while, but they won’t show up and provide excellent customer service unless they feel connected to their coworkers.

Feeney: What are some ways a small, independent store could adopt Zappos’ strategy of cultivating happiness?

Heisz: One of the number-one ways a business owner can cultivate happiness is through appreciation—thanking their employees, showing their employees appreciation for what they do. Yes, you pay your employees to do the work, but simply saying “thank you” goes a long way toward that employee feeling connected to you and connected to the job.

The main thing for me, for building happiness in the workplace, is communicating the meaning of why you’re doing what you do. If your goal is to provide excellent products and excellent customer service, then you need to convey why that’s important to your employee. Is it because their customers will return? Well, what does that mean to me if you’re paying me an hourly wage? You want to inspire in your employees a desire and belief that what they’re doing matters. It really is about focusing on their why. There’s a great story in the book about that from Mary Miller.

Feeney: Yes. Her Dream Manager program!

Heisz: Yes, it’s phenomenal, and she is such an enthusiastic believer in her employees. Her company is successful because her Dream Manager program created a purpose for the work her employees do. Her business is janitorial services; these are people who clean toilets and hallways and don’t get a lot of one-on-one, “rah-rah” attention. What Mary’s program created for her employees is an understanding for why they are working, and she’s been tremendously successful. Paying attention to people and creating a positive relationship with them goes a long way toward your own business success.

Feeney: Her Dream Manager program helps her employees frame their work in terms of how it supports their own goals. Hourly employees might not see their work as a career, but it’s inspiring that she is helping them focus on how their job is supporting their own dreams!

Heisz: Yes, why are you making money? Why are you spending a third of your life in your waking hours doing something? You have to have a why.

Feeney: That ties in with mindfulness and being more aware of what is important to you. Often we race through the day, sometimes without stopping or even pausing.

Heisz: Right, how many times have you thought, “What have I done for the last four weeks? Where did the time go?” Jeff Olson wrote a book called The Slight Edge, which is about creating a philosophy of life and then doing things to build on it. One of the things he says in the book, which is true of happiness as well, is that everything you need to do to be happy is easy to do. And, if it’s easy to do, it’s easy not to do. Going for a walk for 20 minutes a day is an easy thing to do, but how many people don’t do it? And you don’t get the benefit of doing it once.

Feeney: Mary Miller said something in your book that I really related to. She said, “It’s not that I never have a bad day; it’s just that I don’t carry it around with me.” What are some strategies for stopping a bad day from spilling into every other area of your life, considering retail work brings you in contact with many customers each day?

Heisz: Well, we all have bad things that happened to us, right? We’ve all had catastrophically bad days, days that just did not go the way they were supposed to go. That’s okay. Being happy isn’t about being in the emotion of happiness all the time. Being happy is about living a life you want, living a life of meaning, and feeling good about your life. There’s a whole chapter on resilience and about getting through some of the worst things in life. Figuring out how to get out the other end is really an important key to your happiness.

Most people don’t realize they have control over what they’re thinking about. Your thoughts come from within you; they don’t invade you. Thinking about or writing about your difficult experiences and what you’ve learned from them, how you’ve grown, and what you’ve accomplished since can help. Mindfulness meditation can empower you, give you a new perspective, and help you feel your emotions without them taking over your life.

It’s okay to talk about negative experiences; it’s okay to share them with people we are close to because you do find strength in numbers. You don’t want to dump on the person who’s delivering your mail, so to speak, but foster positive relationships when you’re not going through a negative time period. Put energy into your friendships and energy into your relationships regularly, so that when something negative does happen, you have people who don’t mind if you reach out to them and lean on them for a little bit—because you’ve done the same for them.

Spotlight on creativity

Feeney: In your book you talk about the benefits of exercising your creativity. What are some of the benefits, and how can a store owner apply that to their business?

Heisz: Exercising your creative brain stretches you and creates the opportunity for new ideas. Businesses benefit from promoting creativity in their employees. The more creative you are, the more likely you are to come up with the next business breakthrough. I saw a great quote recently that basically said if all you’re doing is putting best practices into place, you become the average of best practices. In other words, best practices don’t make you the best; they make you average because you’re doing the best known. Getting yourself into a state of flow is something that comes out of creativity. It’s when you become so completely engrossed in an activity that time seems to stand still or pass by without noticing. When you do this your energy level increases, your imagination increases, and what you can do improves.

The reality is, in the state of flow, your brain releases neurochemicals that affect your performance and the hormones that block distraction, increase your focus, and improve pattern recognition. It also enhances your mood, makes you feel better. That’s when you really have those breakthrough moments. Creativity is a real energy-producing activity, and the research shows us that people who allow themselves creativity or who allow themselves to play are happier and more emotionally balanced than people who don’t.

Play improves your problem-solving skills and elevates your mood, it stimulates new ways of thinking, and it ultimately allows you to discover new things about yourself.

Feeney: I love the idea that instead of calling a staff meeting to brainstorm, you and your employees get a chance to explore a creative pursuit and see what comes out of that. I think you also talk about how daydreaming—unfocused thinking time—allows you to come up with innovative solutions, too.

Heisz: Yes, there are a lot of businesses, particularly newer tech businesses, that have started adopting the idea that having a little more free time, even if it’s on the clock, creates more innovation outside of those hours.

Feeney: I could see any business, big or small, implementing that. It’s only going to improve what you do as a business, and it also gives employees a why—why are they invested in spending their time in your business. Thanks for taking the time to share these insights with our readers, Deborah!

Heisz: Thank you so much for the opportunity!

Maggie Feeney is Editor in Chief of Retailing Insight.