Brian And I Went To A “Happiness Conference” And Here’s What We Learned…

I hadn’t been so excited about something in years. Picture how a massive superhero fan feels going to Comic-Con or a football fan going to the Super Bowl – I get a real dopamine rush from the idea of spending two days at a conference all about philosophy, sociology, psychology, science, and yes, self-improvement. It’s self-indulgent, of course, but I’ll take all the things when it comes to deepening spiritually, becoming a better leader/boss, a healthier lady, a better mom/wife, or even a more grounded public figure (ha). I’m into it all.  Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Dan Harris, Sam Harris, Armchair Expert, Dr. Becky, etc. It’s a hobby that fills me up, especially when I’m at my most drained. So today, if you are ready to choose curiosity over judgment keep reading and I’ll walk you through what exactly a “happiness conference” entails. Here we go… 

When I saw an advertisement for the In Pursuit to Happiness conference, put on by The Atlantic (my favorite magazine that I read cover to cover monthly), I immediately pitched it to Brian as a weekend away, at an awesome hotel, for “work”. He said yes, figuring that if nothing else he’d do research for the novel he’s writing and get likely alone time with me. In the middle of what was an already over-scheduled month what with my book coming out and the farmhouse renovation blowing up, I cleared my calendar so we could leave our kids and head off to Half Moon Bay for the Sunday – Tuesday “weekend.” After years of me talking in Brian’s ear about this happiness science stuff he was actually really interested, which made the whole endeavor so exciting. 

Like anything, there are multiple ways of looking at this “Happiness Conference.” A more pessimistic perspective is to quickly judge everyone who attended – the irony is almost too obvious to say aloud, but I will, just to bring you along the “journey” and get ahead of what you might be thinking. Yes. It was a bunch of wealthy people at The Ritz-Carlton, a cliffside hotel, holding $22 martinis, paying a lot of money to learn how to be happier from other likely wealthy folks with a lot of hyphenates during a time in the world that can often feel anything but happy. Even writing this after the week of insane news feels weird and gross, but multiple things can be true at the same time so I’ll continue. If you were to go to a fitness conference you’d get a lot of fit people learning how to be more fit or teach about fitness, or a gardening conference would teach gardeners new ways to improve their gardens. It’s the nature of a conference – immersing yourself in a singular subject with the goal to come out more informed on it. And it’s a privilege to be at any conference about “happiness” because you get to get away from your life to focus on one thing – either to better your life, business, or family. It’s specific for a reason and they have to be expensive in order to pay the speakers/experts for their time and cover the production of the event. So if you are judging the people and the spirit of it – simply don’t go. It’s likely not for you – (or maybe it is for you:)). Maybe read this article instead. It’s the most recent one I’ve been sharing that might help you understand the intent. If you are turned off by self-improvement culture I get that – but I think that “turn-off” is more about the people, less about the ideas which most have been around for centuries or millennia. I get it all, but with an open mind and engaging with people with whom you connect, I think there is universal value.

A more open perspective (which is the one we took) is to learn more about how to navigate this life with more purpose and meaning, less pathologies, and for some of us, take back info and tools to our communities or our teams. Often new philosophies are resisted at first, but the science behind happiness is so hard to resist or negate – it’s common sense, folded in with data and research but we all know is true. A conference on happiness has the intention of creating more of it, and that is a good thing both personally and as a whole society.

In true Emily fashion, I leaned into the spirit and the intent of the conference, embraced it all, and LOVED IT. The first night was a meet and greet, everyone wearing their finest (do I dress cool? Professional? Serious? What message do I want to send?), trying to impress the unknown. We aren’t big “networkers” but connecting with others in this setting is just fun and part of the whole experience so I forced it and Brian followed. You simply go up to other people in a group and say, “Hi. What brings you to this happiness conference?” With a bit of a wink (and self-congratulatory irony of course) and you meet your conference buddies that become touchpoints for the next 2 days. I was quickly surprised by the crowd. We met a professional dating coach, an estate attorney (a long-time reader! Hi Colleen!), a lot of executive coaches who gave me names of shamans in Oregon (forest bathing!), a podiatrist, and a few VC investors. We even met a group of 70-year-old dads who have been best friends since they were in kindergarten and are just now exploring their inner life because as typical cis-male-dominant-earners they hadn’t given themselves permission to dive in before this. There were business leaders, entrepreneurs, and a lot of people in the second half of their life who have realized that the happiness they were promised through “success” fell short. They read Arthur C. Brooks’s book, from Strength to Strength, and came to meet him. 

Brian’s goal was to come out of it with a good story, some anecdotes for his novel, and of course, have some fun (he’s very open to it and we both love social experiments). My goal was to learn more tools to take back to my life and simply be a better mom, business owner, wife, friend, writer, leader, and citizen. On the happiness scale I’m pretty good (born this way), so I was just hoping that Brian (more of the skeptic) would come up with ways to reframe and we would have days and days of stories to tell, which we do. 

So here are the biggest takeaways:

  1. Typically happiness goes up and down throughout life, with some very common patterns (as you can see in the graph above). Peaking early can be hard and how you respond to that rise, and in my case stagnation, will affect your happiness for the rest of your life. A lot of us, called “strivers” succeed early and while that sounds awesome, the pressure to continue to outdo our past selves in the field that we peaked in is daunting and as our brains age, it’s almost impossible. Many, like Darwin for instance, lived the last 30 years of his life despondent, not able to do the same level of research he accomplished for his fame. He wanted to end his life because he felt like a failure not being able to live up to his former self and the collective hype and fame. Arthur C. Brooks – the social scientist who founded this conference – collected a lot of data from polling people and decades of research to empower people to frame the second half of their life so that they can use their crystalized wisdom to add value to the world, to teach, empower, impart information. Those that do are wildly happier than those who chase their peak. 
  2. “The key to happiness is not to have what you want, it’s to want what you have” – the Dalai Lama. Just say that over and over – which is not always easy, but you get the general sentiment. Arthur C. Brooks told this story about the Chinese art of sculpture and how they believe that a piece of art doesn’t start from a blank canvas – opposite. It’s created by sculpting a block of jade, shedding what isn’t necessary, peeling back layer after layering, chipping away at the stone to reveal what we really are (and have always been) at the center. Michelangelo said the same thing with his David Sculpture. It’s all inside of us – we just have to shed the layers, do less, have less, and need less in order to find it. He reinforced that America is one of the only countries where it’s societally normal to collect and collect and collect, more and more and more – in Buddhism they try to shed, reduce, and hone so that by the end it’s just the important stuff. We have a lot of re-programming to do.
  3. Wait, what is the important stuff? While this is relatively common sense, Arthur C. Brooks has distilled it down to four pillars – faith, family, community, and meaningful work (which he defines can be earned or is service-based). In his research (and yes, there are a lot of graphs) people who are the “happiest” have prioritized those four things. Of course, my natural reaction to that is “well, we live in a capitalist society and the real stressors of life for a lot of the population include needing to be able to feed themselves and yes, need money.” While we all know that wealth doesn’t equal happiness, we can all agree that having enough to be comfortable is a huge part of happiness, especially in a big city (which is one of the reasons we left – in hopes of a less expensive life, we could hustle less and feel more comfortable long term). He goes into this more in his book (local here and kindle here) but all in all it’s really hard to argue with those four pillars.
  4. Music. We all know the emotional power of music, but in one seminar there was a scientist, Charles J. Limb, who showed us what it does to our brains that other languages or art forms can’t. It wasn’t just about self-expression, it was more scientific and granular than that. It’s like your brain taps into a collective wave that makes us all feel less alone, more connected. We all know this but being reminded how important it is to create music, not just enjoy it, can rewire your brain and create new pathways that can be totally life-changing. I remembered when I went back to church a few years ago, singing with the 30 strangers in the congregation was at first so uncomfortable but once we hit the chorus I was projecting aloud, I felt a level of euphoria that I hadn’t in a long time – to the point of weeping (a heavy dose of nostalgia was involved). You don’t need to play an instrument, we all need to sing more. It’s like exercise – a natural anti-depressant. 
  5. Big brands can do cool things. Titos (the vodka company) was the underwriter for the conference which we thought was another layer of irony because there is a severe alcoholism problem in America. Extreme drinking is pretty normalized and it’s certainly not making people happier. But I will say this – when the Chief Joyologist spoke about their business model I choked up – water filled my eyes. They flipped the typical business triangle – putting people and passion at the top and profit at the bottom. Bert Beveridge (you can’t write this stuff, I’m not joking) is apparently a wonderful business leader and person who puts service at the forefront of their company – leading many monthly company-wide, nationwide service projects as well as giving their employees a “joy budget” for them to donate to the charities of their choice every month. Brian and I were both very, very inspired. When businesses flip the script and give a shit I think maybe I do want to grow my business, that there are good models out there that have purpose when other days the social media world makes me wonder what good growing would actually create. Maybe I need to buy a distillery:) 
  6. The Creator Hour. Tara Nicholle Kirk, founder of SoulTour spoke during one of the break out sessions and I loved her concrete tips. She calls it the “creator’s hour”. Every morning starts with a sitting (meditation), journaling away your “ughs” (I love this), and a few other steps followed by moving your body. I’m very tempted to sign up myself and my team for her $97 21-day program.
  7. “Inspire don’t require”. I LOVE it when a very simple flip of a word can help you approach life differently. This is great in work and parenting – don’t “require” them to do something, instead figure out how you can inspire them to do it. Inspire means “fill with spirit” which I hadn’t really thought about before. Now I’m not saying I’m going to try to inspire my kids to unload the dishwasher without complaining, I’m not a fool, but when it comes to projects at work or even larger family projects, how can I create a space and communicate in a way that helps everyone feel inspired to meet the goals rather than have it a requirement? It’s a helpful re-frame.  
  8. Social media is now proven to be very negative for our happiness. The data is in folks. It’s no longer correlation/causation. The evidence is that it has made us much less happy. If you don’t believe me please read this article by Jonathan Haidt. This was a big topic at the conference, which I’ve already read a ton about, but the takeaway is to be very, very careful with our kids.
  9. Helicopter parenting and over-accommodating is doing a huge disservice to our kid’s future happiness – again, that data is in. Brian went to a session with the author Julie Lythcott-Haims who wrote How to Raise an Adult (local here and kindle here) and he really, really loved her. He wished she had spoken longer because she was so insightful, engaging, and relatable. The thesis is that shielding our kids from the stressors can create anxiety and depression later because their nervous system literally doesn’t know what to do with stress or negativity. The years specifically from 7-12 are meant for them to face challenges in a safe space, prepping them for adulthood and through helicoptering, they aren’t doing that. If you want to know more read this book (local here and kindle here) and this article. But the common-sense practice of this is to let our kids confront and solve every problem on their own. Ask questions, support, guide when asked, encourage positive behavior and choices – that’s it. I felt very validated in my non-supervisory approach (remember this post?). Free reign parenting FTW! 

What I Would Do Differently For Next Year’s Happiness Conference?

Listen it’s their first year doing this and we both thought it was super well produced, organized, and overall a great experience. I met the COO, CEO, and many of the marketing people at The Atlantic – of which I was fairly star struck – I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I read it cover to cover monthly for years. The COO is a long-time reader (I haven’t felt that good since Melissa McCarthy stopped me on the street to tell me) and she asked me for my honest feedback. I wanted time to think and process. In true Brené Brown fashion, there needs to be a space between “stimuli” and “reaction” – it’s a formula that looks like this: S (    ) R,  – you need the time in the middle to process the best reaction. So after two weeks, here is mine: 

  1. The conference itself had a bit of an identity crisis – which lord knows I can understand as someone who doesn’t know if I’m a person or a brand. I think it didn’t know if it should be self-help or science. I like both, but we were there more for the science/data and learning tools to take back to our family, my company, and you. There were some speakers who gave tools and some hard data, but there were also others that felt full of platitudes and catchy headlines. Which is fine, but it felt like a lot of preaching to the choir – those of us already into this stuff enough to be at this conference likely know the baseline ideas around happiness so I personally wanted more tools to implement, less good retweets, and fewer soundbites. (There were some that gave great tools – Lori Gottlieb, Arthur C. Brooks, Dacher Keltner, Gretchen Sharp – It should be noted many sessions were at the same time so I couldn’t go to all of them). Also shout out to Jeffrey Goldberg (EIC of The Atlantic) for being funny, warm, and asking really pointed direct questions.
  2. There needed to be more talk about spirituality and faith. One of the main pillars of happiness, based on Brooks’ research, is “faith” and yet there was only about 5% conversation about it. I think this is because liberals get scared to talk about religion for fear of being seen as conservative or Trumpy. Faith and spirituality don’t have a denomination or a political party. It really just means a transcendent relationship with the world, each other, the universe, a God, the planet, etc. It can be anything, just this connection to something bigger. I can get super woo woo and didn’t necessarily want that for Brian, but even he was very, very interested in that aspect because since I’ve tapped into that world 4 years ago it’s shifted my perspective a lot. I’ve been happier/lighter and he wants to find the same thing. So we were disappointed it wasn’t a larger conversation, especially because I felt that the experts associated with The Atlantic would have done it in a way that felt non-indoctrinating. Arthur C. Brooks is a conservative Catholic which I frankly love – I’m so sick of my bubble and love the more centrists perspectives out there. I wish there were more of that. I love that The Atlantic can frame sensitive topics in a more objective way so I’d love to know how they would approach faith. 
  3. More give back and service components. When you have so many wealthy people in a room I always feel like it’s a missed opportunity to create a larger conversation around service (there were two sessions on it, to be fair). I also spoke to so many people there who were highly involved in many charities or had quit their jobs to dedicate their lives to adding more value to the world. And like the Goop conference article, I have to remind myself that it’s not someone else’s job to help me be a good person or to mitigate my guilt for being at a conference full of likely privileged people. That’s on you, Emily. But if I were in charge of it next year I would A. Charge more and give a portion of the sales to a vetted charity – for me something children-related because I’m always wanting to go upstream to prevent the problems. And B. Bring heads of non-profits to be able to network with all these wealthier folks who are here to become happier people which is highly linked to service. Actually connecting with organizations that we can help support, consult for, or be on boards for would be amazing. The scientific link between service and happiness is indisputable and something I really want to focus some of my future on – so why not make that a bigger component here? 
  4. Invite more government officials, superintendents, or principals of schools as guests. So much of the data we know shows us that “achievement testing” is absolutely misguided and pretty damaging. We need to change our educational system, again going more upstream to help the next generation be less obsessed with “more” and achievement, but instead fostering their self-worth through community service, self-reliance, teamwork, hard work, and of course, kindness. A conference has limited capacity, so next time I would love to see more industry leaders in the public sector so that they could bring it back to their team and change/improve their communities. 
  5. More GREAT speakers with concrete takeaways – less yelling into the echo chamber — I wanted to hear more from Olga Khazan about how she changed her personality in 3 months, and more from Kate Julian about her parenting articles. In fact, more parenting would be AWESOME. Brian requested that, too :). Lisa Osborne Ross spoke about changing her role from CEO to “Chief Empathy Officer” – which sounds great, but I want to know how they structure their managerial system to scale “listening” in a way that is both emotionally supportive and successful for the business. I’m learning every day that parenting and running a business/team are strangely similar – you need to be consistent and kind, set boundaries, be clear with expectations, and then allow autonomy, creativity, and individuality in a safe space for everyone to thrive. But I only have 5 employees. I want more tools if I were to grow my team again to make sure it stays healthy. I love Brené Brown who gives really great tools like the 2-word check-in every day. So if there are leadership seminars I’d love to hear more tools, takeaways, learnings, examples of HR policies, etc.

The Recap…

Brian and I were so glad we went – Again, I think the experience as a whole was extremely well-produced and programmed. If you want an abridged version of the conference read this article (it’s excellent). I feel like I’m the last print magazine reader, but for the ones I love I need to hold them in my hands, curl up for hours, and soak it all in. If I can give my quick endorsement for The Atlantic it would be this – this magazine feels more centrist and objective. They call out the liberal left a lot, not editorializing but just stating and analyzing what we all can observe if we open our eyes. Progressivism isn’t always progressive. Shouting into our echo chamber has become deafening and it’s very important to step out of our bubble and communicate.

While a lot of what we learned can be common sense, when it’s framed within science-backed research and data it makes it feel even more empowering. More of an “if you do this, you can feel that” sort of thing and yes, you can argue about privilege which I absolutely agree with you. But privileged or not, reframing your life to focus on the four pillars (family, faith, community, and meaningful work) can help you align your life with your values. I fully recognize the “easy for you to say” retort, I’ve already said it to myself, but it doesn’t change the philosophy of striving towards wanting what we have, instead of having what we want. It’s really just the basics, before life got so messy the last 100 years and we reached for external help to solve internal holes – many people, like my parents, have been living the four pillars their entire lives and they are pretty darn happy. So this may not be anything new to some of you (lucky you:)) but for many of us who don’t have those pillars locked in, seeking achievement, wealth, and “success” might find that it’s making it harder to feel enjoyment, contentment, and fulfillment (where I was 3 years ago). So if you are interested in it trust me that reading this stuff can empower you to make simple (or hard) decisions that might have some positive outcomes leading towards more purpose, meaning, and yes, happiness.

Extra Resources For Those Of You Interested

If you are resistant to self-help and wellness culture, I hear you. I think there is a way to still dabble without going full “Goop” if it doesn’t always sit right with you. I was glad that the conference was only a day and a half of programming because self-improvement/reflection can quickly go into self-indulgence and you can leave feeling gross. So if you are still here and curious below is a list of articles or books that I have found helpful or inspiring (I’m NOT trying to indoctrinate anyone but if you’ve related to me over the years and have felt similar feelings about life then hopefully you’ll trust that I’ll only recommend stuff I have found helpful and actionable):

Brené Brown – A real favorite amongst those of us, especially in the business world. Podcast Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us (She just took a 4-month creative sabbatical btw – Go Brené!).
Dan Harris10% Happier (He’s the one that had a panic attack/nervous breakdown on live TV as a news anchor and then totally changed his life).
Arthur C. Brooks – Harvard social scientist, podcaster, and author who wrote From Strength to Strength (again local here and kindle here) and is especially great for people in the second half of their life.
Great Good Science Center – “Science-Based Insight for a Meaningful Life”. We loved them at the conference but haven’t listened to the podcast yet.
Gretchen Rubin – I found her so relatable, lovely, and informative.

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