Who's That Gal: Nataly Kogan of Happier

Name: Nataly Kogan    

Age: 40 (although really, I rarely act that mature :)

Hometown: Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia (where I as born) or NYC (which I consider my American home)

Current ‘hood: Newton, MA

Favorite Boston neighborhood to explore: South End

3 words to describe your style: Creative, slightly edgy, lots of stripes (yes, I know more than 3 words - I like to break rules :)

Currently reading (we’re a book club): Into the Magic Shop by James Doty

Source of inspiration: Art, awesome humans, life experiences


JUGs: Alright, let's dive in!  How did you decide to focus on “happiness” as a passion project?

Nataly: Well, it’s a career, a passion project, and my life purpose, all now rolled into one.

After my family fled Russia in 1989, I had a rough time. After a few months in refugee camps in Austria and Italy, we finally made our way to the United States and then spent a year living in the projects, on welfare, in Ypsilanti (outside Detroit). When I finally got on my feet I decided that to make up for the hardship my family went through by chasing the American Dream. To me, this dream meant becoming HAPPY. And the way I thought you got there was by achieving a LOT and making a lot of money.

So for the next 20 years I did just that - a series of impressive jobs, starting companies, publishing a book with Hyperion, getting the fancy stroller and the fancy car, you name it. By the time I was in my early 30s, I really appreciated my life but I was not happy. Not at all. Mostly I was really exhausted.

My father is a scientist so I decided to see if there was scientific research about what I could do to be happier. I spent a few years reading every academic paper and hardcover book I could find and then I  had a "holy crap" moment. I was doing it all wrong. Money or achievements don't make us happy. But there are some really simple things that we can do and that have been scientifically proven to lead to positive and optimistic thinking. Some of the most powerful are: Focusing on and capturing a few positive things about our every day, helping others smile, being surrounded by more positive people (because happiness is contagious).

I changed my approach based on what I had learned, stopped chasing happiness, and became a lot happier. And this inspired me to create Happier and to encourage millions of other people to stop saying "I'll be happy when..." and start saying "I am happier now because..."

Another huge inspiration for me was realizing that being happier isn't just more fun. There is wide body of research that shows being more positive is fundamentally important to living well. Happier people catch fewer colds, have a 50% lower chance I of a heart attack, are less depressed, stressed, and anxious, sleep better and make healthier lifestyle choices. And that's our mission at Happier: To help millions of people become happier in their everyday lives so that they live better and in more fulfilling ways.

 

While there really isn’t one answer, “happy” is somewhat of a broad term.  How do you, personally, define it?

A huge misconception I - and I think many others - used to have of “happiness’” is that it was some euphoric state where you didn’t feel negative emotions. But that state doesn’t exist. Genuine happiness is not the absence of negative emotions. Rather, it’s allowing ourselves to feel what we feel -- yes, this includes stress and sadness and being frustrated with the Boston commute -- and not judging it as something that’s “not how it should be”. Then, from that as a starting point, focusing our attention and intention on practicing what makes us happier -- gratitude, kindness, awareness, and as much as possible, living in a bit of awe of this amazing thing we get to be part of.

So I guess for me the very very core of being happier is feeling at peace with how I am, however that is, and from that point of acceptance living with a sense of joy and awakeness to this crazy journey of life.

 

After defining it, what can one do to ensure (as much as possible) long-term happiness?

Well, how much time do we have?  I’m kidding, it’s actually quite simple if you realize two things:

What I call unconditional happiness -- happiness that doesn’t depend on the next promotion, new car, new pair of jeans, a fancy vacation -- is something we all, absolutely everyone, can tap into. But we have to realize that one, we have to look for it inside of ourselves and not in anything outside and two, it’s not a feeling, but a skill we can learn and practice and get better at.

If anyone reading this walks away with just one idea, I hope it’s that happiness isn’t a FEELING, but a SKILL every single human being can practice.

How?

Here are my 3 daily anchors, 3 things I do every single day that for are the core of my happiness practice:

  • Gratitude practice -- write down or capture 3 things you genuinely appreciate, making them specific and meaningful to you. They can be tiny, size here really doesn’t matter.
  • Kindness practice -- plan or do a small act of kindness every day, towards a friend or a stranger.
  • Awareness practice -- I meditate 20 minutes a day but you don’t have to meditate to become more aware. Just find a few minutes when you are still and silent, and be there. It will help you settle and be more aware of how you are feeling/what is going on around you.

 

What are gals today doing wrong in not feeling happy and/or satisfied?

I am expert in this because I did so many wrong things on my journey -- I still do a lot of things wrong!

I think the main mistake is to look for happiness outside of ourselves -- in jobs, relationships, money, circumstances. Any happiness that we feel from outside things is fleeting and because as humans we are adaptive, we will just get used to the new normal - the promotion, new boyfriend, new car, new apartment -- and stop feeling happy.  We have to cultivate it inside.

I think the other thing is judging ourselves and constantly living in what I call the valley of suffering -- which is the distance between how we/things are and how we believe we/things in our lives should be. This way of living is so difficult, we punish ourselves all the time, trying to chase this “how it should be” state that’s really just in our imagination. The core foundation of living happier is first accepting yourself and your life as it is, and truly being aware of the moments, how they are. It doesn’t mean we just resign to letting life happen, but it does mean we start from a point of acceptance vs. self punishment.

Us gals, we can all do way better at being nicer to ourselves, accepting ourselves, not being so judgmental of how we are.

 

Tell us about your app! (note: won Best iPhone App in 2013)

Woohoo!

Happier is a social gratitude journal, where you can capture and share moments of gratitude with an amazingly supportive community. Hundreds of thousands of people have used Happier to practice gratitude and we’ve received thousands of incredible letters, emails, and even in-person surprise visits from users, telling us how Happier, practicing gratitude, and being part of this magical community has changed their lives for the better.

We also offer mini-courses to help you practice the skills of happiness --- from gratitude to meditation, yoga on the go, happier habits, even improving confidence (with Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy!) and training your brain to help you become happier (with Deepak Chopra!). The courses are meant to fit into your busy lifestyle, include videos and other unique content, and most are free! Yes, that is not a typo :)

 

There are millions of quotes out there that people find inspiring - just look at Instagram!  How can a gal take words into action(s) to find happiness?

Think about this: Happiness isn’t a bonus, it’s the foundation for living well and being healthy. Happier people have fewer heart attacks, get sick less often, get more done, are more creative, sleep better, and are more successful. Don’t treat your happiness as a nice to have -- it’s a must-have. Use the quotes as a trigger, a positive trigger, to remind you to practice one of the happiness skills I’ve talked about.


Where does financial happiness lead? Is “financial wellness” a starting point for finding happiness elsewhere in life?

When my family came to the US from Russia, we lived in the projects, on welfare and foodstamps. We had no money, no possessions, nothing. So I know the degree of stress you feel when your financial situation is terrible. Yes, feeling stable financially is part of being happier, although we all usually overestimate how much money contributes to happiness. Once our basics are covered, research shows more money doesn’t lead to happiness.


What is your biggest piece of advice when it comes to money & happiness?

Spend money on experiences instead of things. You remember experiences longer and the positive effect lasts a lot longer. If you can share this experience with someone else, even better -- it will help you feel happier. (If you want me to cite tons of studies to back this up, by really smart people like Harvard professors, I can.)


What are your recommendations for a gal to find work-life balance?

So, there is no such thing as work-life balance. We work, we live, it all blends together. I think the first step is to stop seeing balance that doesn’t exist.

Rather, what I want to encourage everyone to do is to really live as a whole person. What does this mean? Well, I run a company, I’m a wife, a mom, a daughter, a granddaughter, and those are big responsibilities. But I’m also an aspiring painter, so I need to give some time to that part of me or my soul dries up. (If you’re curious, check out natalykogan on Instagram for some of my latest art.) I’m also a yogi, so I need to make some time for that part of me, and I have a spiritual part of me, and an intellectual part, and I’m a total foodie. I used to think that all that stuff, outside of my big life responsibilities, family and career, was extra. And I made very little time for it, I felt guilty when I spent time away from my daughter, you know the routine -- we are so brilliant at this guilt thing as women.

But I got to a really rough place doing this for many years. I just starved myself, I starved the whole person of Nataly but not allowing all those parts of me to be alive and to be nurtured. So that’s a huge lesson for me and one I am sharing with anyone who will listen:

You’re a whole being, at work, at home, with friends, family, anywhere. There are many parts of you and rather than work-life balance, think of how you can nurture those different parts throughout your days.


Where do we need to go from here, as a society, to spark more happiness in Boston and beyond?

I think if we could all have more faith in kindness, we could change the world. Kindness towards ourselves, towards others. I’m not great at this yet, I’m working on it every single day, but I know how powerful kindness is. Kind people don’t start wars or cut you off in traffic. They come up with solutions to problems, they inspires others to do it, they get everyone’s hearts and minds to open and when that happens, it’s magic. Seriously.