Playtime — Playing is not just for kids. As an adult, it helps connect you to your inner child — that joyous, loving person you left behind years ago. All of a sudden, all thoughts of worry or fear are replaced with fun and joy. Think about what you loved to do as a child, teen, or young adult. It’s usually something creative or physical. Something that makes your heart smile and your head forget about time. It could be riding a horse, painting, running, making model planes, playing the piano, cooking, or even taking a long bubble bath.
It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Gisonni.
Debbie Gisonni is the author of three personal growth books, including The Goddess of Happiness. She is the founder of SELF POWER NOW! Media — a collection of books, online courses, and upcoming podcasts that empower people to rise above the daily challenges of life and work — from the trivial to the tragic — and live life with ease, happiness, and success. In 2014, Debbie was one of the first members inducted into the Happiness Hall of Fame — an organization that recognizes people who have advanced the cause of happiness throughout the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Originally from the Bronx, NY, I grew up in an Italian immigrant family with all the stereotypical characteristics. We were loud, passionate, hard-working, God-fearing, and food-loving. My parents struggled financially, physically, and emotionally, but even though I knew we were poor, I still felt safe and loved. If you asked what I was like during childhood, my parents would say feisty. My teachers would say smart. And my friends would say loyal. All of them would say happy. I must’ve been born happy because my parents were quite the pessimists. When I was a teen and announced that I was going to learn how to ski, my father’s response was, “What are you, crazy? You’re going to break a leg!” I just laughed it off and learned how to ski anyway…without breaking a leg!
The things I loved doing as a child were riding my bike with my sisters, dancing in the street with my girlfriends, writing stories or poems, creating art, and laughing until my stomach hurt. While the characters and the context might have changed, I still enjoy all of those same activities today. They keep me young in spirit, strong in body, and active in mind.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Well, as I mentioned, money was tight growing up, so I’d have to say that money and survival played a big part in my first career, which was B2B tech sales that eventually lead to c-suite positions running tech magazines or other companies. I did enjoy business, although, had money not been a motivator, I might’ve gotten a degree in psychology, journalism, or fashion design. So, the first time around, it was all about the money. And I had a good run at it for fifteen years — executive pay, stock options, title, status. I was “living the dream”!
The second time around, it was all about death. Not mine, of course! But close enough. During a four-year period, I lost four family members — a saga that started a decade earlier when my mother’s brain tumor was discovered, which left her permanently disabled and in need of 24/7 care. Then my younger sister committed suicide. Shortly after that, my father was diagnosed with bone cancer; and my aunt, whom I lived with in California, developed breast cancer. All four of them would die in four consecutive years. After that, I felt my life and career needed a reboot. I left my corporate job without a plan and about a year later, I had written and published my first book about overcoming the challenges of death and dying called Vita’s Will, titled after my mother. So, death actually gave me a rebirth into the field of wellness. My subsequent books were about happiness and self-love. What I had realized from my ordeal was that during life’s darkest moments, I had the power to tap into that happy child inside me, and that was a gift I wanted to share with others.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Dr. George Kehr was the head of the business department and my advisor in college. He wasn’t your typical stuffy professor, singularly focused on one area of expertise. Outside of his teaching, he was a professional photographer, avid cook, and family man. Up until I met Dr. Kehr, the men with authority in my life didn’t encourage me to pursue my career. No one in my family had attended college, and my father was so “old school” that he thought I should’ve just gotten married and had kids.
Dr. Kehr never imposed any restrictions on who I was or could be as a woman in the world. He took me under his wing as his protégé, got me into high-profile debate competitions, and recommended me for internships. He also encouraged me to take a leadership role at the college by both forming and running two clubs — a business leadership organization and a ski club. After college, we remained friends. We’d get together to catch up at least once a year. He was always so delighted to hear about my career and accomplishments, and continued to encourage me to shoot for the stars. I always felt he was my biggest fan, and his impression on me has been long-lasting, even though he’s no longer with us today.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Shortly after my book, The Goddess of Happiness, was published, it was translated into Chinese. A Chinese friend of mine a in the U.S. offered to arrange and accompany me on a book tour in China. I spoke at prestigious universities, women’s business groups, government groups, bookstores, and even UNICEF. Although my talks were in English, I learned a few Chinese words to connect with the audiences. Given the strict protocols in China, I really wanted to get those phrases correct. At the end of each talk, I would end with a phrase my friend taught me that expressed my gratitude for being there.
About mid-way through the eleven-day tour, I asked my friend how I was doing with my Chinese phrases, and she sort of giggled. When I probed further, she told me that my intonation on that ending remark was a bit off and changed the meaning. “How so?” I asked. It turned out that I was saying something about dog poop! And everyone, including my friend, was too polite to tell me! So, basically, I was closing all my happiness presentations with a phrase about dog poop! Even though I should have been mortified, I just burst out laughing. And, so did my friend.
Lesson learned: Don’t take yourself too seriously…ever! Life is hard enough without being hard on yourself for silly mistakes. Laugh it off and move on!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
When COVID hit, I had a chance to regroup and get back into my creative cocoon. I actually thought I would be writing a new book, but instead, a new series of online courses emerged to help people be happier, healthier, more peaceful, and loved. I figured given what everyone was going through, both in their jobs and their lives, more of these kinds of digital programs would be needed.
It ironically took me nine months to birth the SELF POWER NOW! series — four different 6-week long, digital, on-demand courses holistically designed to address, integrate, and balance all four realms of life — mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. The courses — BE HAPPY NOW!, BE HEALTHY NOW!, BE ZEN NOW!, BE LOVED NOW! — are available both to individuals, and to organizations for their employees or members. They help people modify their thoughts, actions, words, and feelings in a positive direction.
Next, I’ll be launching the SELF POWER NOW! podcast where I’ll be having conversations with powerful women telling their personal stories and giving advice about happiness, love, and success. Stay tuned for that in winter 2022!
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Oh, there are so many! But if I had to choose three, here are the ones that come to mind:
- Be Honest: Being truthful goes beyond what you say or do; it extends to recognizing the truth about yourself and others. In an organization I was running years ago, there was this very hardworking, positive woman in a job that required a very detailed-oriented skill set. She, however, was a more fluid, spontaneous person. Great in a crisis, but not in planning. She tried improving her skills and was open to guidance, but her oversights started to affect our clients’ experiences. Personally, I liked her a lot, and we had become friends, but eventually, I had to face the truth and make a difficult decision to let her go. When I had that heart-to-heart conversation with her, we both cried. About a month after she left, however, she called me and thanked me for firing her. She had found other work that was much more suited to her natural style and passions. As the ancient saying goes, “The truth shall set you free”.
- Have Compassion: Companies often treat employees as numbers and not people. As a leader, I’ve always given precedence to the employee as a person rather than as a worker because I know the job is only one aspect of their life. If they’ve got something going on in their life that’s emotionally taxing, their job will suffer too. For example, some employees are also caregivers at home, not only for children, but also for aging parents and even pets, which adds a lot of responsibility to their daily lives. In addition, events such as a death in the family, divorce, break-ups, physical moves, or other big changes need to be acknowledged. The employee should feel as if they can discuss these challenges openly with their managers.
- Focus on the Positive: Life and work don’t always go as planned, and when that happens, it’s easy to go down a negative spiral of despair. When I first started writing books, I had lofty goals about becoming a best-selling author, given my business and marketing acumen. And while The Goddess of Happiness did make that ranking for a brief time on Amazon, I didn’t get that international New York Times kind of acclaim I was seeking. Others might have seen that as a failure, but I’ve always remained positive about all my work. I know that no matter how the outer world may evaluate its importance, I chose to follow my heart with that career path and my books have helped thousands of people.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?
In a nutshell: real-life experience. That’s the best training ground for mastering anything. Living through those four family tragedies sent me on a quest to find joy in life. A quest I would’ve never delved into as deep as I did had I not had those experiences. Sometimes, life teaches us the hardest lessons through extreme circumstances. I could have easily stayed on the dark side of despair, but instead, I chose to find my way back to happiness, and that changed my life and career forever. I knew that if I could get through what I did, I could get through any challenge life threw at me. And, I could teach others how to as well.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?
I would say that happiness is ranked lower in the US not despite all of the privileges and opportunities, but because of them; this tends to create a society that honors outer success above all else, profits over people, and bad news over good.
Money, status, personal possessions, and fame define success, importance, and power in the US And as such, those are the things we think will make us happy. But they don’t, do they? Perhaps they do for a short time, but that feeling of joy fades quickly as we move onto the next shiny object to pursue, like a carrot dangling in front of our noses. True happiness doesn’t come from outer riches and fame. If it did, we’d be #1 in that report. True happiness comes from the simpler things in life and the spirit within. When you discover that, you can be happy no matter what your external circumstances may be.
Another contributor to unhappiness in the US is the corporate culture that has evolved over the last fifty years. Many companies put profits over the greater good, reward work over work/life balance, and cater to their stockholders over their employees. Hence, employees are overworked, overstressed, and undervalued. People are living to work instead of working to live. Not a happy picture, and all of it carries over into home and family life.
Lastly, I need to address the addiction to sensational media news, which may not be only a US problem, but is certainly a factor in creating unhappiness and fear. Bad news seems to attract more viewers, keep them captive, and hence, sell more advertising. When a friend of mine shut off the disturbing TV news at her grandmother’s house one day, her grandmother quickly reprimanded her and yelled, “Turn that news back on. I have to know if there’s anything I need to worry about!” Her grandmother died about a month later. My advice to people who want to be happy but are addicted to news is to take a media break or search out good news. There are plenty of internet sites that focus on only the good stuff happening in the world.
What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
Many people who are unhappy think happiness can’t be learned, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for them. While I do believe that some people are naturally happier than others, I also believe that anyone can learn to be happier. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most people are about as happy as they choose to be”. Now, that choice could take a lot of work; it first requires you to uncover the belief systems blocking happiness in your life. Those likely started in childhood. After that, you have to be willing to change those beliefs by modifying your thoughts, words, and actions.
For example, if you truly believe you don’t deserve to be happy, whether consciously or not, you will have blinders on when the universe gives you opportunities to happy. You might turn down a new job that would be more fulfilling or push people away who genuinely love you. But, if you believe you deserve to be happy, you’ll naturally attract and welcome situations and people into your life that make you happy. Like will always attract like.
In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
Looking for happiness outside of themselves. When I was going through all those family tragedies, the #1 mistake I made was believing that my happiness came from my outer world. Even though my career at that time was in full swing, my family was falling apart, which caused me great suffering in all areas of my life. Of course, I had every right to feel sad, but at some point, after much inner work, I realized I couldn’t let my happiness be controlled by circumstances I had absolutely no control over! I finally realized I had the power to be happy, regardless of what was going on in my outer world. The outer world will always be an endless rollercoaster of ups and downs, and if you rely on it for happiness, you will constantly be chasing happiness instead of being happy right now. No matter how restrictive or challenging your outer world may be, you have a choice on how to react.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Humor — When you look at all the bad things going on in the world, finding humor might seem impossible, but it’s precisely at those times when humor helps the most. Regardless of how grim the big picture may seem, whether that’s in world events or in your own life, there are always isolated moments you can find that will lighten your spirit. And wouldn’t you always rather laugh than cry? At the beginning of the 2020 COVID outbreak, I seemed to receive at least three or four extremely funny — laugh out loud — videos, memes, or clever sayings a day. Most of them made fun of the very serious virus and the life situations it put us in. At first, I didn’t know if sharing them would offend someone amid the global crisis, but then I thought about a time in my life when tragedy lurked around every corner, and how, without humor, I would have never survived. So I started sharing those jokes, and saw how laughter really is the best medicine.
- Acceptance — Suffering in life occurs because you want something different than what you have or what is happening. You reject the “now”. But what is happening cannot be anything else, so why not accept, embrace, and make the best of it? You might not be able to control everything that happens, but you do have control over how you react to it, whether positively or negatively. Throughout the 2020/2021 pandemic, we’ve seen hundreds of examples of people embracing a dire situation with love. I remember watching a video that went viral of people in Italy during lockdown standing out on their balconies and singing classic Italian songs together. It was like hearing songs of hope and love for the entire world, and it certainly made everyone feel more connected. So instead of wallowing in self-pity when things don’t go as planned (and they often don’t), try not to fight it. Go with the flow and make the best of it.
- Playtime — Playing is not just for kids. As an adult, it helps connect you to your inner child — that joyous, loving person you left behind years ago. All of a sudden, all thoughts of worry or fear are replaced with fun and joy. Think about what you loved to do as a child, teen, or young adult. It’s usually something creative or physical. Something that makes your heart smile and your head forget about time. It could be riding a horse, painting, running, making model planes, playing the piano, cooking, or even taking a long bubble bath. Several years ago, I bought a 16-foot trampoline for myself and put it in my backyard. Jumping on it is one of my most fun workouts! Whenever I have guests over, I invite them to try it out. At first they’re usually reluctant, but once they get on and start moving around, their whole demeanor changes. They immediately start smiling and laughing as if they were children.
- Gratitude — There’s a surefire way to get on the happy train in life, and that’s on the gratitude train! We spend so much time thinking about what we don’t have, rather than being grateful and happy about all we do have. No matter how bad a day, week, or year you’re having, there’s still much for which to be grateful. All it takes is a slight attitude adjustment of focusing on the positive rather than the negative. A good practice I’ve had since childhood is making a mental list every night of what I’m grateful for that day. These are simple things — a phone call from a friend I haven’t spoken to in years, a warm sunny day, my husband, the homemade muffins my neighbor gave me, having legs and arms to use. You get the picture. Some of these may seem insignificant, but I can assure you, appreciating life’s gifts — no matter how small — makes you feel good. And, by doing this right before sleep, it becomes a nice prelude to your dreams.
- Funky Music — Okay, maybe it’s not funky music that does it for you, but listening to music you love is a great way to lift your mood. Whether it’s lyrics that inspire you to have the courage to make a positive change in your life or a beat that gets you moving, music can instantly transport you to a completely different time, place, and mental state. Today it’s so easy to have your favorite playlists at your fingertips whenever you need a pick-me-up. I’ve always been a big fan of music and dancing and frequently have a tune playing in my mind. Right now, it’s “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Whenever I want to feel good, I play dance tunes from all eras and then dance my heart out like no one is watching. It’s also a great workout. I feel so strongly about the power of music that I created a playlist for each of the four courses in my SELF POWER NOW! series — BE HAPPY NOW!, BE HEALTHY NOW!, BE ZEN NOW!, and BE LOVED NOW!.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?
- First of all, it’s important to acknowledge and respect their feelings, even if you don’t think they have a valid a reason for feeling down or can’t understand why. Their feelings are very real to them. Allow them every opportunity to talk and listen without judgment. Talking can release loads of pressure, worry, and sadness. Be careful about giving advice, though, unless specifically asked. Lean more towards having them open up by asking questions. Keep the lines of communication open by checking in with them periodically. It’s easy for us to go back to our daily lives and forget about friends who may still be suffering.
- Another active approach would be to offer them a break from their worries by doing something fun together. Go out for a meal. See a movie — preferably a light-hearted comedy. Take a walk in nature. We all know that the more time we spend thinking about a problem, the worse it gets. As with all challenges in life and work, it helps to step away from them for a while in order to get a fresh perspective and clear the mind.
- Lastly, notice any signs of long-lasting depression, increasing negative emotions, or withdrawal. At that point, it’s best to encourage them to seek professional help.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m already creating a movement with SELF POWER NOW! Peace, happiness, and love in the world starts with each individual learning how to be more peaceful, happy, and loving in their own lives. As Ghandi said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would change.” If I could help more people be happy, healthy, peaceful (which I call “zen”), and loved, imagine how much better the world could be!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. I’ve always admired her resilience, talent, generosity, and the positive influence she’s had on millions of people. Years ago, I was so close to being a guest on her show. One of her producers called me, and we spoke every day for a week planning out ideas for her show on happiness. I just about had my bags packed, but four days before taping, he called and told me they had changed direction, and I wouldn’t be on. I remember being so disappointed, however, the next day I said to myself, “I was happy before that Oprah producer called me, and I can be happy now!” I know Oprah and I are like-minded souls, and I would love to discuss media and film projects that would help people feel empowered and spread love in the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Join my mailing list and get three free happiness gifts: https://www.selfpowernow.com
- Follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dgisonni/
- Friend me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/debbiegisonni/
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!