For me, loving and connecting with people is what life is all about. At some point in my day this leads me to prioritize “my people” — all my family and friends who fill me with joy and love. Though it never feels like enough, I reach out through the endless technology available to connect. I will text my brother who lives on the other side of the world, call my mother while I walk into work, instant message a friend who is just as busy as me with their work and family, call a friend to chat while I take a 10 minute walk around campus. I don’t do all of these things in one day, but daily I make a point to do one of them. This helps me feel grounded in a community of good friends and family, especially while I am in this particular season of life with young children and a career.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Allison Forti, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University and is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She teaches a popular undergraduate course on how to thrive in life, as well as graduate level counseling courses. Dr. Forti has over ten years of clinical experience working individually and in groups with cancer survivors and currently co-facilitates retreats for breast cancer survivors and has a successful private practice where she works with individuals and couples experiencing a wide variety of mental health, relational, and life concerns.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My path toward counseling and academics leads all the way back to college at Indiana University. As a freshman, I was more than a little lost; I had no direction in life other than to earn a college degree. Selecting a major of study felt like my Mt. Everest at the time. I eventually narrowed my options down to literature, theater, or psychology. As cliché as it sounds, my search to select a major was also a search to understand myself. All of those majors involved studying complex people or characters and a light bulb finally went off in my head. Reading novels, acting out characters, or understanding the depth of the human psyche were my hobbies for a reason — people fascinate me! I enjoyed learning about the complexity and diversity of people and the existential givens in life that are part of our human condition and connect us. So, I eventually selected psychology and never looked back. I planned to earn a doctorate in psychology and become a therapist. Unfortunately, my passion to become a therapist was not enough for admittance to graduate school and I received countless rejection letters from programs across the country. I was living in Boston during my years of re-grouping and working as a research technician at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder when I began to dabble in voice-over work. I fell in love with the feeling of becoming a character again. After two attempts at applying to graduate school and a budding dream of becoming an animation voice-over, I almost did not apply to graduate school again. My mom’s support kept me going. With every rejection, my mom would tell me, “It’s just not your time yet. Keep going. You were born to be a therapist.” Somehow, “my time” eventually came and I landed in one of the top counseling programs in the nation. You could not wipe the smile off my face for seven years as I earned my masters and doctorate in counseling and counselor education. Though my course of studies was challenging, the work was meaningful and energizing. I had found my home in the world of counseling and counselor education.
What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?
Some people go through life asleep at the wheel. They fall into thought patterns and behaviors that, in the most benign sense, promote routine and mundane, and, in a more malignant sense, promote negativity, disconnection, and lack of meaning and wonder why they are miserable, lonely, depressed, or isolated. Living “on purpose”, to me, means waking up and becoming conscious of how you are living, gaining self-awareness and being mindful — turning the automatic pilot button off! Living on purpose means reflecting on your life, breathing through the daily challenges, and getting clear about how you want to live. I do not think that means you need to quit your day job and sail around the world to live an awakened life. The current trend in the world of optimal living is to overcome fear, not let fear paralyze you from achieving your personal dreams. There is a place and time for addressing fear but the much greater importance is to become conscious first. People are exceptionally skilled at fooling themselves. We tell ourselves stories — sometimes romantic and idealistic stories, other times naïve and foolish stories, and certainly negative or self-deprecating stories — that fuel our pain or keep us in the status quo of our life while desiring something different. It is not always fear that keeps people from living a full and thriving life, it is the stories we tell ourselves. Living “on purpose’ means becoming aware of these stories, getting honest with ourselves, and seeing life with new eyes. It means opening up to the idea that you may have been sleep walking through life. How do you achieve this? Slow down! Create space to think, to notice, to feel, to connect. This IS possible to do in our crazy, chaotic, 24/7 culture. For example, the next time you go out to eat by yourself, instead of grumbling about how slow the service is or scrolling through social media feeds while you wait for your food; use that time to observe yourself — your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Creating space to notice life can happen in every moment of our lives, if you choose to notice. Put your phone down, step away from the computer, resist the pull of social media, and, instead, open your eyes, breathe, and live in person.
Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?
I was raised in a middle class family in the Midwest — it came with all the trimmings of security in food and housing, access to education, a loving family, good friends, and safe community — and still, as a sensitive person, I struggled with and experienced my own existential and internal darkness. I have memories of being five years old and wanting Santa to give my Christmas presents to children who needed them more than me, but I wasn’t trying to be sweet or cute, I physically felt the pain for children who didn’t have enough resources. My capacity to empathize without the knowledge of how to protect myself and set boundaries led to a complex inner world that took most of my young adulthood to figure out. All the pain experienced during that time of my life led me to a place of being able to hold and honor other’s pain. This was the onset of understanding how life challenges have the potential to transform into human connection. I did not know it at the time but my own sensitivity and ability to empathize was the catalyst for my interest in understanding and connecting with people. Once I learned to harness my sensitivities and use them as a strength, I realized I had the potential to help many people through their own speedbumps in life. That is when my life’s purpose became clear. I am on this earth to do three things: understand people, help people, and love people.
The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?
There are so many reasons the United States struggles with global happiness rankings, but two reasons rise to the top for me. Our ranking will increase when we decide we value all humans equally and prioritize policies that reflect that value. In the United States of America, people turn down potentially life-saving medical care for cancer because they worry about losing their jobs. Maternity leave is not available for all women having children. Children practice active shooter drills in schools. Some families sit around the dinner table and discuss what to do if a police officer pulls them over so they can survive the stop. These are all examples of not valuing human life equally. The other reason is relational. Our country has designed a broader culture that promotes disconnection and tension — institutionalized and systemic racism and sexism, lack of respect for human dignity, individuals and families struggling to earn a livable wage. Once people achieve all basic needs — food, shelter, resources to live — people want the same things in life. Above all, people want to connect with others, belong and live meaningful lives. Those are the pathways to happiness, yet they are readily available to only a portion of our country. I imagine our ranking will increase when people universally feel heard, understood and valued.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As someone who teaches students how to get the most out of life and works with clients to help improve their lives and relationships, I strive to bring goodness to the world through my work. My work is far more than a paycheck; it provides a deep sense of meaning and purpose in my life. I view each class and each client as an opportunity to help someone and connect. And that’s what it all comes down to for me. By attempting to bring goodness to the world, I benefit as well; it is a reciprocal relationship. Recently, I co-lead a cancer survivorship retreat with my friend and colleague, Laura Herring, and ended the day feeling hopeful and inspired that, when tended to and encouraged, goodness ultimately triumphs over the alternative — despair, loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression. Moments of silence and group discussion are interspersed throughout the five-hour retreat day. It’s a privilege to witness a group of people unified by one unsightly common denominator — cancer — pause for a moment in time to be silent and awake to life and then rally behind each other in support, connection, and a deeper understanding of themselves and each other. Quite frankly, it’s beautiful. It motivates me to continue fanning goodness into the world in the small but tangible ways that my work allows.
What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life”? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I am married with three children ages 6 and under and work full-time as a professor and a counselor so I have days where I’m, as my friend and colleague Dr. Shannon Warden says, “good’ n tired”! In this season, my life is joyful and fast, and if I am not careful can easily overtake me. These are my strategies for squeezing the most out of life and maintaining my personal thirst for life.
Rise early and move your body. Five to six days per week, I meet a group of dedicated runners to pound out the miles before the sun has a chance to rise. This is my holy grail for starting my day with exuberance. Nothing feels better than exercising with friends while my family is asleep and not feeling my absence. This sole practice allows me to fill my cup with positive energy so I can juggle all the roles I play daily with a sense of fulfillment — a cup of coffee helps too!
Be mindful — smell your soap. A college friend once asked me, “How are you so happy all of the time?” For starters, I am not happy all of the time but he noticed the upbeat energy I try to cultivate throughout my day. I was 20 at the time and didn’t know anything about mindfulness, had never even heard the word, but I answered him in the only way I knew how, “I smell my soap while I shower.” For over 20 years, I have smelled my soap or shampoo in the shower as a way to slow down, notice the moment, and decide to start my day awake and aware of my choices. It’s easy to turn on the autopilot function for our daily morning routine — shower, dress, brush teeth, repeat day in and day out. But, for me, starting my day mindfully improves my mood and helps me slow down, even while I’m rushing to get my kids to school and to work on time.
Appreciate beauty, especially natural wonders. Let’s be honest, modern life can be full, fast, and frantic at times. It can also be disappointing, challenging, and stressful. To combat the realities of life and to get the most out of my daily moments, I start my day appreciating the beauty of nature on my drive to drop my kids off at school. Over the summer, I noticed and celebrated daily my favorite orange roses that a neighbor skillfully grew along her fence or, now that it’s fall, I notice my favorite tree with bright yellow leaves. I pause for a moment and allow the beauty to settle inside me and invigorate me. Now my kids are even looking for their favorite natural wonders on the ride! Appreciating this type of beauty reminds me that I am part of something much bigger than a deadline due at 10:00 am; it has a calming effect that allows me to keep life in perspective (and actually meet the deadline!).
Prioritize your time. I have strong family values and one of those values is to be present when I am with my husband and children. In an effort to avoid feeling distracted and overwhelmed by competing forces, I compartmentalize my family and work life. I have colleagues who prefer blending the two worlds more but, for me, I find it easier and more enjoyable to hold boundaries. This means I must prioritize my time, be thoughtful about my commitments, and be extremely focused and efficient at work. Sometimes I have to make difficult decisions and say no to things I want to say yes to. One of my former professors, Dr. Craig Cashwell, offered sage advice when he said, “Say no to everything unless you have a reason to say yes.” This is counter intuitive to the live abundantly culture of say yes to everything, but I like this advice because it helps me say yes to the right things, things that will provide me with meaning, fulfillment, and align with my priorities. I am not perfect at saying no to things that don’t suit me, but yes is no longer a knee jerk reaction and that has made all the difference in protecting my time so I can get the most out of life with my family.
Be flexible. If life were easy and always went as planned, I would be out of a job! People would not experience anxiety, depression, or relationship issues. That is not reality though. Life is complex and always changing. Flights get canceled, traffic backs-up making you late, your air conditioner breaks during the peak of summer, your spouse has an affair, your project timeline gets shifted, you lose your job, you get the idea. Life is constantly changing. In order to avoid the potential for paralysis, anger, or anxiety related to change, I adopt a flexible stance on life. I accept that things will not always go as planned, that life will require me to adapt. This makes handling uncontrollable change so much easier and allows me to create opportunities in the midst of change. Al Siebert wrote that some people’s lives look full of fortune and good luck, as if life is easy for them. One of the ways to create your own luck and fortune is to be flexible. I don’t waste time spending too much energy getting upset during moments of unwanted change. Sure, I’ll get upset, but I won’t stay in that state for long. I’ll choose to be flexible so I can cope and move forward. This creates opportunities for life to be more fulfilling.
Connect with people you love. For me, loving and connecting with people is what life is all about. At some point in my day this leads me to prioritize “my people” — all my family and friends who fill me with joy and love. Though it never feels like enough, I reach out through the endless technology available to connect. I will text my brother who lives on the other side of the world, call my mother while I walk into work, instant message a friend who is just as busy as me with their work and family, call a friend to chat while I take a 10 minute walk around campus. I don’t do all of these things in one day, but daily I make a point to do one of them. This helps me feel grounded in a community of good friends and family, especially while I am in this particular season of life with young children and a career.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
Saying I am inspired by high achieving people is an understatement; I am exuberantly filled with aspiration to achieve my own goals and live life to the brink when I see people “going for it” in life. The push of human resilience and the spirit some people have to power toward their goals is intoxicating. As a result, I like to read, listen, and watch videos about people who have done great things in life. Because I enjoy running, I listen to Lindsey Hein’s podcast, I’ll Have Another. She records her conversations with all types of runners from elites like Desi Linden to every day working moms who can run sub-three (or close to it) marathon times. Lindsey has four young boys and understands the typical daily grind most people experience in life but also tries to live her life to the fullest. As a result, she has a way of drawing out the best in the people she interviews and creates an inspirational show.
There are endless books about people achieving great things but the most recent book that struck a chord with me was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. It’s a memoir written by a 37-year-old mother of two boys living and dying with terminal breast cancer. I read this book in two days because I could not put it down. I am awestruck how Nina Riggs wrote such a poetic reflection of what it means to live while dying. Reading her book is comparable to a unicorn sighting. You have to experience it to believe.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The bulletin board hanging behind my computer holds one inspirational poem, Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”. The final line of the poem is “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life.” I use this sentiment to be mindful, appreciate the magic in life, and prioritize my decisions. After all, life is not a dress rehearsal. We only get one pass to soak it all in. This quote feels tangible to me. It elicits a meaningful and soft urgency to live. And by live, I mean to live with awareness, with eyes fully open.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am developing a course on holistic wellness and prevention for students at WFU that begins this spring. As a proponent of positive education, I hope this course will help students, not only learn the knowledge and content areas surrounding wellness, but also create personal growth and development. I want students to complete the course with an increased zest for living fully and the tools to do so.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
What a great question! If I could inspire a movement, it would be to “live consciously and in person.” The grind of daily human existence can cause people to zone out to the magic of moments, to the wonder, to the possibility. A “live consciously” movement would invite people to awaken to their lives, to see it with new and clear eyes. Flourishing and life exuberance is not necessarily found doing something big and scary like jumping out of an airplane high above an open field, it is found in noticing the sound of the passing air as you fall, the twinkle of pink flowers in the field, and the sense of being a small piece of the puzzle below. The second part of my movement — living in person — is literal. Our world is becoming increasingly virtual, which is not necessarily a bad thing — I love to use technology to connect with my family and friends as much as the next person does — but there are consequences. Technology can be a tool for human connection, but the shadow side of this is it can be used to the extreme and cause significant disconnection. I am not exaggerating when I say some young people hold their entire relationships over text messaging. I have students who text message with friends throughout my course, making it impossible to participate in creating new and in-person connections with their fellow classmates. Suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety are increasing among young people and one of the contributing factors is the lack of interpersonal skills needed to live in person and connect with others. Living in a virtual world robs people of the opportunity to connect in genuine ways with other people. Ultimately, the solution is not to ban technology but to teach people to awaken to how technology positively or negatively influences their life and to encourage them to seek authentic connections.
Thank you so much for joining us!