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Jackson Kerchis: “Build you discomfort tolerance”

Having a support group is critical. Think about addiction, weight loss, or even recovery from illness — the most effective models have peer group at the center. Going it alone makes the small task difficult and the difficult task near impossible. Just think about taking a walk at night solo versus with a group. That’s a microcosm […]

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Having a support group is critical. Think about addiction, weight loss, or even recovery from illness — the most effective models have peer group at the center. Going it alone makes the small task difficult and the difficult task near impossible. Just think about taking a walk at night solo versus with a group. That’s a microcosm of a larger phenomenon. Having others to lean on empowers us and inspires confidence.


As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackson Kerchis.

Jackson Kerchis is the world’s first and only Bachelor of Science in Happiness. He created his degree and founded www.happinessmajor.com where he researches, writes about, and designs programming on the art/science of happiness. He is also the COO of www.StudentFi.org — a grant-backed fintech startup.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

It all began with a video from Mathieu Ricard, a microbiologist turned Buddhist monk. He gave a TED talk titled “Habits of Happiness” which focused on distinguishing pleasure and happiness. This spoke to some wiser part of me. It sparked my interest in mindfulness and contemplative practice. Afterwards I completed a free 8 week mindfulness-based stress reduction course (https://palousemindfulness.com). It was a transformative experience which can only be understood through practicing mindfulness yourself.

Two years later I was struggling with this “what should I do with my life” question that many of us suffer with. I was lying in bed and — boom — I connected the dots. I was already informally studying happiness, spirituality, philosophy, etc. There was a program at Univ. of Alabama called New College where students create majors. I applied that day. Since then I’ve focused on learning and sharing what I learn.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m working on three projects right now. They’re all towards the same end of sharing what I’ve learned about happiness so far. The first is a ~90 minute happiness program. It came out of interviews with over 50 students and 12 administrators in higher education. I asked students what they struggled with. I asked administrators what mattered for student well-being and retention. The two groups highlights the same three areas: (1) purpose behind college/career (e.g. what should I do with my life?) (2) social connection and (3) managing stress and responsibilities. I designed my program to target these three key learning outcomes.

I’m finalizing a college preparation course as well. It rests on the same foundation as the above program: purpose, relationships, and managing state. I’ve added college specific materials like hacking college credit, managing expenses, and ways to stand out as an undergrad. I’ve combined my happiness work with the inside info that I wish I would have had as a freshman.

Finally, I’m in the last phases of completing the prep work for my happiness 101 course which I’m teaching at the University of Alabama in the spring. I plan to put the lectures online for free.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

The phrase ‘happiness major’ is intriguing. It catches people’s attention. It’s more than a hook tough. When people read or listen, they quickly find there’s substance there. What’s more, the fact I’m doing this at age 22 helps me stands out. It also helps me connect with younger audiences, specifically young professionals transitioning to the professional world and undergraduate students.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

Certainly a major in happiness is unconventional. As my work has arched into the broader mission of happiness education, I’ve had a few instances of doing the seemingly impossible. Before jumping into the stories, let me emphasize that I’ve been fortunate to have a strong network of support behind me. This includes (not limited to) Univ. of Alabama’s New College officials, my advisors, and my professors/mentors.

I’ll begin with creating the major. When I applied to the program I was accepted relatively quickly, but the questions remained… What’s a happiness major? Many people questioned the point of the major. There was also the bureaucratic hurdle of designing my own curriculum to meet the regulatory standards for higher education. Once I had the term happiness major, I wouldn’t settle for anything else. I leaned into New College’s interdisciplinary approach. I planned to integrate insights from several fields which brush up against happiness: behavioral economics, positive psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, literature, and religion. I combined this approach with an emphasis on the practical viz. the how of a happy life. Together this formed a vision compelling enough to surpass any administrative challenges.

The next challenge was my Happiness 101 course. I wanted to teach a class as an undergraduate. Given the strict standards of higher ed curriculum, many thought this would be impossible. I felt it was central to my mission to share what I was learning with fellow students. I insisted that I’d find a workaround and do whatever it took to instruct a course. In the end, I was able to get my allies in New College to lobby for me. We designed a special independent study course for my students and I.

The third challenge: How do I expand my reach? How do I have an impact on happiness education at large? I decided to design programs to further my mission of happiness education. I realized that I must understand what students need and how administrators in higher education assess programs. I interviewed over 50 students and 15 administrators (Deans, VPs, Directors, etc.). I learned exactly what to target for student well-being and what administrators focused on for retention: purpose, social connection, and managing stress. With a focus on driving these key outcomes, skeptics can now see that I’m not all talk.

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂

I’m graduating as a Bachelor of Science in Happiness (Interdisciplinary) and Economics. I’m registered to teach my Happiness 101 course this spring. My happiness program is debuting on college campuses this fall.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m fortunate to have several friends/mentors who are much wiser than I. I’d like to recognize Chapman Greer at the University of Alabama. She teaches an immensely impactful course where students work as business consultants for a real client. She brought me on as a client for one of her classes. I had access to a group of over 30 incredible students to analyze my work and make suggestions. She’s also coached me through trying to turn my passion into a real vehicle for change.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

Growing up I was close with my Uncle Russ. When he was 17 years old he broke his neck and was paralyzed. He spent his life working, caring for others, and giving back. He was always supportive and in good spirits. His resiliency rubbed off on me. Of course it wasn’t always easy for him, but he showed me that attitude, relationships, and faith in your path are what determine quality of life. A year ago, a close friend of mine aged 22 suffered a similar injury. Again, this inspired my resiliency. Being close to these things really rattle your perspective and give you a sense of how small your own obstacles are. I look at my friend Ric and know that if he can carry on and keep progressing then there’s no excuse for me to doubt or slow down. I’m grateful to have had Russ and Ric who’ve continuously overcome tragedy to be models of human resilience.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

1. Have a team.

Having a support group is critical. Think about addiction, weight loss, or even recovery from illness — the most effective models have peer group at the center. Going it alone makes the small task difficult and the difficult task near impossible. Just think about taking a walk at night solo versus with a group. That’s a microcosm of a larger phenomenon. Having others to lean on empowers us and inspires confidence.

A team can also be a tremendous source of motivation. If your goal is to improve your own life, that’s a fine place to start, but think about a mother fighting for her child or a battalion fighting for one another. The self-focused motivation is nothing compared to the tenacity and determination that the other-focused motivation can release.

2 Don’t ignore the naysayers, thank them.

It’s important that you listen and really consider what the naysayers and critics have to say. It’s counterintuitive but crucial. You don’t know if they’re a naysayer or an ally trying to help until you hear what they’re saying. You’ll quickly be able to tell if they have your interests in mind or if they’re looking bring you down. There’s always some truth in criticism. Look for what might be true and how you can use it to improve.

Thanking them does two things. First, it helps you to push back against your immediate reaction (which is to ignore and deny). A thank you will frame up your response to be productive and really consider their thoughts. It also disarms the naysayer and takes the wind out of their sails.

3 Build you discomfort tolerance.

A favorite quote is “the more you seek the uncomfortable the more you become comfortable” — Conor McGregor. Overcoming doubters to do the impossible is certainty going to force you outside your comfort zone. What many people don’t realize is, like training a muscle, we can condition ourselves to handle more discomfort. We build up a discomfort tolerance. Try some exercises that trigger anxiety.

Repeatedly do these anxiety inducing exercises and notice how the discomfort gets less and less potent with time. I’ve done this with talking to strangers. The first few times your inner voice shouts “what are you doing, stop, this is super weird”. This voice gets quieter each go around. I still hear the voice, but I’ve learned to hear it and not care. The same goes with public speaking or sharing my writing. Try going up and knocking on a stranger’s door just to chat or asking for discount on your next meal. Repeatedly knock down little discomfort exposures and gradually increase them until you feel comfortable with just about anything.

4 Action is the antidote to doubt.

If you’re feeling stuck or confused then look for ways to take tangible action. Often we get stuck in motion viz. thinking, planning, and deciding as opposed to action viz. making real progress. We get discouraged as lack of results and doubters creep up on us.

The truth is when you’re taking action there’s no room for doubt. Maybe you’ve played a sport. You know that when you’re walking up to the starting line or onto the field you might be full of jitters. But once you’re moving you don’t notice them. Our work is the same way. When you’re not acting that’s where doubt sneaks in. You’ve got to out move it.

5 Be true to your path.

One of my favorite authors, Carlos Castaneda, wrote “You must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions….Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use.”

The idea of being true to yourself is common wisdom. We’ve all heard it. But I don’t think we hear much of challenging yourself about what path you’re on and be willing to drop it. That’s why this quote is unique. We’re preached “follow through and stick to your guns”. There’s a place for that of course. But it’s equally important that you not be afraid to drop everything and follow the path with a heart.

If you’ve done the digging, challenging, and reflection and feel that you’re on the path then nothing should stop you. If you feel otherwise, nothing should stop you from dropping it.

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

I’ll restate the quote mentioned above — “the more you seek the uncomfortable the more you become comfortable”. You can’t know the power of this phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Resiliency and tolerance for discomfort are somewhat universal. Just like strength or speed are applicable across contexts, so is resiliency.

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.

It’s time for a happiness education movement. For the last century we’ve taught people how to work. But the point of life isn’t to work — it’s to be happy. Shouldn’t we teach people about happiness? No, you go to school to get a job. But you work to have enough money to meet your needs and live happily. So why don’t we learn that?

The school system was designed to teach you to be a worker. It was never about teaching you how to live. I never heard about how to learn, how to take care of my health, how to manage my money, how to manage time, how to communicate, or how to find purpose in school.

It’s a good thing I studied the War of 1812 three years in a row. This trend continues into higher education. Unless you major in one of the above fields you’re probably not going to find a class on staying organized or understanding your health. That’s outrageous. When’s the last time you used trigonometry? I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach math or history. But the goal of education is not to create walking textbooks. We’re filling our generations with a bunch of information. But we’re not teaching them how to live.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacksonkerchis/

Twitter — @jkerchis

Facebook — Jackson Kerchis

Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!

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