Incorporate Self Awareness as a Daily Ritual — When you start to feel stressed, worried, or any other negative emotion — take time to acknowledge it and ask WHY you’re feeling this emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to look at ourselves in the mirror and face it, but it helps our happiness progression the more you become self aware of what’s limiting you or causing negative emotions.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Wax.
Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness Project. She is a three-time entrepreneur, documentarian, author, and speaks at top universities and companies throughout the USA.
Prior to founding American Happiness — Michelle founded and grew two companies in the food industry, which she sold in 2019. She is the author of the book The Attainable Dream, and hosts virtual workshops throughout the country to help teams and organizations through American Happiness.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
My first ‘company’ was a lemonade stand I started with my brothers when I was 8 years old. We would ride our Razor scooters down to the end of the block (where traffic was heavier) to set up shop for the day. Along with lemonade, we sold chocolate chip cookies that we woke up early that morning to bake with our mom…and I apparently couldn’t shake my love of eating (and selling) cookies.
I started my first business, Kitchen Millie, a cookie catering and events company, when I was 24 and was able to grow it over the course of 5 years to be a top catering company in Boston with clients like TripAdvisor, Spotify, and Amazon. Two years after launching Kitchen Millie, I opened a second company in the food industry, The Local Fare, which was a kitchen incubator and community space for food and beverage companies to start and grow their companies.
I reached a point where I had achieved my ‘dream’ since I was a kid — owning profitable food businesses that were doing well — but my mental health was not the best.
I found myself waking up each day feeling stressed, feeling like I should be further along/doing more, and had a lot of self doubt. It was confusing to me because I had people coming to me for advice and commenting on how happy I must be feeling…but I didn’t internally feel that same happiness I thought I should be feeling.
My whole life I had been taught that if you work hard, go after what you want, and achieve your dreams…then you’ll be happy. But here I was, at that point, and I didn’t feel it. I felt extremely guilty about that, because I knew objectively there was a lot to be happy about.
I reached this point of real frustration, where I wanted to understand why my brain was going to a place of stress, self doubt, and worry first thing in the morning when things should have been ‘going well’ and I should have been happy.
I started diving into the neuroscience of how the brain is wired and how this affects our happiness, stress, and energy levels a lot more than I was taught growing up. I implemented the strategies I learned through doing this research into my own life to start rewiring my brain for a positive mindset, and it made a tremendous impact.
I went from waking up feeling drained, stressed, and like I wasn’t good enough…to feeling energized and excited for the day ahead. Better yet, I started to see a trickle effect out to the people around me, they wanted to know what I was doing to create more joy and less stress each day.
Then, I had a wild idea. These strategies and practices had worked for me…but I’m just one person. What if I could capture how everyday people all across the USA create happiness in their own lives, regardless of external circumstances.
What are they doing differently?
I jumped in my Jeep and set out to film the American Happiness Documentary across 50 states. Unlike traditional press and media coverage, my criteria wasn’t based on individuals that were famous, rich, or traditionally ‘successful’ — my criteria was their daily level of happiness and fulfillment. Turns out, there are a lot of ‘normal’ Americans who are living happy and fulfilling lives each and every day.
Upon returning to Boston, I decided to sell the food companies and go full speed ahead on American Happiness. Now I share this information and research through interactive virtual workshops for top companies and universities throughout the USA.
I also work one on one with individuals who are feeling more stressed and drained than they’d like to be. The majority of my clients have reached some goal or stage where they thought they’d be happier…but they’re not feeling it as much as they thought they would.
For the workshops, we have a variety of different topics — but they all have one theme in common — focusing on what you can control to create greater happiness, energy, and productivity throughout your day — and ultimately throughout your life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
When I was filming the American Happiness documentary, I met a guy named Monroe at an arts market in New Orleans.
We started chatting about happiness and he mentioned that he travels a lot for work but lives in California. I really enjoyed our conversation and said I would love to interview him more formally on camera if the scheduling works out when I am in California.
Four weeks later, I was traveling in California and had been texting Monroe to see his travel schedule. Although his schedule was packed, he had one hour opening in the three days I was going to be in the area.
Turns out, I was going to be filming just 5 minutes from his office and the opening aligned perfectly with my filming schedule! I was so grateful and took it as a sign that I could film his perspective and story on camera with such a limited schedule.
Monroe said many valuable things throughout the interview, but one really stuck with me:
“You are protected on this earth until you’ve served your purpose.”
Your purpose could be large like growing a business or your family, but it also could be much smaller — perhaps you’re meant to have a conversation with someone to inspire them to make a change, or you post one sentence on social media that impacts someone you’ve never met.
Our purpose can be very big, or very small, but we all have at least one (and likely many more).
You never know what impact you’re making on someone’s life — you may be serving your purpose by just smiling at someone, or giving them encouragement when they need it most.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About nine months into running Kitchen Millie, I received a call from a buyer at a store that we were supplying.
“Michelle, your barcodes aren’t scanning. We can’t sell the product.”
I had taken 2 days off to fly to Nashville from Boston to visit a friend, so I wasn’t in the area and couldn’t do anything about it.
I started to panic.
Looking back, this seems like a super small issue and could have waited two days until I got back to Boston — but it devastated me at the time.
I spent the next 24 hours freaking out and called my brother to see if he could print and replace the barcodes that night. I sent him an email with the barcode files, hoping I could get it sorted out asap.
Being the extremely kind person he is, he figured out how to print the barcodes again and went to the store to replace them, but he printed them too big and they messed up all the packaging so the product just looked tacky and not on brand.
I was grateful my brother tried to help, but I felt embarrassed and like a complete amateur. On top of that, the buyer at the store was a fairly rude person, which didn’t help how I was feeling.
My biggest lesson I learned from this experience was….
It’s okay to mess up. Most of the time, it’s not life or death. On top of that, it’s likely happened before (if not thousands of times before).
The majority of life can be worked out, and what seems like a massive deal to you likely isn’t a huge deal to someone else. I highly doubt the buyer cared too much if I fixed the problem that night or not. As long as you show progress and that you’re on top of things, most people are understanding and will work with you.
I’ve learned to give myself some leeway on mistakes over the years and focus on what I can learn from them and how not to repeat them, instead of beating myself up over them.
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?
My mom, dad, and brothers have always been very supportive of me — and I’m extremely grateful for that. But there was also someone I hired early on in growing Kitchen Millie, Louisa, who helped me a lot in the day to day activities and, even though I originally hired her for social media, was on board to help in any area.
Looking back on the experience, I would have given up without her.
She became my right hand woman and involved in pretty much every part of the business. She probably doesn’t even know how much of an impact she made into my mental wellness at the time but I am extremely grateful that a part time social media hire led to so much more.
Because she knew the ins and outs of the business, she was able to manage the entire operation as I traveled for three months filming the American Happiness documentary. Thank you Louisa!!!
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
At American Happiness, we’re focused on sharing practical strategies that anyone can implement to strengthen your mental wellness in an energetic and positive way.
Mental health has historically had a stigma attached to it — a lot of focus around the negative side of mental health and mental illness. This is (of course) an important area, but in the same way that there are varying states of physical health, there is also a wide range of mental health.
There is a positive side to it that can take you from just doing ‘fine’ to feeling energized and excited for your life. We focus on generating more energy, lowering bad stress and using good stress to your advantage, and building a positive mindset to create more happiness, purpose, and meaning in your day to day life.
We work with companies, universities, and individuals through interactive workshops, personalized accountability programs, and much more. Most people we work with have reached some level of success that they thought would bring happiness, yet they find themselves more stressed, worried, and uncertain than happy and fulfilled.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
Incorporate Self Awareness as a Daily Ritual
When you start to feel stressed, worried, or any other negative emotion — take time to acknowledge it and ask WHY you’re feeling this emotion. Sometimes it’s hard to look at ourselves in the mirror and face it, but it helps our happiness progression the more you become self aware of what’s limiting you or causing negative emotions.
Instead of checking your phone first thing in the morning, start your day off proactively.
When we scroll through the news, email, or social media, we’re giving away our energy and attention first thing in the morning.
Instead, take one minute before looking at your phone to ask yourself 3 questions:
- What can I look forward to today?
- What has potential to stress me out today, and how will I respond to it?
- What/who can I appreciate today?
This allows you to start the day proactively and in control.
Create a ‘Blah List’
A few months ago, I created my first Blah List. Why? Because I was feeling very blahhhh, unmotivated, and down on myself. I started tracking the small things throughout my day that brought energy and excitement, and wrote them down.
At the top of my blah list I wrote:
‘Michelle, are you feeling blah? If yes, do one of these things immediately’.
-Eat a salad/healthy things
-Go for a walk
-Blast Rihanna and jump around
-Do 10 jumping jacks
This helps you jolt your thought process out of whatever ‘blah’ state you’re feeling into action, instead of dwelling on whatever is affecting you. Write down small things that bring excitement into your life, and force yourself to do one when you’re feeling ‘blah’.
Listen to positive content each morning and throughout the day
This simple practice changed my life. Positive content literally rewires your brain to look for opportunity, go towards appreciation, and reduce stress quicker. This could be in the form of a podcast, motivational videos, or affirmations. I’m a huge fan of Your World Within on Spotify and Youtube.
Track your (personal + professional) progress each evening
We have up to 60,000 thoughts per day, so it’s easy to forget all the progress we’ve made in our lives.
Especially on days where we feel discouraged or down on ourselves, having a track record of the progress we’ve made is powerful. This can be something as small as getting a haircut, or bigger like signing your first client. Grab a notebook and write down 2–3 things per day that you’ve made progress on.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The American Happiness movement is in motion! Our wellness movement is all about the fact that you are a lot more in control of your happiness (and mental wellness) than we are taught to believe.
From a young age, we’re taught that if we work hard, go after what we want, and get it….then we’ll be happy. But this is simply just not the case, we all have heard stories of people that are ‘successful’ but are stressed and burnt out all the time. And on the other hand, people that have gone through really tough times and are the most generous, happy, and fulfilled people.
The majority of your long term happiness depends on how your brain is internally processing and interpreting what happens to you, not the actual events themselves. Happy people with a positive mindset are more generous, more empathetic, live longer, and lift others up — we need more of them out there!
The issue is we’re not taught how to handle the inevitable stress and negativity that will come at us in the world. With our practical strategies and programs, we start using the wiring of our brain and our mindsets to our advantage.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
Self doubt is normal and more common than you think
I attended a conference of 6,000 business owners last year where the host asked us to stand up if we felt self doubt on a regular basis. 95% of the arena stood up. Self doubt is a part of the journey and doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. Keep going, everyone experiences it.
Training your mind will drive more success than any strategy or tactic ever will
The beliefs we have about ourselves, our business, other people, and what’s possible are limiting us all day every day. Focus on building a positive mindset and it will help more than any specific strategy. If you do everything ‘right’ but don’t believe you’re good enough — you’ll never be good enough no matter how much you earn or how much you grow.
Things are coming together as they should be, even when it doesn’t seem like it
There are so many opportunities that came out of one conversation I thought would lead nowhere.
You never know where a conversation or opportunity will lead down the line. Believe in the process and believe that something better is coming when a deal or prospect does fall through.
Start your morning on a positive note and visualize yourself having an amazing day
I start my day off with meditation, but you can also take time to go for a walk, read/listen to uplifting content, or workout. I then visualize how my day will unfold — I picture myself having a great day and say out loud to myself in the mirror: ‘You’re going to have an amazing day’. This allows me to be in control of my mindset regardless of what external situations come up throughout the day.
Take time to enjoy life
Time is our most precious resource, and we can never get it back. Don’t miss the birthday parties, the vacations with your friends and family, the random Tuesday game night. The experiences with people you care about is what you’ll remember, not how much money you made or the extent of your brand recognition.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health! Mental health still has a stigma attached to it, and it’s often seen as a negative term.
The American Happiness mission is to increase mental health awareness to amplify positive mental health — allowing individuals that are just doing ‘okay’ or ‘fine’ to start feeling energized, excited, and living with more purpose and meaning.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow on Instagram: www.instagram.com/americanhappinessproject
For weekly tips on creating more happiness, join our email list: www.american-happiness.com/signup
Subscribe on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUNFsVPbSgdF94czw9i8r9Q?
Connect on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michellewax/
Thank you for these fantastic insights!