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Nataly Kogan of Happier: “You are in charge of your brain, not the other way around”

Talk back to your brain when it offers you thoughts that cause you stress and struggle. This is one of the most profound and essential habits to develop, and to recognize that you can shift your thoughts so they are more helpful. You are in charge of your brain, not the other way around. As a […]

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Talk back to your brain when it offers you thoughts that cause you stress and struggle. This is one of the most profound and essential habits to develop, and to recognize that you can shift your thoughts so they are more helpful. You are in charge of your brain, not the other way around.


As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nataly Kogan.

Nataly Kogan, Founder of Happier, Inc. and Author of Happier Now

Nataly Kogan is one of the leading global experts in emotional health; she is also the Co-Founder and CEO of Happier, Inc. Inspired by scientific research, her mission that led her to start her company is to help make millions of people happier in their everyday lives. As a result, tens of thousands of people now cultivate their emotional fitness and leadership skills through her virtual leadership programs, online courses and learning tools. She graduated from Wesleyan University and currently lives outside of Boston with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t speaking or teaching, can be found painting colorful abstract art and cooking up a storm in her kitchen.


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?

I grew up in Russia and we emigrated when I was 14. We had a couple of really rough years. We lived in refugee camps, we came here and lived in the projects on welfare and foodstamps. We came here with nothing. We didn’t speak English. So I went through this really traumatic, really difficult experience and when I emerged of it I had this really strong desire to be happy. I thought the way to get there is if I just achieve a lot of really huge goals, have impressive jobs, look a certain way, make a lot of money, and then I’ll be happy. I did that for years. And I was miserable. I was exhausted. I was also feeling really guilty for not feeling happy with all this stuff I’d achieved. So I turned to science and I said, “I wonder if there’s research on what makes us happier, because my way wasn’t working.” And what I call “the chase of the big happy,” I think it’s a chase that many of us are on.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

After I came to the US as a refugee, I chased the American Dream through achievements, believing that eventually they would bring me happiness. But instead, after a 20 year successful career in venture capital, technology, and finance, I burned out. I dove into research about happiness and well-being and turned what I learned into practices to help myself climb out of burnout and thrive in every area of my life. The method I developed for myself became the Happier Method™ that is the foundation of my work and company.

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?

It would have to be my parents and my husband and my daughter. My parents always surrounded me with love and undertook a courageous journey to bring us from the Soviet Union to America so that I would have a better chance at a good future here. And my husband of 19 years and our 16 year-old daughter are my biggest supporters and my fuel to do what I do. I couldn’t do this without them, they are my team.

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?

One time I was giving a talk to 5,000 people and I sent the wrong slides to the organizers. So I had the wrong slides with me on stage. And I had to figure out how to make the talk work. So I told the audience that I had the wrong slides — I wanted to be open with them. I did the talk without slides and it went great. I learned that being open about making a mistake helps you connect more genuinely with others and that people don’t want perfection — they want your humanity.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. It’s the book that introduced me to the idea that I have freedom when it comes to my thoughts and I can choose which ones to believe and which ones to shift or let go. Ninety nine percent of success is mindset and this book set me on a journey to learn how to work with my brain so that it becomes my ally versus an obstacle.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” — Pablo Picasso

It’s tempting to think that oh, I need to have inspiration to do something, but it works the other way. Most of success is about doing the work, sometimes without inspiration or knowing how you’ll get where you’re going. But you need to have discipline to put in the work and inspiration will find you.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

Two come to mind: collaborating on creativity research with Canva, the free online design platform I love and use, and creating virtual training programs for leaders to boost their emotional fitness skills.

The research uncovered fascinating insights, showing us that lockdown ignited a new wave of creativity across the U.S. with more than half of the Americans surveyed starting hobbies during the pandemic and a shocking 98% keeping those hobbies up throughout the year! This uptick in creative hobbies such as cooking and gardening began at a challenging time when many were struggling to switch off from negative news (57%) and managing boredom (63%). Creativity is essential to help boost your emotional fitness, process challenging feelings and as shown by the research, it couldn’t be more important than it is today. I love working with Canva to highlight many different ways people can be creative and make creativity more accessible.

I’ve run several virtual leadership training programs for leaders for several years, to teach them the 5 emotional fitness skills of the Happier Method, and the impact has been tremendous. As a leader, your emotions have an amplified effect on everyone you lead so it’s your responsibility to bring your best to your work and the people you impact.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In our work, we talk a lot about cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Avoid multitasking. Multi-tasking doesn’t just reduce your efficiency (you lose 25% of it!) but it is exhausting for the brain. Plus, there is no such thing as doing two things at the same time — your brain is simply switching from one task to another, losing steam and efficiency each time.

Begin the day by writing down 3 most important things you want to get done. These don’t have to be the biggest projects or most difficult, just the ones that are your priorities. Do these 3 things before you do anything else. This helps you focus your attention and avoid getting distracted, and when you get them done, feeling a sense of accomplishment will fuel your energy and motivation.

Talk back to your brain when it offers you thoughts that cause you stress and struggle. This is one of the most profound and essential habits to develop, and to recognize that you can shift your thoughts so they are more helpful. You are in charge of your brain, not the other way around.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I got into yoga about 10 years ago and do it several times a week, it is definitely a big part of my self-care. But I also find it really important to take some time every day to just be still and quiet. Sometimes I meditate, sometimes I journal, sometimes I just sit and allow myself to be. It’s so important to allow yourself time to catch up with yourself, not do, and just be.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Take a daily walk outside. I take a 5-mile walk daily and it’s a life-changer. Research shows that just a 20-minute walk outside boosts your health, mental clarity, motivation, and mood.

Stretch regularly throughout the day. Your posture affects your mood and productivity. Sitting at a desk all day, it’s easy to develop terrible posture, which doesn’t just cause aches and pains, but can negatively affect how you feel. So take a few minutes several times throughout the day to get up and stretch.

Eat less sugar. I’m not a nutritionist, but there’s tons of research that shows how bad sugar is for your health and your well-being.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

Advice on healthy eating usually focuses on willpower to deny yourself something you like, like a sugary treat. But the challenge is that when you’re stressed, your willpower goes out the window because the part of your brain that is responsible for willpower is offline. So just when you need it most, you can’t get access to it. A better approach is to substitute a healthier food that brings you joy. So an apple with almond butter instead of a candy bar, or something like that. Denying yourself is difficult, but creating an alternate option that also brings you joy can help the healthy habits stick.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Practice gratitude, especially in the morning to start the day. 11,000 different studies have shown how gratitude contributes to better well-being, reduces stress, and better sleep.

Accept your difficult feelings. You’re a human being and are not supposed to feel good or positive all the time. Genuine well-being is about learning how to embrace all of your feelings, including the difficult ones.

Practice your joy. Joy is not frivolous, but rather, gives you energy to do all the other things you need to get done. So make time to take regular breaks and do something that brings you joy. Doing something creative is a great idea!

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

When you smile, you send a signal to your brain that you feel good, and you do feel good because of that! But the key thing is that your smile has to be genuine: Your brain knows the difference between a genuine smile and a fake one. So think of something that you appreciate, something you love, a person you really care about and allow that to bring a smile to your face.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Take time to be alone. It’s so important to allow yourself some time to be on your own, to reflect, to connect to yourself in a deeper way.

Journal. I find journaling to be so healing. You don’t need to do it every single day but taking some time to write down what you’re feeling is powerful because it helps you to become more aware of your feelings and what you might want to do to grow in ways that are important to you.

Spend time in nature. Get away from the computer/phone/TV for a bit and connect with nature. In Japan, there’s such a concept as “forrest bathing” and it’s been shown to improve your well-being and reduce stress. Nature helps us to connect to our true selves.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

See above:)

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’d love nothing more than to create a movement that can equip people with the skills to strengthen their well-being, emotional fitness, and happiness. I believe everyone can become a force for good and everyone deserves to feel happy. To be a force for good and help others, you first have to cultivate these happier skills yourself. We can all be a source of healing for the people around us and a happier movement can start with an individual choosing to practice their happier skills.

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 🙂

I would love to spend time with Serena Williams. I think she is an amazing force of good in the world and has such inspiration and wisdom to share!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Find the latest from Happier at https://www.happier.com/ and check for the latest updates from me personally on my Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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