I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Musikanski, Executive Director of the Happiness Alliance. Laura shares her passion for improving the happiness, well-being, and sustainability for all human beings by contributing to an understanding and appreciation of the factors that lead to life satisfaction, resilience, and sustainability. Her focus extends beyond economic status, examining sectors that span social, environmental, and governance quality.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
It was never my intention to lead a non-profit. When I was in the MBA program and at Law school, my intent was to work in the belly of the beast to bring transformation to our business systems for sustainability on our planet. A few things went wrong, and I landed in what ended up being all right. After working for large businesses in sustainability, it became clear to me that the people part of the equation was being left out, and that we have to focus on caring about ourselves and each other as an integral part of the effort to save the environment. The other thing that went wrong, but turned out to be a blessing, was the economic crisis in 2008. I went from a 6-figure job and office with a view to what felt like nothing. I was on the board of Sustainable Seattle, and through a series of events, the Happiness Alliance was born. It stole my heart, and along the way, I have come to find true happiness in my own personal life.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the things that the Happiness Alliance does is provide an indicator of wellbeing, the Happiness Index, which is based on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. Until very recently, we’ve been the only nonprofit that provides such an instrument to anybody who can use it anywhere, at any scale. For example, in Vermont, through the University of Vermont, they’ve used our survey throughout the entire state to inform the state legislature and policy makers about what is wellbeing, in terms of how you measure it and how could you use that for policy. But, in fact, anybody can take the survey.
In the early days, I was giving a talk in New York City, which is quite a bit different from my hometown of Seattle. It’s a completely different culture, and people were saying things like, “You can’t call it happiness in New York City. Nobody comes to New York City to be happy.” “You might be able to call it quality of life. We come to make money, to make a name for ourselves. We don’t care about happiness.” I was giving a talk and asked, “Has anybody taken the survey”? A beautiful young woman raised her hand and said that she had taken it the night before. She said her scores indicated she was doing very well in the material wellbeing standard and some of the other domains, but in the domain of community, she was doing very poorly compared to everyone else. When you take the Happiness Index, you can see how your scores compare to everybody else’s. It gives you a new perspective on how to be happy, and helps you see how you’re doing in relationship to everybody else. She realized that she’d been working so much that she had lost touch with her family and friends, and that there was sort of a hollowness in her life. It was remarkable. She stood up in front of all these people and said, “I’m going to change that. I’m going to make an effort to spend more time with my family and friends.” There’s been a lot of research that shows one of the key factors to your happiness and for your wellbeing is your relationship with other people. In fact, happy people really do schedule time with family and friends.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Well I think it’s our survey, and the way we provide it to anyone. It is a scientifically valid instrument that helps open up the conversation about what really matters in life. When it is used at a group level, it can seed a sense of community, which many of us have lost touch with in today’s world. We have lots of supporting tools for personal happiness, community organizing, and research that go along side it, but I think that providing the Happiness Index as a gift for anyone to use is at once simple and profound.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Absolutely, I’m working on a project that came out of the blue for me. One day, my friend, John C. Havens, author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing Our Humanity to Maximize Machines, called and invited me to co-chair the well-being committee for The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems and to co-chair the IEEE P7010™ Wellbeing Metrics Standard for Ethical Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems. We are developing a well-being metric standard, grounded in the happiness and well-being metrics that are already in use, that will be used by Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (A/IS), programmers, engineers, and manufacturers to guide them in creating A/IS that have a positive impact on human well-being. It is exciting for two reasons. One is that we are defining well-being broadly, embracing the interconnected nature of what it means to be human, which means we include individual flourishing as well as community well-being, social justice and ecological sustainability. Secondly, A/IS holds in it the potential to help us solve our biggest challenges today and in our future in ways that can contain the complexity of interconnected systems. When we set our goals for happiness and well-being of all beings and systems with that deep understanding of our connectivity to each other and to mother earth, well, perhaps we have a chance for a world where all people really do have meaningfully equal opportunities to pursue happiness and experience well-being. And I will tag on, that another reason I love this project is that it is participatory. This means anyone is welcome to join the project.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I would say that in your work, bring all of who you are, and then set the conditions for others to be able to bring all of who they are. And one of the ways to do that is to really care. Oftentimes, there’s this idea that we put on a suit and we become a bit of a persona in our work. But the fact is that while we actually might put that suit on, behind that persona is all of who we are. And I think the way to bring all of who you are is to care deeply about yourself. And from that, it allows you to be deeply caring about others, for most all of us. Some people might only care about themselves, but I believe for most of us the aspect of caring includes ourselves and others.
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?
When I was in the MBA program, I read an article about Anita Roddick, founder and CEO of The Body Shop. She wrote that successful women have three things. They have a good education, they have an ability to see opportunities and take them, and they have really good partners. They have a good relationship. In this phase of my life, I thought that I was getting the good education, and seemed pretty good at being able to see opportunities, but the partner piece was missing. Since going into this work, I’ve found that third piece and my true love. I feel an incredible amount of gratitude for him every day and know that he not only has my back, but he helps point me in directions that help me in my daily work.
I also have another person — another teacher, in a different way — who has really helped me. I never, ever thought that I would ever practice mindfulness, because of my own personal story and my childhood. People would tell me, “Laura, slow down, take a breath,” I would say things like, “I don’t breathe.” So that was my life. But I had been blessed with a scholarship and a membership with The Balaton Group, which is this group of leaders in sustainability that meet every year at Lake Balaton, led by Dennis Meadows, the widower of Donella Meadows. So, I ended up at this retreat called “Mindfulness for a Happy Life”. I didn’t even know what mindfulness was, even though I was in the happiness movement. I was resistant to anything about Buddhism or such, yet by the end of the retreat I told my teacher, whom I now follow, and I’m helping him write a book, that I felt like I’d been in the desert my whole life, and I finally found water. And it’s just turned my life around. And part of what I see as my work is to help bring together both the positive psychology and the mindfulness movement. Not in any kind of religious way, but in sort of a scientific way through the happiness movement. So, I have two wonderful teachers in my life, for whom I’m so very grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Well, I really believe in the work that the Happiness Alliance is doing. I know that it’s just one, small part of what’s going to be needed to transform our economies, our governments, and our societies to becoming wellbeing-based, instead of profit and gross domestic product-based. I really believe that that piece of giving–What the Happiness Alliance does by providing the tools and resources, including the Happiness Index, to anybody who wants to use it — I know that is my purpose in life. And I’ve seen it make a difference. I’ve been gifted with this opportunity to work on the IEEE P7010 project, where I get to help define what wellbeing is through indicators and utilize the knowledge I’ve gained through my work with the Happiness Alliance and with the Happiness Index.
Another example where the Happiness Index has had a positive impact took place in a remote community in British Columbia. Regional governments, including the indigenous Native American one, used the survey and were very surprised to find that young people were scoring lower, much lower than they expected, and lower than others on average. They had done what’s called a convenient sampling, where you broadcast that you’re conducting a survey and that anybody who wants to can take the survey. Researchers don’t like that, because you can’t easily make accurate determinations. But one of the things that you can do is you can “ground truth” it, and you can look at the scores that have been done for the same or very similar questions with a random sampling. It just so happened that the school systems in all of British Columbia had done a similar survey for kids in schools, and they had also found that youth up to 18 were doing very poorly. Because they trusted their data, they went above and beyond applying for funding for the area. They actually invested $3 million in a park that provided kids a place to have fun, but also to have resources like counseling in schools and community centers. That’s just another proof point that the Happiness Index can actually work to bring communities together, and to address places where people are hurting, and help to bring about a community solution.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became Executive Director of The Happiness Alliance and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Trust your intuition no matter what. When I first started this project, we were using a version of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index loaned to us by some researchers. Even though my board was saying “No, no, Laura, it’s okay, we can trust these people” I had a feeling that something just wasn’t right. As things turned out, the bottom did fall out. It would have killed the project if we had not had a contingency plan.
2) Let your people know it is okay to disagree with you. It seemed obvious to me that I had this type of relationship with my staff. Part of my process is to stop occasionally and use David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry method. This lesson emerged from a team meeting. After explicitly making this “rule”, we went from being a team to being real friends and some of us still are today.
3) Being a collaborative leader does not mean giving away your power. Always reserve the right to make high level decisions. You have a view that no one else in the organization has. An example is, at one point in this project, I had a person on staff, and on the board, who really wanted to take the project in the direction of doing a celebration about a Happiness Day. I didn’t think that it was the right time, much to his displeasure. But shortly thereafter, the United Nations released an International Day of Happiness. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell people no, especially as a collaborative leader, but you need to accept the power you have within and wield it judiciously.
4) Understand that there is great power in vulnerability when it comes from a place of inner strength. This seems counter-intuitive, but it is not. I practice this at conferences or other events where there are people I really want to meet but feel intimidated. With awareness and loving acceptance of whatever is happening in the moment, somehow the people I was hoping to meet are inevitably drawn to me.
5) Bring all of you are to your work and set the conditions for others to bring all of who they are by really caring. Find your happiness and help others to find theirs.
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. 🙂
Within The IEEE Global Initiative Well-being Committee and IEEE Project 7010 Wellbeing Metrics for AI/AS, we talk about going beyond GDP. What we’re saying is that when it comes to happiness and money in our personal lives, after you’ve met your basic needs, there’s actually very little correlation between money and happiness. At a societal level, we need to recognize that the purpose of life is not to have a lot of money, but to be happy. In terms of business, we can move beyond the profit motive, to an economy in which profit is an outcome that comes from doing good for people and the planet. In governments, we need to move beyond using gross domestic product as the primary guide for policy initiatives to wider measures of well-being, whereby governments safeguard equal opportunities for all people to pursue their happiness in ways that do no harm to others and our planet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I have two quotes. One for the work that I do is the Margaret Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I love that one. I don’t know that the word ‘citizens’ is quite the right one today because the vernacular has changed. I like to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, passionate people” instead. And then the other one that I tell myself, which I find encouraging but also makes me laugh, is “Keep on keeping on.”
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 with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Jeffrey Sachs. I believe he came up with the idea of doing the World Happiness Report. He’s listed as a co-editor, and he lists himself last. So, it’s John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and then Jeffrey Sachs of the World Happiness Report. He also is the one who is in charge of the Global Happiness Policy Report. The first one just came out this year at the World Government Summit in Dubai, at the Global Dialogues for Happiness. I keep meeting him at conferences and saying, “Hi! You know me!”. He says, “Who are you?” and then he moves on to the next person who he really does know. I would love to be able to actually talk to him and tell him about the work that we’re doing, and why it’s important. And the work that communities have done thus far.
Originally published at medium.com