19. Reflecting on Happiness in Work, Life, and Marketing with Michelle Wax

In this thought-provoking episode, Michelle reflects on what makes people happy. She shares insights from her interviews with over 500 people across the country on creating happiness and fulfillment in their lives, regardless of external circumstances. She also talks about how happiness applies to school marketing, and how you can make small shifts in your life to reduce burnout and increase happiness.

About Michelle Wax:

Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness Project, a movement across 50 states focused on creating more joy, energy, and connection in the everyday. Michelle works with companies, schools, and individuals to help create positive mindsets, move beyond burnout, and strengthen emotional mental fitness through workshops and ongoing programs.

Show Notes


Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza

Human Design, Chetan Parkin


Show Transcript

Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys, 

Aubrey: and I’m Aubrey Bursch, and today we’re joined by Michelle Wax. Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness project, a movement across 50 states, focused on creating more joy, energy and connection in the everyday. Michelle works with companies, schools, and individuals to help create positive mindsets, move beyond burnout and strengthen emotional and mental fitness through workshops and ongoing programs. Welcome Michelle. 

Michelle: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here. 

Tara: I can’t wait to get into this conversation, hear about this. It sounds so cool. But can you start out by just telling us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you got to where you are.

Michelle: Yeah, sure. So I’ve been an entrepreneur now for about eight years and started out in the food industry and did a, not complete 180, but a big shift in starting American Happiness project. Because I got to this point where I’d worked hard, I’d gone after what I wanted. And I had reached this point of looking in on my life.

You would have thought I was quote-unquote successful. And I had really been going after what I thought was my dream since I was a kid, but I was waking up every single day. And I was feeling like many people, the stress, the worry, the self-doubt. And I didn’t really understand what was happening right inside my brain.

And so I started looking into that deeper for myself and really became interested in it and started applying the tactics, the principle principles into my own life. And I had this idea, what if I could capture perspectives all across the country and really share how everyday people are creating more happiness, more fulfillment, more joy, because I think we often reach this point where we think we should be happier than we actually are.

And so that’s what initially started American Happiness Project was filming a documentary across the country. And now we do as our prevention, mental wellness workshops for companies, schools, working with individuals just to really strengthen that.

Aubrey: Wow. That sounds like a journey. I feel like you hit on something that people probably sense, but they don’t realize, but you followed up with it and asked, you were probably very curious to ask those questions and to figure it out. I have so many questions about, the documentary and how it came to be.

But I also feel that our independent school audience I think could use some of the things that you learned throughout this process. As mentioned before, recording our audience is independent school professionals. As you can guess during this past year and a half, they’ve really been working long hours and really having to adjust their daily schedules and pivot nonstop.

So thinking about your time recording this documentary, what are some key tips for happiness you might recommend to them that they might be able to apply to their daily lives. 

Michelle: Great question. And yeah, so throughout the documentary filming, I interviewed over 500 people since then have now chatted with thousands of people.

So it’s interesting to hear people’s perspectives depending on where they’re coming from, right? What position they have, where they live, things like that. And really a common theme that developed was that you have to be focused on what you can’t control to start deriving that happiness and really an important area was to start your morning on your own terms. And I think a lot of the times that morning routines get tossed around, but I feel like morning routines personally can be a little daunting because often we might have, something happened right in the morning that we can’t necessarily control right.

Or life happens. Things are happening all the time, especially with, these past months. And so starting your morning on your own terms by taking time to just answer a few simple questions is really good way to start off. We call those morning questions and it starts your day off in a positive way and allows you to anticipate what’s going to happen throughout the day.

And most importantly, really set the intention of how you want to feel at the end of the day, so that you’ve got. 

Tara: That’s really interesting. I use a planner that helps me do that. And then at the end of the day helps me sort of review and download and see how the day went. So it’s interesting that’s part of your process.

I think it’s talked about a lot and I have so many things flying through my head right now. So first of all The happiness project makes me think of 10% happier, which I think the word happy now is used a lot. And that’s, I know more directed toward meditation. But I’m just wondering about the word happiness and we talk about mindfulness, right? So we always ask our guests what mindfulness means, but I suppose happiness means different things to different people, but I’m wondering if you can sort of encapsulate in general, what happiness means? What is happiness? Is it a feeling? What is it?

Michelle: Yeah, I love that question. And I feel like you were saying, it’s going to be different for everyone. And I think it often changes throughout the course of life to where your priorities are, what that happiness is going to feel like or embody. And I personally feel like it, it is a feeling, it is an emotion. It’s going to be derived from different things or different ways of thinking, but something that.

I found really valuable is to create words to live by list in your own life. And this is often like I mentioned at the beginning, I think we often seek out achievements or goals that we think are going to bring in that happiness, or maybe it’s the relationship you want to be in, or that other person you think will bring in happiness to.

But very often, and this is something that came time and time again after all the interviews is that we’re actually craving the emotion that we think that outside thing is going to bring in. We think it’s going to make us happier or bring in just a better feeling into our life. And so by choosing what words you want to experience or what emotions you want to experience on a daily basis, Often we can bring those positive things or positive emotions into our life, much quicker than waiting for that other person or that outside environment or external thing to bring it in.

Tara: Yeah, I just wanna follow up on this question with your perspective on what the range of happiness is, right? Like you could have a lot of things that are bad that are not happy things in your life at a particular moment or a day and still be happy. So I think like when I think about being happy and what you just described, like, if I only lost 10 pounds or, if I only had a clean office or these different things, I’d be happy, but ultimately like you can have all those things and not be happy, but you can still be happy when you don’t have those things. So that makes sense. 

Michelle: Right. And it really all goes back to how you’re interpreting what’s happening around you or what your life is rather than what’s actually happening. And that was a huge theme that we found in the documentary filming process. And probably most people listening can relate to that. You probably know someone in your life who has done fairly well.

Whether it be financially, personally, whatever it may be, but they’re miserable or they’re stressed or they’re burnt out all the time. And on the flip side of that, someone who’s gone through really tough times they’re able to be really generous and really happy person. And it depends a lot more on how your brain is interpreting what’s happening around you than it is. What those external things are, they only make up for about 10% of our long-term happiness, those external things versus the way your brain is interpreting. It is a lot larger of a chunk. 

Aubrey: I think this is such an important I, first of all, I wish they had taught this in high school when we’ll get to a question about that later on, but I feel like this is something that is so useful, and honestly it took me decades to even embrace or know about it.

So I’m very excited that you have this documentary and hope more people will understand that concept of like it is it’s truly, it’s how you make it, it’s how you interpret the situation and, is this happening to me or for me, or like that frames mindset? I think makes a huge difference.

I can have a rough moment in my day, but then I can choose to let that go and play with my kids and laugh and, be truly happy that day. So I do appreciate this incredible conversation we’re having because I think it will be helpful to others who might be overwhelmed and struggling.

And maybe they think the next thing is, oh, when I get that raise or when I get this and X will happen. But meanwhile, our life is passing by I’m curious. You know, I also know I want to switch a little bit. I also know that you work with corporate partners and businesses on reducing burnout and, promoting wellness in the workplace.

I’m curious, like what sort of tools have you found effective in these environments to increase happiness? 

Michelle: Yes. And as you likely know we see it everywhere now is everyone’s burnt out, right? Everyone’s stressed and it’s no fault to anyone. Obviously, we’re getting bombarded by all these things all day, every day from the news, from work, all these different.

And when I work with companies or organizations, I really like to ground everything in the science of what’s happening in your brain, because I think a lot of the time happiness can be seen as a fluffy topic. And maybe, if you’re working in a desk job or maybe you’re in a different environment, and you have so many things going on, it can seem like something to just push off. But what I’ve found through working with a whole bunch of people now is that once you’re able to ground down the science realize, okay, this is why this strategy is going to work because it’s actually shifting in the brain.

It’s really impactful. And generally the strategies that I recommend are always very small things that you can do that aren’t going to be a massive overhaul of life, they’re only going to take a couple of minutes, but it comes back to that mindfulness component that I know you talk about quite a bit, is that bringing awareness to the prefrontal cortex in the brain that really makes us human beings and stop operating from that stressful fight or flight response that we’re often in quite a bit from all the external things in our life coming at us.

And what I love to focus on, and really I’ve seen apparent in my own life and in all the interviews I’ve done is focusing on that thought process and shifting to a neutral way of thinking from if you have a more stressful pattern of thinking or worrisome pattern of thinking or insert any other negative emotion there and becoming aware of, for example, what’s your first thought when you wake up in the morning, right? Are you looking forward to the day or are you going to do all the things you have to do right? And rushing into it and starting off with bringing self-awareness to those stressful thoughts or to those things that aren’t really contributing to happiness thought patterns, going back to that interpretation and how you’re viewing the situations around you and then shifting to a neutral place. So not going to a blind 180 of positivity. It doesn’t really work. You don’t innately believe that. So you actually lose a bit of trust within yourself. If you try to force yourself into that positive thinking.

But getting to a place of neutrality, right? Acknowledging, okay. Maybe this isn’t the best situation right now, but I’ll be able to figure it out. Or going back to, I am a human being, this is part of the experience, getting to this more neutral place. And then from there, you can shift to positive thinking.

I found in my own life is that I’ve gone through many different things and have many different experiences. And the only thing that really ever brought happiness was what my thoughts were doing. How was it interpreting what was happening? 

Tara: Yeah that’s really helpful. I want to shift a little bit, actually, it’s quite a shift, but maybe we can make it not sound like quite so much of one.

So you’re an entrepreneur, right? So the term marketing means something to you. And that’s part of the title of our show is marketing because we talk about marketing as it fits into all the other stuff that’s going on in our lives, in our audience’s lives. So I want to ask you a little bit about happiness as it applies to marketing. So first of all, for a school, right? How to, can you market happiness? Is maybe one approach to this question. And another is how you manage happiness when you are dealing with perhaps marketing failures. So those are how marketing fits into this whole idea of happiness. If you can speak to any of that. As an entrepreneur, I’m sure you have some marketing experience to apply. 

Michelle: Yes. And I always say that too, with, chatting with people who want to start a business or just getting into it. You could have the best product or service in the world, but if you’re not able to share with people, it’s not really going to amount to much.

So yeah. So in terms of marketing happiness, I think it, it obviously starts with, who is that target market, who you trying to reach and really draw into whatever it is that you’re contributing to the world. It’s helpful to speak to that emotion that people want to be feeling, so maybe it is calmer. Maybe it is happier. Maybe it is having that inner peace and speaking to it in a way that’s relatable. That’s the approach I’ve always taken with any marketing or sharing the content is try to make it as approachable and relatable to that person. In the words that they’re going to understand in the types of freezing and the types of experiences.

And that was why it was such a big focus with the documentary is to capture how everyday people are creating happiness, right? It’s not people that are super rich or super famous or anything like that, which often gets highlighted, I think a lot in the media, but focusing on the everyday, because that’s, what’s relatable to people, I don’t know if that answered the question I can speak to it more.

Tara: Yeah, no, I think it does. And full disclosure, if you look at my website and I make websites, it says, does your website make you happy? So I’m using that, right? That is an important element. In terms of what I want to communicate about the work that I do. And I think what a school, I just built a website.

And when I ask a school about their personality, they said it was a happy place. So I think using that word and thinking about it as a school as to what does happiness mean to you as a school and how do you communicate that in your marketing and your communication? Happiness is something we all want.

And so I’m talking about how your school delivers that I think is a really it’s 

a really good idea to do. 

Aubrey: And I would add to that, that the happiness. So I was working with a school on their fundraising campaigns and some marketing campaigns, and I was actually asking them how. Creating the content, like what mindset they were creating it in, because I was looking through some of these things and I’m like this screen scarcity, like for fundraising, it was like, we need money.

We need money. Otherwise we’re going to shut down. And I’m like, where was your mindset when you wrote this? And I think that tying to what you all are saying about happiness is oftentimes when I’m looking at people, creating content, if they’re not in that. Embracing of the happiness of their school or those sorts of things.

The content does not pan out well, and it’s not a reflection of, that happiness or that, that joy or whatever their key at school, elements are that they want to really convey to prospective families. 

Michelle: That’s a great point. I agree with that. And something I become aware of is the energy where I’m creating something.

Because it really makes an impact. And like everyone, some days I wake up, but I’m not feeling the most motivated or the best, like every human being. But if I am feeling that way, I don’t try to necessarily force myself to maybe create some piece of content or something like that

because it does come through in a way that I think sometimes often, like it’s just a feeling you can feel that through the screen sometimes. 

Aubrey: Yes exactly. I always think about when I’m recording videos, like what mood am I in, because it transfers. It does, you can tell when someone is not happy or something else is going on and they’re on video and you’re like, oh, they’re really forcing through it.

I am going to shift gears a bit. So this was a good chunk of your life for quite a bit, this creating of the documentary and everything like that. I’d love to know, like what, how has it impacted your life? What does this meant to you personally? 

Michelle: Oh my goodness. So much in short, but yeah, so I was filming the documentary for about three months and that was completely my world.

Traveling, talking with people, editing, things like that. And in creating the finished product, which is about an hour long, night, hundreds of hours of footage. So it was an overwhelming experience to condense that down. I don’t think. Traditionally get that overwhelmed. Like I can handle a lot of things going on, but that was definitely something that I had to take a step back and give myself not beat myself up for not really getting it done as, as quickly as I had initially wanted to, but it affected my life and in so many ways.

And sometimes it’s hard to think about or remember how I was almost before the documentary, because I chatted with so many people in the perspective that was really ingrained into. My soul, if you will, really impacts my everyday life, in anything I’m doing in business and my personal life.

And I think it just hearing so many different perspectives, regardless of background or regardless of beliefs, or regardless of, all these things that I think often. Traditionally the media, the news tries to make you think, right? Everyone’s so different and yes, there are differences, but there’s a lot of commonalities as well.

And having the belief that everything will work out, if you keep digging into it a little bit more and keep listening and hearing different perspectives and sharing. It’s impacted my life so much and it’s on a more practical or more grounded way. Like anytime I meet someone new, I now ask them questions that I had asked in that interviewing process.

So if I meet like one of my friend’s friends, I’ll ask them, what do you love about your life? Or what’s your dream? And it’s really interesting because normally people don’t really get asked those questions. And it’s interesting to see people reflect on it and shift into that way of thinking.

Tara: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I, before this podcast, I had a different podcast and we asked our guests what success, how they define success, which oftentimes I think is related to happiness. We think about you, you can’t be happy unless you’re successful or you can’t be successful unless you’re happy.

So that was similar, interesting question to hear people think about. Cause they don’t think about it that much. I’m gonna move on to some of our always questions that we like to ask all of our guests and you’ve just described what this amazing voyage has been for you and how it’s impacted your life personally.

What would you say are the most important things that you do to grow professionally and personally? 

Michelle: So I love to hear different perspectives and opinions. And so I do listen to a good amount of podcasts. I feel like if there’s an area in my life that isn’t going the way I want it to, or is perhaps even like triggering me to feel a certain way, I search to look for different perspectives or people that I can get a shift in perspective for and start working on that interpretation.

But I would say definitely listening to podcasts, reading books, the classics I also have a business coach that’s been really helpful. Becoming self-aware in any area that I’m less than enthused by. Cause it’s important for me to feel excited and energized by, by my life in general. And working on that and starting to shift, it has really been impactful.

Aubrey: So I’m curious. Thank you for sharing that. What is one of the most important things that we can do to be more mindful as our show is called Mindful School Marketing. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. 

Michelle: Mindfulness really is bringing that as I define it, really bringing that awareness right back into yourself and digging into a deeper knowing of yourself.

And what I love to do is for whatever area that I want to be experiencing more of so we’ll take happiness. As an example, I like to do a happiness audit of my life and really take stock of a couple of different areas. The main areas, being people, content, tasks, and activities, and then thoughts you’re having.

So really simple exercise to do is to just take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle. On one side, write down the people content being like social media news, things like that. People you’re absorbing And on one side, what are those things that are creating more happiness in your life currently, or perhaps once used to that you don’t really experience anymore.

And then on the other side, what’s draining that, that happiness and taking an audit of, the people, content things you can, obviously, you can go into any area of life you want to. But that’s really helpful and a good first. And then taking, steps to shift whatever areas that perhaps you’re not the most enthused with, or you want to make changes and just making small shifts over time.

Tara: Yeah, I’m reading a book called Essentialism right now, which talks about making decisions about what things are essential. And one of the big keys about is saying no. And I think one of the quotes in the book is if it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no. And so I think that kind of goes into, what’s making you happy, but it’s not making you happy.

And the things that sometimes don’t make us happy or things we feel compelled to do that we have to do. We don’t actually really have to do them. Which I think is interesting, I listened to a lot of podcasts. Do you listen to Brooke Castillo we’ve ever listened to the Life Coach School podcast? 

Michelle: No. I’ll have to check it out. 

Tara: Yeah. She talks about some of the things that you’re talking about too. So what are some of your favorite podcasts? 

Michelle: I would say hands down, I love the Ed Mylett Show. I just love his, it’s personal development entrepreneur, but he interviews a wide variety of people and I love his interviewing style for some reason, his energy, I just really connect with.

So that’s definitely one of my favorites. 

Aubrey: I listened to Ed Mylett show for a long time. I haven’t listened to in a while so put it back on my podcast thing. And Essentialism is a great book and I listened to Brooke Castillo’s A Life Coach Schoolpodcast as well. That’s a good one. 

Tara: And we’ve never talked abouthave we Aubrey? So that’s amazing. 

Aubrey: We’ll have to, look at that. That’s so awesome. 

Tara: All right, you want to go ahead and you start the rapid fires. 

Aubrey: All right. So rapid fire questions, so exciting. So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be? 

Michelle: Oh, definitely breaking the habit of being yourself by Dr.

Joe Dispenza. I got introduced to that book. Oh my gosh. Probably about two years ago and it completely shifted my life and I was. I was a person and I still am where I like to hear the science are the more hard science behind some of the things like meditation, mindfulness. And that book just, it looks like you’ve read it from your face.

Tara: I haven’t, say the name again? 

Michelle: It’s called Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Dr. Joe Dispenza. And it’s really about how a lot of what we, experience in our life,as the title says, it’s shifting your thought process, your mindset really becoming who you want to be initially in your mind.

And then it trickles out, but he goes into it a lot deeper than that and ties in the science and all of that. And it’s really interesting. 

Aubrey: That would be a great, yeah, that would be a great one to add the high school curriculum. I wasn’t even thinking about that, but yeah, that was a game changer for me as well.

Thanks for bringing that up. 

Tara: I’ve got a long list now, I will point out here for anyone listening that we do have a Good Reads list where we put all of the books that our guests recommend into this good reads list. So check it out. Okay. Michelle, what is one app that you could not live without?

Michelle: Ooh, I would say Spotify. I love music. I love podcasts, obviously. And I feel like I most are just listening to positive content. I also love Your World Within, I didn’t mention that, but it’s a really good thing to listen to. If you want to start shifting your mindset and having a new approach to viewing life around you in a positive way.

But Spotify definitely. I feel like I always have something playing in the background. 

Aubrey: So what are you reading right now? 

Michelle: So I’m actually reading a book on human design, which I’ve recently gotten into. It’s called human design by Satan Parkin. And it’s really interesting cause it’s a whole mix of astrology.

Shakras like a whole different bunch of different, I guess you would call it. I don’t know, modalities maybe, but it’s really interesting. And it is diving deeper into that self-awareness piece and knowing who you are. And it’s funny when you read something that just validates maybe something that you thought was not great about yourself, or like a little bit different or what other people are saying right.

That you should change. So that’s been really interesting to read.

Tara: Cool. These are great suggestions. And I’m going to wrap up with the last question, which you’ve already given us a ton of advice, but if you could just leave us with one great piece of advice.

Michelle: I would say, as I mentioned before, becoming aware of what emotions you want to be experiencing on a daily basis could be the most powerful thing that you can really do. Because for me personally I want to feel energized. I want to feel free. I want to feel peaceful. And once you’re aware of that, you can start to shift and incorporate the people in your life, that are adding to that, the content and becoming aware of. And that’s really a very powerful shift that I’ve done. And I think for a long time, I was very focused on achievement and goals. And once I reached those goals, I wasn’t experiencing the emotions I actually wanted to feel. And I think it really allows you to take back control of how you’re living your life versus allowing external people and external factors to dictate it for.

Aubrey: That’s so good. Thank you, Michelle. You’ve contributed so many wonderful ideas. It’s thought provoking conversation here. So we’re so grateful for you. Really sharing this with our audience. Now I know people are gonna be really curious about your documentary, where can they find 


Michelle: Sure. So the easiest way is probably just to Google American Happiness project. It’ll pop right up our website. And then you could also find me on Instagram, American Happiness project or LinkedIn, Michelle Wax W-A-X. And then our actual site is american-happiness.com. 

Tara: Yay. Thank you so much for joining us. Have a happy day. 

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