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Friday, March 1, 2024

I interviewed 500 happy people in 50 states about money and work: Here’s what I learned

By the time I was 27, I had started two successful businesses. First, I launched a cookie company in 2014 called Kitchen Millie, a literal childhood dream come true.

Then, two years later, I co-founded a kitchen incubator space for local food companies like mine to launch and grow, because I'd made a lot of my own mistakes and I wanted to help others.

On paper, things looked great. But I was struggling. I felt stressed and trapped for reasons I couldn't put my finger on.

"Living the dream" wasn't checking out for me, and I knew I needed to make a change. In the summer of 2018, I got an idea: a documentary I would direct and produce called "American Happiness."

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My goal was to travel across the country in my Jeep, visit strangers from all walks of life, and ask them about the things that make them happy. I hoped to discover the things people do every day to create more joy and fulfillment in their lives. If I had this question, I was sure others would too. 

After about six months of budgeting, planning, and finding my interview subjects, I left my businesses behind with teams in place to run them, and spent three months crisscrossing the country. On my journey, I interviewed more than 500 self-identified "happy" people in all 50 states.

Here are some of the most valuable lessons I've learned about money, work, and happiness.

Career pivots can pay off in ways you don't expect 

A strong majority, 70%, of the happy people I interviewed pivoted at some point in their career, and often that meant taking a pay cut. Many of them told me that their friends and family were concerned that they were taking what seemed like "a step back."

One of those people was a Massachusetts woman in her 30s who found herself getting burned out by her consulting career. She had always thought about getting into the food industry, and she decided to quit her job and secured a gig at a local bakery to see if it was really for her. After that year, she went on to start her own food business

She told me she felt as though she was living her calling each day. It may have taken a few years of not seeing as much money in her bank account, but she said that her happiness levels increased over time, because she took that risk. 

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