Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Take the Next Steps to Happiness With Megan McDonough
[00:00:02] PP: We all have times in our lives that are filled with uncertainty and stress. Maybe it’s career upheaval, a change in our life stages or the end of a relationship. Even as we wrestle with the challenges at hand, we wonder what the next step is. I’m Paula Phelps and this is Live Happy Presents, a podcast sponsored by the Wholebeing Institute, that looks at what to do when those inflection points arise in our lives.
Megan McDonough is founder of the Wholebeing Institute, which is the world’s leading educational organization, teaching the science of human flourishing. She is here today to talk about how the challenges we’re facing right now, no matter how daunting they seem, actually hold the opportunity to explore, strengthen and reshape your life. Then, she’ll tell us about an online program offered by the Wholebeing Institute to help you take the next step to move toward happiness.
[00:00:59] PP: Megan, this is an incredible program that you’re going to share with us today. I have so many questions, and I’m really excited to hear about it. But I wanted to start out by learning, how did you develop this and what got you here?
[00:01:12] MM: For that, we’re going to go back to the year of 1999. You remember that year, that was the year everybody was saying, computers are going to crash.
[00:01:21] PP: The end of the world.
[00:01:21] MM: End of the world when computers go from 1999 to 2000, the world was going to crash. It turns out thankfully, that the world didn’t crash. But in a way, my own life crashed. I remember specifically the day I was working for DuPont, and I was in their corporate offices in a meeting. Even the day I recall, it was a gorgeous spring day, one with the depth of the sky, it was a beautiful baby blue. And there were these cherry blossoms all ripe and opening. It was incredible beauty outside. But inside, it felt like I had my back against the beauty, like I couldn’t see it. This was metaphorical. Actually, literally, because I was sitting in a meeting thinking, “Ah, I’m just dying here.” It wasn’t because I didn’t have a great job. I love my job, love the people. But I remember writing on my notepad, “This is killing me.”
[00:02:20] PP: Wow.
[00:02:21] MM: So for me, that day, something became very clear. My work here was done, that this was an inflection point in my life. The reason I start with that sort of background back in 1999, is because we hit these, I think of as inflection points all the time in our lives. That was a big one in my life. But many people, as part of being human, because there’s no getting around it. We had times when we feel like we’ve hit a termination, either we get a – either our relationships come to an end, our work feels like it’s dying out, our health might be going downhill, our loved ones’ health might be going. We look at these points as times of great change ang angsts. It feels entirely like a terminus and it’s really a very rich place. Might feel really difficult at the time. That’s when I started changing and moving in different ways in the world that looked at the science of flourishing, how we can go forward in a way that really liberated us to live more into an authentic life, in a way that feels rich, and happy and satisfying.
[00:03:30] PP: Well, how do we know that we’re at an inflection point versus just having a bad day at work? We all have those moments where it’s like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m going to go home tonight. I’m going to write my letter.” How do we know?
[00:03:43] MM: It’s a great question, because life is full of little stress points anyways. Why is this an inflection point? One of the things that your listeners can pull from your website is a handout that’s related to sort of this discussion we’re having today. In that handout, I listed sort of all of those who have felt sense of when life is changing for you. When do I know that this is more than just a bad day? That it’s really an inflection here. Part of that answer is, it lasts longer than just a bad mood. It’s like a chronic outcoming of this sense that maybe there’s got to be something more, a clarity like I had that data. I’ve run my length around this thing or it might come from an external situation where you lost your job, or the kids moved out of the house and all of a sudden, you have an empty nest.
In many ways, these inflection points, they become ways in which we have to actually redefine who I am. Actually, look at the different ways in which we’re shaping ourselves because who we knew ourselves to be before is not who we have to be in the situation, as an empty nester, as a single person, as a person who realized their job no longer works for them or has been retired. These are all things that happen. So if you look up that list of handouts, your listeners can get a sense of, “Ah, maybe this is bigger than just a bad day.” Part of that is, what is the felt sense. I mean, for me back in 1999, this wasn’t just one episode. This was sort of a building of a felt sense over time where I’m just – there was a sense of dryness, a desiccation and it wasn’t enlivened by this very sacred life. So those are sort of the key points that point to, “Ah, this is an inflection point. This is a change of who I see myself to be and where I’m headed.”
[00:05:48] PP: As you’re getting that sense, and you realize this is an inflection point. That realization is one thing, but what to do with it is a whole big, scary next thing. What do you do once you’ve realized that you need to do something?
[00:06:06] MM: It’s so funny, because what is the first thing we do when we’re having difficulties? Where do we go? Let’s ask Dr. Google.
[00:06:15] PP: I was going to say the bar, but I knew that was the long answer.
[00:06:16] MM: Maybe the bar. So, still, maybe we go for a drink, maybe we talk to our friends, maybe we ask Dr. Google. But what we’re really doing is just sort of splattering this – not desperation, but this angst that we’re feeling, and we’re reaching out and trying to find answers. Interestingly enough, when I was going through that inflection point in my own life, I mean, that’s exactly what I did. I was reading, I was taking a little bit from this. I was Googling and getting all sorts of junk. Because when you Google, how do I live happier, you don’t get your wonderful side of living happy, because that wasn’t around back in the ’90s. W
What you end up doing is creating a smorgasbord of, “Let me try this. Let me try that. Let me try this. Let me ask the same people that I’ve always asked about and they’re –.” They might be wonderful, supportive people, but they might not have the answers either. So the first offer is to find a place, which is what we’re talking about today. So program that systematically in step by step takes you through the process of living happier now, as you move into that definition of new self. Because what we’re really in and this is actually in your handout, you can feel free to fill in these blanks. The place we’re actually in right now is a place that the anthropologist, Victor Turner called the liminal space. When we know that one thing is ending, we don’t yet know where we’re going, that’s a place of uncertainty. It’s that liminal space of no longer and not yet.
[00:07:51] PP: That’s a very scary place.
[00:07:54] MM: It’s a very scary place. That’s why we ask a lot of people, and we have a lot of conversations, and we ask Google and we go to the bar and drink. We try to forget about our problems. Because we’re searching for this sense of stability in the no longer and not yet. We don’t like uncertain places. It’s very scary. So when you ask, “What do we do?” First, we realize, “Oh, this is an inflection point. This is a liminal space. This is a no longer and not yet.” There are other words too for it. I think this place of inflection points is a really sacred time. It’s interesting when you notice these inflection points when you’re younger. You might have the graduation from high school, or college, or getting married, or having children, or finding a partner or landing a new job. There’s lots of sort of inflection points when you’re younger that are noticing as, “Ah, this isn’t change.” But when you’re my age, I’m 60 this year. In midlife, all of a sudden you realize, “Wow, where are the big sort of milestones? Where are the inflection points?”
That’s why I wanted to elevate this for your listeners that this sort of challenge that you’re going through with emptiness, retirement or even younger than I am into second jobs or more children. This no longer not yet time, along with being uncertain, scary is also a sacred time. It is deeply sacred time to do some deep work about who you are as an individual, and where you’re heading in doing so in a conscious way. So that it comes from within out, versus the pressure of society, of norms, of expectations driving what you should be doing. When I think of the liminal space of no longer not yet, it’s a sacred time. It’s also the time that the mythologist, Joseph Campbell said, “This is a hero’s journey” or Jack Mezirow in learning and development called it disorienting dilemmas. They’re really times where we think about, “Ooh, what’s next for us?”
So instead of this trial and error of going out to Google, to the bar, to your friends. How do we apply and study the evidence-based approach to move towards happiness? That’s what our certificate in holding positive psychology does. It takes these uncertain times and it spells out clearly, step by step over the course of nine months, so that you can really use the sacred time to craft not only how you’re standing in this present moment, but how you’re shaping yourself towards the end.
[00:10:39] PP: How important is it for us to prioritize personal happiness in this journey, because we – especially as women, I will say, we take care of our families, we take care of our spouses, we take care of the people we work with. We’re caretakers and we tend to put ourselves last. As you hit an inflection point, what happens when you begin to prioritize your own personal wellbeing.
[00:11:04] MM: It’s so interesting. When I made this change for myself, and I was just miserable at work. Again, not because it was a horrible place to work, but because I had reached the end of my rope that of doing work. I had two young children and my husband was a stay-at-home dad. In one way, it was extremely selfish of me to leave that role. I was the breadwinner. I had all the benefits. Talk about fear when I decided to stay home, but I would leave in the morning, and my kids wouldn’t be awake. I would come home at night and they were asleep.
[00:11:35] PP: Oh my God.
[00:11:37] MM: This isn’t what I was leaning into. This isn’t what I wanted. My husband was 1000% behind me saying, “Yeah, let’s do something different. Let’s experiment with this.” So part of that task of prioritizing happiness is first, realizing that it doesn’t just serve us. We serve our children best when we’re in a place where we’re open, and giving, and loving, not when we’re stressed, and unhappy and demanding. The other thing I would say is that, many times it’s hard. We think that happiness, we think that prioritizing the successes will bring us happiness. If only I got the right job, if only I had more money, if only I had more time, then I would be happy. It says backwards, because we know that happier people actually set the conditions for more success. So we’re actually starting with the primary view.
This is what Live Happy teachers all the time, right? This is the basic premise that if we begin with a sense of grounding, and who we are, and using our strengths of showing up in the world in a way that’s pointed to the best of who we are. People will enjoy being around us, we’ll get more done. So what is selfish about that? We tend to think as women, we need to be martyrs to flagellate ourselves to do more, get more done, to give more, give more, and let me sacrifice myself on the martyrdom of motherhood or womanhood. It’s just – how’s that going for you?
[00:13:09] PP: Yeah. There’s a lot of people I’m sure who are seeing themselves right now in that, because I think we all do. It’s become so second nature for us. So give me this high-level view of the steps that you took, and that you’ve learned and you use toward creating personal happiness.
[00:13:27] MM: Sure. This was at first a struggle for me, because this didn’t come about until I created the Wholebeing Institute. With that creation of Wholebeing Institute in 20 years of evidence-based work, both in yoga and mind body, medicine and in the field of positive psychology, I was grappling around. What I hope to do is give you an overview of how to save two decades of trying into a really cohesive path. I wish I had this program 20 years ago; I would have saved myself a whole lot of time. So I’m going to give you in the next 15 minutes or so an overview of the steps that we take our students through in nine months. This is nine months of community connectedness, where we’re all working towards our highest and best and learning what does it mean to live a happier life.
It begins at the very start of the course with the understanding that who you are is more than who think yourself to be. What I mean by that is the concept of self. It isn’t just one self that lives within us. We identify the different selves of sometimes, we have an ought self speaking to us. I really ought to just work harder and give more to my kids and give more to my family. I really ought to bring on the paycheck, stop complaining, be – I really ought to be grateful for what I have. This ought self voice inside of us that is one voice of a self. We have our authentic self that in this moment might be happy, sad, challenged, angry, all the things that can come up now. But we also have these things in our head, these concepts of ourselves that are called possible selves. That when we do this mental time travel into the future, we see ourselves in different ways. Sometimes we see ourselves a successful business people, or a loving mother, or becoming a loving grandmother. Or sometimes we have these possible selves that scare us, “I’m going to want to die broke” or “I’m going to retire and be all alone or won’t have enough money to get by” or “I’ll never find happiness” or “I’ll never find a mate.”
These possible selves are all mental concepts in our head about either what we want, or what we’re afraid of. Usually, at 2:00 a.m. in the morning is when we’re creative, right?
[00:15:49] PP: Exactly.
[00:15:50] MM: The first thing to do is identify all of those selves that live in this ecosystem of your own experience. Then, when we get them on paper through this process of working together in this course, you can then decide upon the narrative of the possible self that you want to start taking action on and working into today. So we actually pick a possible self that we need for ourselves, the ideal self. This is my ideal. Why that’s important and why it’s different than goals? Then we have some sort of measure, “Oh, this is the direction I’m heading. This is how I want to craft my life.” This becomes a deliberate shaping instead of a, “Let me try this, and let me try that.” It’s a deliberate shaping of today towards a possible self. And you’ll find that, “Wow! There were times when my possible self is here right now and today.” That’s what’s so brilliant about it.
As we go through day by day in the program, we realized that there were times as we work towards our ideal self, that we have to understand the concept of learning as a goal before we perform as a goal. I know early on 20 years ago, when I left my corporation, started my own business, I was do, do, do in a performance type mode. Let me do this, let me try that, let me get this done. What we’re saying in the sacred time of a liminal space of moving towards your ideal that there is a learning goal before you get to the performance. That’s why we take nine months to do it. It’s interesting when I think, even in the last few years with the pandemic, a lot of people are in a place of asking themselves. “Oh, that was a completely different experience. What did I want to take from that and shape from that into the next steps?” Because we’re all of a sudden entering back into the workforce and feeling, “Wow, that pace has picked up again. I’m right back to where I used to be. How can I shape this more than ever?”
[00:17:51] PP: Right. And you wonder, am I still willing to tolerate that? Is that still what fulfills me even/ I think that has changed the way we receive work.
[00:18:01] MM: So true. Part of that is, we look at the course in the possible selves. Part of it is about defining ourself, our ideal self. I call that selfing. Selfing in a way in a positive way.
[00:18:15] PP: I like that,
[00:18:17] MM: Right. How are we constructing who we are in our experience as humans, such that it’s enlivening, and engaging, and it’s being an expression of divine expression of who we are at the core of our being. This is what I would call selfing. But there’s also another part of this work that’s equally important. This I like to call unselfing. What are we letting go of? What are we realizing that this isn’t helping us anymore, this way of thinking, of believing. I don’t need to hold on to. One of the things we teach in the course is a five-pointed a methodology for wellbeing. It’s called SPIRE.
[00:19:01] PP: I love this methodology. Yes, explain this to us.
[00:19:04] MM: Each of those belong to a different category of wellbeing. First is spiritual, mindfulness and meaning. What is it that you believe in that’s bigger than yourself, that you can let go and trust into, meaning in your life? Because if you go at this happiness thing as you’re carrying everything on your own shoulders, it really becomes heavy in and of itself. It’s just builds on the ego, so what do you need to let go of and spiritually connect with? Could be your religion, divine, nature, God, the peace, your physical wellbeing. Not only your nutrition, your eating, your exercise, but how are you using your body as a container to express that idea itself? How do you move in the world?
I is for intellectual or inquiry. What are you interested in? Curiosity and openness to experience enlivens us, so what are those things that do that for you? What’s the relational wellbeing you have? We know that relationships are the number one predictor of wellbeing, so cultivate consciously in its course. How to map your network of relations? Which ones are you using in a way that’s elevating? Which ones might you have to just clip back a little bit because they’re actually not serving you? The last one of the models is emotional wellbeing, speaking about the power of positive emotions and how to use them to broaden and build your experience. So that the power of the negativity bias that we all have is decreased. So that’s the SPIRE model that we use to both build the positive self and unself, letting go of what we don’t need.
[00:20:38] PP: That’s fantastic. I know you’ve seen it change your own life. You’re seeing it change the lives of others. What point in the program does that hit? Is that about halfway through, three-fourths of the way through that you’ve hit this point of being able to let go?
[00:20:52] MM: Well, it’s a process. It’s so interesting to watch people go through the course, because it is sort of this unfolding. This unfolding doesn’t have a specific timeframe. We’ve had people start at the very beginning of the program, where we unveil that SPIRE methodology and say, “Ah. This is a whole different way of thinking about how I’m working in the day” to then moving on to really defining happiness for ourselves. Actually, in defining that happiness and understanding the components of it emotionally, using our strengths, and using a meaning, it opens us up. So we begin not only to learn the content, but connect with others, the faculty, the group, because we all go through it as a cohort together. In that conversation, community is one of the most powerful. We hear again, and again, it’s the most powerful, is working in connectedness around this topic, this content.
Because in module three, what we do is we put people into small groups. We call the learning pods. So, you will be working very closely with other people in the group, define how you’re using that content for yourself, and talk about how your day is unfolding and how you’re utilizing it. That’s usually a game changer for people this unfolding of angst, not just about happiness, it’s not just about content, it’s really working with others who are defining their next step in life. Or imagine, if you’re in a small group, someone thinking about retirement and you’re working with a woman who is looking at a career change, right? Or a coach who’s looking to build this in their business. Those rich conversations inform.
Then, in the next module, you talk about what habits am I building on a day-to-day basis. This is all about habit change. So we spend a month on what are you doing every day that’s elevating you and bringing you towards your ideal. It could be something as simple as taking pictures or something beautiful every day. Could be doing a vision board, clipping a picture for a vision board every day for 30 days. It doesn’t matter what you do, but what you’re doing is activating over 30 days, a habit creation. We talk a lot about the science. Then, because no man is an island and a woman is an island, we talk about relationships. How do you really have conversations and relationships that are active and constructive? Mapping out that relational list is so important to understand. It’s only then, after we’ve gone through all of this work, that we asked you what goals are important to you.
[00:23:32] PP: That’s the opposite of what we’re used to. I love that.
[00:23:37] MM: Most people will start with – and then, do you ever find yourself picking a million goals, because you don’t know which one is the right one to pick it and try –here, it’s almost – with the start of this new year, people have already probably saying, “Oh, that was the wrong goal. I don’t want to do that one.” But after you understand what happiness is, how you’re applying it in group conversations, and how you’re creating habits, then you can ask yourself, “Okay. What’s important to me? What goal do I want to reach?” So we have a change model where we get clear on what we want, we activate hope. We then activate our actions, and we go forward and navigate this change going for those things that are important to us.
So this is the change model. We spend a month on this. Because our goals never go the way we planned them out in our head, right? Obstacles arise, difficulties arise, irritating people arise. The next month we spend on resilience, right? Things are not going to go the way we expected. Resilience is key. How do we have a setback, and then move forward, and then life happens and we move around? How do we think about in context of mindset, and a way of moving forward where we become better at resilience, of moving, of expounding no matter what happens, we’re bouncing back, or bouncing forward passed where we were before.
I teach the next module, which is the module on leadership. Because at the end of the day, you’re becoming a leader in your own mind? How do we think about the power of leadership in our own life? What that does that mean in context with others? So we begin to actually be a hero in our own journey instead of the victim played out by others. Then we come together again, the last module, which is where the students present their final project, which is what was most personally compelling to them.
You started this question, when does the unfolding happen? Anywhere and everywhere again, and again in that process, because this human life is about unfolding. What we try and create in the connectedness of the program is a positive, upward spiral that is ever broadening and growing over time. We keep seeing more, and more and more. It doesn’t end even after –
[00:25:59] PP: Even after the course.
[00:26:00] MM: It doesn’t end.
[00:26:02] PP: Let me ask you. What are some of the most compelling stories you’ve seen in people, some of the transformations that you’ve seen in people who have gone through your program?
[00:26:11] MM: What’s been really interesting, and one of the things that we look at is, what difference does this make in your day-to-day life. There was this one woman, I remember specifically was in tears when we first got together, because she was so miserable in her very highly successful job. She’s just – you could tell, she was one of these goal getters, she would just get things done. She says, “But I’m miserable. I’m just absolutely a cranky woman.” Her final project was about daily blessings. She set up this mason jar in her home, so when she got together with dinner with her husband and her children, they created a family ritual of counting blessings, and they would put blessings into that jar. Talk about it and put it into the jar. And it became sort of a habit in the family. So it changed not only her life. She came back like a completely different person, because her final project was about counting blessings, not burdens. She came back a completely different person. Her family life had changed, because of that interaction.
Another example are people who are coaches, and I’ve been approaching their coaching work from the premise of how to be a good coach. What they wanted to do is understand how to ask questions that elicited the best out of the clients that they were working with. So they actually wanted the skills of positive psychology to increase their practice of coaching. What they found happening is that, help them get clear about who they were coaching, what they were coaching people towards, so they get clarity on their own business and their own self in it. So we have a lot of solopreneurs, who – whether they have therapists, or coaches, or teachers, wellness practitioners that not only want to use this in their practice, but they use it for themselves. So they go through this program, and they realize that their life is happier as they help others in their life.
[00:28:13] PP: What a benefit of – you’re doing it for somebody else, but then you end up being able to give this gift to yourself and a lasting one. I love the fact that people are going through this with someone else, because I’ve seen that power of connection. I know, I’ve been in programs where, say, a woman didn’t feel supported by her family, or by her husband for going through this. That is so important to have that little community. So even if the rest of your world is kind of disintegrating or not supportive, you’ve got that community that you’ve built. I imagine that that community lasts long after the program.
[00:28:51] MM: Long after. We’ve been in business for 10 years; we still have our first small groups back 10 years ago tell me that they’re still meeting as a group. I guess, this is sort of close out this conversation by asking viewers to think about. If you stayed on the trajectory of doing what you’re doing now, where will you be in nine months? If you took the program and helped you shape possible self future into your ideal self, what would look different in your day, nine months from today? That’s really the promise of stepping into the science of human flourishing.
[00:29:24] PP: That is so powerful. Megan, we’re going to tell our listeners where they can learn more about your program. We’re going to send them to our website. You’ve got some great handouts that we’re going to let them download from there for free. Tell them more about the program and let them know how they can sign up for this. As we finish this out, is there any other message that we haven’t covered today that you really hope everybody hears as I walk away from this?
[00:29:50] MM: I want to say thank you to you. We’ve worked together for years. So my first thing is just gratitude for you in the work at Live Happy. The second thing I want to say is I look forward to seeing your listeners in the course and getting to work with them, and a certificate of Wholebeing Positive Psychology.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:30:10] PP: That was Megan McDonough, founder of the Wholebeing Institute, talking about how we can take the next step to move toward happiness. If you visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab, you can download a free set of worksheets to help you identify what internal signals you’re receiving about personal change, and help you think about how this can become a time of positive growth. We’ll also tell you more about Megan, the Wholebeing Institute, and the certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology and how this nine-month program can help you walk through the changes you’re experiencing. We’ll also give you a special link just for live Happy listeners to learn more about the program and how you can be a part of it. Enrollment is underway now for the program that begins in March. Again, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. We hope you have enjoyed this special episode of Live Happy Presents. From Megan McDonough and myself, Paula Phelps, thank you for joining us and remember to make every day a happy one.