The author-coach encourages us to expand our definition of happiness

More than 20 years ago, life and leadership coach Pamela Gail Johnson began digging into a question that gnawed at her: why are people so upset? She fully understood why people faced with the devastating loss of a loved one, their home or their livelihood would be unhappy. But why were those who seemed to be largely unscathed so miserable?

Johnson, who began his career working in mental health and addictions at the Hazelden Foundation, founded the Society of Happy People in 1998. The now-global organization celebrates three “happy holidays,” including the Happiness Month (it’s August, so listen up!). Johnson lives in Dallas and is the author of the upcoming “Practical Happiness: Four Principles to Improve Your Life.”

Q: Your research concludes that humans are wired to be unhappy. Why do you think that is?

A: Our brain is wired to quickly recognize and help us walk away from things that can hurt us. It dates back to our caveman days, when we had to protect ourselves from gigantic, furry, scary creatures and the like. Our brains have evolved to help us recognize danger and ensure our safety. That’s why it’s always easier, and maybe even more natural, for us to see what’s wrong before we see what’s right.

Q: So it is naturally more difficult to be happy?

A: Having a positive attitude usually requires conscious effort until it becomes a habit or our mindset. Happiness is not the absence of problems or difficulties. You may need to practice to be a little happier.

Q: Can we point to the pandemic as the beginning of the dive into malaise?

A: Some of it can be attributed to COVID, but this American trend of doom started before COVID. We were already stressed, angry, anxious. So many people want to say that happiness is a matter of materialism, and it’s not. I really think we’ve moved to this place where we focus on the things that separate us, to recognize more of what’s wrong than what’s right.

Q: I think it’s interesting that your original organization was called the Secret Company of happy people. Do happy people feel obligated to hide this fact?

A: People kept telling me, “When you throw it, I want to join it.” People who were happier than not really didn’t have a tribe. That didn’t mean they didn’t have problems. It just meant that they bonded over happiness. Many stories in my book are about people struggling with cancer, anxiety, depression, OCD, other health and life issues, but they were trying hard to be happy. It was kind of a secret at a time when we were really focused on what was wrong. I don’t know if it’s that people are jealous… When I coach, I try to understand that, but you can still be uncomfortable being happy for others.

Q: You also point out that toxic positivity isn’t helpful either. Could you say more about this?

A: We have never been a mantra of “pretend to be happy if you’re not”. Being happy all the time is not realistic for anyone. We just ask that you don’t rain on other people’s parades. It’s always a challenge.

Q: So we’re almost halfway through Happiness Month. Help us catch up! How do we start our practice?

A: If you google the Society of Happy People (, you’ll find a ton of people celebrating in different ways and that’s really cool because happiness is personal. The company’s mission is to expand our vocabulary to see that happiness is already taking place in our lives.

Q: In fact, you identified 31 types of happiness that we could experience without realizing that these are happy times. Could you share a few?

A: Satisfaction, contentment, peace, creativity, pride, kindness, motivation, nostalgia. Sometimes happiness is just about feeling relieved. Sometimes we have to wake up and say, “Hey, maybe I’m crazy, but I’m going to make sure I notice whatever good things are going on today. I’m going to take notice.”

Q: Would we be happier if we consume less news?

A: Choose carefully, but don’t completely reject the news. I watch a lot of news; it is important to be informed. It is important to pay attention to local news, in particular. If you’re overwhelmed, go for a walk.

Q: So creating boundaries?

A: Manage misfortune so that it doesn’t manage you. Make a decision: take a walk, pause and reframe, smile (smiling actually makes you happier), let off steam. Give yourself a 10 minute pity and then stop.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for us to do this happiness work?

A: Happiness is a holistic approach to mental and physical health. Happiness creates harmony in our life. We feel healthier, we live longer, we are more productive at work. Happiness is useful in all of these things, and besides, while you’re alive, don’t you want to live feeling your best emotionally? We all have happiness zappers, but we get up the next day and start again.

Lola R. McClure