Are you happy?
If your answer to that question is anything less than an exuberant “yes,” you’re like most Americans. In the last Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness (2017), just one-third of respondents said they were happy. That was up 2% from the previous year (31%), but still nothing to write home about.
The things that make us unhappy vary. A 2018 study by Northwestern Mutual found that financial insecurity is a leading cause of unhappiness. Pew Research Center data from the same year found that Americans who are unhappy with their family, social, or financial life are more likely to feel lonely. As I wrote last year for Fast Company, disease, substance abuse, and depression are also key factors undermining Americans’ happiness.
There’s no fairy godmother who can wave a wand and make disease or grief go away. Still, it’s often possible to make dramatic changes–sometimes in surprisingly little time. Here are the stories of four women who turned around their lives in roughly a year–and the lessons we can learn from them.
Focused, sober–and helping others achieve financial security
In 2017, financial adviser Brie Sodano was selling stocks and bonds for an independent firm. She was also drinking too much. “I wasn’t the best wife or mom because I was always working and was in a state of stress and almost constantly felt inadequate,” she says. She loved the problem-solving part of her business–creating strategies for people who were behind in retirement savings and explaining student loan forgiveness programs, for example–but she wasn’t charging for those services.
After she began working with a business coach and revamped her fees, she “burned the candle at both ends” for a few months to build a financial cushion. Ultimately, she walked away from selling stocks and bonds and launched her business, From Sheep to Shark, to help people achieve their financial goals.
Sodano also tackled another challenge: alcohol. While it was once fun to go out and have a few drinks with friends, she found herself regularly going out with the intention of getting drunk. Drinking was making her tired and preventing her from performing at her best. At first, she cut down, but recently, she gave it up altogether. “It’s kind of funny because I look back and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I can’t even imagine how truly miserable I was, even though I seemed like I was having so much fun,'” she says.
Within a year, she had two employees and a growing client list. Recently, she has developed a live event called “Money Mastery Weekend” and has booked four venues so far.
Her advice: Get really clear about what you want, and then you can create the steps to achieve it. And don’t set your sights too low. “It’s just as much work to make $100,000 a year as it is to make a million,” she says.
Let go of fear and get out of debt
In late 2017, Caitlin Fisher was unhappy in her marriage, suffering from anxiety, and bogged down with roughly $42,000 in student loan debt. Her Facebook posts often included comments about how exhausted and stressed out she was. Fisher saw a doctor about her anxiety and began to take medication that helped her feel better. Two months later, she was divorced.
It took Fisher a few months to get her bearings, but soon she began to focus on paying down her student loan debt. She created a budget and began devoting half her pay from her job as a content manager to paying off her loans. Within a few months, she had knocked roughly $6,000 off her balance.
Happier and with some breathing space because her finances were more under control, Fisher had a chance to focus on other goals. She turned a viral blog post she had written into a book proposal. The book, The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation: How to Succeed in a World that Blames You for Killing Society As We Know It, will be published in 2019, marking the achievement of another goal. She is also working with her doctor to get off her medication this year.
Her advice: You don’t have to change everything at once–and you don’t have to know what the exact steps toward achieving your goal will be. “You just have to take one step in the right direction. And things can fall into place really fast once you focus on one area. So, for me, that was getting my anxiety to a manageable place,” she says.
Create a new business from timeless wisdom
When she was growing up in Morocco, Ikram Elharti spent summers on her grandmother’s farm. Her grandmother would use local ingredients to make skincare products for the women in her family. After moving to Florida eight years ago, Elharti noticed that the climate was taking a toll on her skin. So she began to make some of the products her grandmother used to make.
In 2017, Elharti was a stay-at-home mother living in a small town when she decided to get serious about her beauty business. She used her background in business to launch Sarah Rose, a line of skincare products based on ancient medicinal practices and made from ingredients sourced from the northwest region of the Sahara Desert.
Over the years, she had perfected her formulations by sharing them with friends. Once she went to market with them, local boutiques began to carry the line. She began attending trade shows and working to get visibility for her products. By early 2018, she was getting orders from big retailers like Francesca’s and Costco. This year, she will be expanding internationally. She says it helps that her family, including her husband, mother, and two young daughters, are very supportive. “You learn how to get things done more efficiently and in an organized way. You wake up earlier. You go to sleep later. And you take advantage of every minute of the day,” she says.
Her advice: Definitely go for it, but don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight. Even with the best products and business plan, there will be setbacks. Accomplishing a big goal requires “time, patience, perseverance, persistence, and learning every day from the customer,” she says.
Turn a loss into a launch
In late 2017, Jackie Minchillo was reeling after losing her mother suddenly to lung cancer. “It hit me hard,” she says. Living in Costa Rica with her husband, she felt lost, she says.
Minchillo had always loved writing, but making it her career changed her relationship with it. Then she had an epiphany: With her previous agency and business background, she could work with her husband to turn his freelance web development business into a bigger business. It was a chance for them to work together to build something.
On January 1, 2018, the two launched Pineapple Development. The duo has since grown the business to three full-time and seven part-time web developers, and four other employees. Revenue has grown 500%. They have since moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they bought a house and opened the business headquarters. The death of her mother gave her a measure of fearlessness. “What types of challenge, or what type of hardship could come at me that would be that would be any worse than that?” she says.
Her advice: If you have a big idea that you’re passionate about, don’t let it percolate for too long. “The longer you wait to put something into action, the longer you’re giving yourself time to talk yourself out of it,” she says.