UConn alumna Michelle Wax ’12 (BUS) drove her Jeep across the country in search of people who were truly happy.
She found hundreds of them, from teenagers to senior citizens. None of them were millionaires. All of them led normal lives with challenges, from the mundane to the extreme, yet their outlooks were inspirational.
In a documentary film, American Happiness, which debuts next week, Wax chronicles her journey and what she discovered from those who live joyful, energetic, and meaningful lives.
“The common thread through all the interviews is that happiness is a choice,’’ Wax says. “It’s something that’s internally created and not something a person, material item, or circumstance can bring to you long term. I’ve interviewed people from all different ages and occupations and lifestyles, and they have all made a choice to create and choose happiness every day. But that definition of happiness isn’t one-size-fits-all; it was as unique as they are.’’
In addition to the interviews and beautiful scenery, the documentary includes easy-to-understand scientific research about how the brain is wired and how people can use that information to increase their happiness.
“I hope people will tap into ideas and different ways of thinking, change their perspective, embrace new ideas, and re-evaluate how they’re processing what’s going on around us,’’ she says. “Even a small tweak in our actions and thinking will create more long-term fulfillment.’’
After what has been a universally difficult year due to the pandemic, people are looking critically at their lives, their values, and seeking to nurture greater resilience, she says.
“I had an incredible journey, that I felt was almost stamped on my soul,’’ Wax says.
From Cookie Boss to Happiness Pioneer
A native of Dover, Massachusetts, Wax majored in management at UConn, with a concentration in entrepreneurship. After graduation, she created a cookie-catering company called Kitchen Millie, named after her grandmother. It grew from a side business to a permanent one, with prominent clients.
She later formed a second business, The Local Fare, which coached and guided startup food companies.
Although both companies were thriving, Wax was haunted by a sense of emptiness.
“I wasn’t in a dark, dark place, but I found myself stressed out easily and with lots of self-doubt,’’ she says. In 2019, she sold both businesses and turned her personal quest into the American Happiness Project.
She found many people struggle with questions like, “Do I matter?” and “Am I making an impact on the world?” Many people envision happiness as something they’ll achieve when they meet the perfect mate, buy a nice house, or get a promotion, she said. It is something many see as a distant goal. But a quest for happiness should start today—and it doesn’t have to begin with a life-altering event.
“The documentary features interviews with people who all went through a tough time and overcame a challenge with a positive mindset,’’ she says. “Many of them emphasized the importance of bringing back into focus what they can control in their lives, versus what’s happening in the world.’’
Pandemic Increased Demand for Mental Wellbeing
Over the last two years, the American Happiness Project has offered workshops and programs to corporations and universities.
“Because of the pandemic there has been an even greater demand for companies and schools to offer mental-wellness programs and our business has grown throughout this time,’’ Wax says. “We’ve seen a demand for more long-term programs that focus on how to implement a happiness path once you understand it. We’re adding value by providing strategies to make it work.’’
Although there are coaches who promise life-altering advice, Wax believes she is one of the few that showcase typical Americans while offering practical advice to approach change.
“My programs are definitely customizable because everyone’s definition of happiness and fulfillment is different,’’ she says.
This spring, Wax is launching the CONNECTION community to help people develop new connections with peers from across the country. “Now more than ever, people are craving connections and a positive community of friendships that will uplift them, support them as they grow, and encourage them to live the life that they want,’’ she says.
Only a few close family members have seen the American Happiness documentary and Wax is eager to share it more widely.
“Overall, I’m really excited to share this project,’’ Wax says. “When I started this, I didn’t anticipate it to become what it has expanded to. Now it’s more of a movement than I could have ever anticipated or predicted. I’m really excited to be putting this out to the world; it’s a nerve-wracking experience because it is so close to my heart. My family cried when they watched it, and hopefully it inspires others – they may even shed a tear or two.”
The virtual launch of “American Happiness’ will be at 7:30 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 25, followed by a Q&A with Wax and a panel of experts. Tickets range from $15 to $85.
For more information, please visit: https://american-happiness.com/.