Project Happiness

Words by Christina Chahal

Photos by Project Happiness and St. Martin's Press

Words by Christina Chahal

One night at the kitchen table, Randy Taran’s teenager told her, “Mom, I want to be happy, I just don’t know how.” For Randy, that moment was a piercing wake-up call. Her mother had suffered from depression and as a young person, Randy didn’t have the resources to help her. Now, she was determined to do everything in her power to provide her children with the tools they needed to take charge of their own happiness.

As Randy started doing research and asking questions, she soon discovered that many families were dealing with similar issues—depression, bullying and stress. Coming from a film background, Randy channeled her energy into producing Project Happiness, a 2011 award-winning documentary bringing teens together with people like George Lucas, Richard Gere, neuroscientist Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama to explore the nature of lasting happiness.

The film led to co-writing the Project Happiness Handbook in 2017 followed by a Science of Happiness learning curriculum that’s been used in over 120 countries. “Combining the best of positive psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness, the curriculum teaches people to actually change the neural pathways in their brains to be more resilient, no matter what life presents,” shares Randy. She’s also written a book, Emotional Advantage: Embracing All Your Feelings to Create a Life You Love.

“People need to learn to be their own coach, instead of their loudest critic,” notes Randy, who moved to the Peninsula with her family in 1993. “The good news is that this can be done. Happiness is a skill that can be learned. And by the way, happiness does not mean the absence of problems; it’s having the resilience to deal with them.”

Today, Project Happiness is a thriving nonprofit based in Palo Alto with millions of followers on Facebook and over 100,000 subscribers receiving daily happiness emails. “We like to say we are in the business of planting seeds,” explains Randy. “The ideas are universal and intergenerational. Especially in complex times, we all want to have happier and more meaningful lives.”

When it comes to finding happiness, what are some of the unique advantages and challenges of living on the Peninsula?

The Peninsula is such an amazing place to live. The beauty is incomparable, and we can enjoy being outdoors and close to nature pretty much most of the year. We have that all around us. But… this external sense of peace is often incongruent with the internal pressures that so many people feel: the need to excel, achieve, keep up with the Joneses. This area attracts Type A personalities, workaholics and perfectionists and that can come at a price.

After starting with teenagers, how did you decide to reach out to a broader audience?

We knew we were reaching kids, schools and community groups, but we wanted everyone to be able to access these science-based tools. So we went to social media and email with our daily “Happiness Vitamins.” We came up with the idea of delivering bite-sized daily boosts with different themes: Mindful Monday, GratiTuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Thoughtful Thursday, Freedom Friday, Social Saturday, Sunday Soul. Reading these every day and week is similar to a musician practicing their instrument or an athlete lifting weights—their skills inevitably get stronger. With practice, the brain’s neural pathways get stronger too. We now know that there is neuroplasticity—
in other words, the brain can change.

Are there themes that particularly resonate right now?

Lately, there has been a real interest in creating healthy boundaries and coming into greater alignment with ourselves. Also, as women come into their own, say in their late 30s, 40s, 50s or on, they may not have the same patience to put up with conditioned roles and responses. When we can say NO to things that are not meaningful, we can say YES to creating more space for a meaningful life. It’s OK to honor yourself and your needs. It’s OK to express emotions in a skillful way rather than keeping them inside. It’s OK to realize that much of the emotional static from others is a reflection of their own hurts—and it’s usually not personal. When we recognize that and take care of our own needs, everyone benefits.

Could you have imagined happiness would become your mission in life?

There’s a saying, “Life doesn’t happen to you—it happens for you.” I never expected to be on this journey, and I feel grateful to have stumbled upon this path. We are always being guided if we are open to the signs. As a dear mentor always said, “Trust and stay open.”

Benefits of So-Called
“Negative” Emotions

+ Anxiety: Wake-up call to make a shift
+ Fear: Alerts you to danger, protects you
+ Guilt: Brings you back to your core values
+ Anger: Protects your boundaries, reveals
that something is off

The Science of Happiness

+ Neuroplasticity means the brain is able to change and adapt as a result of experience.
+ With specific practices, we can train our brains to be happier. For example, people who have a gratitude practice can increase their life satisfaction 25%.
+ Mindfulness and meditation improve cognition and help reduce anxiety.
+ When we are less reactive, we tap into the prefrontal cortex, rather than the amygdala, and make better decisions.
+ Breathing is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and re-center. Check out the 4-7-8 Breath, and the Box Breathing (4-4-4-4) used by Navy Seals to restore calm.

How to Be Happier by the Day

Mindful Monday: For greater inner peace, have a mindfulness practice, even if only for a few minutes a day.
GratiTuesday: Keep a gratitude journal, gratitude jar or send a gratitude letter. Cultivate gratitude for small moments.
Wellness Wednesday: Give your body the fuel to function: energizing food, enough rest, exercise to get you out of your head.
Thoughtful Thursday: When you are kind to someone, it makes YOU feel good. Be kind to yourself too—be your own coach instead of your critic.
Freedom Friday: Boundaries are your friend. It’s OK to say no. Take care of your core needs: to be respected, loved and true to yourself. We can disagree and still get along.
Social Saturday: Surround yourself with people who elevate you and do the same for them.
Sunday Soul: Connect with your inner peace and strength. Connect with something greater. Create space for the whispers of your soul.