An interview of Heather Dugan in Authority Magazine.

Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times

Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times

Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times: Author Heather Dugan On How To Live With Joie De Vivre, Even When It Feels Like The Whole World Is Pulling You Down

Author Heather Dugan on How to Live with Joie De Vivre, Even When it Feels Like the Whole World is Pulling You Down

Originally published by Authority Magazine, Feb. 7, 2022

Flexibility. Original plans are limited by our imaginations. When we lock on a Plan A, we’re more easily capsized by shifts in the environment and will miss out on unanticipated opportunities. When planning a hiking trip, I like to pick base towns with multiple trail options, gathering general ideas and a few chosen priorities. Daily itineraries can then develop and adapt to weather conditions, local surprises (such as festivals and races), and any additional ideas gained from helpful locals. This approach leads to low-pressure, optimized vacation time.

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times,” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times.”

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Dugan.

Heather Dugan is an award-winning author, media commentator, and speaker. The Friendship Upgrade pinpoints causes of isolation and offers life-changing solution steps for the socially sidelined as well as those seeking deeper, more meaningful friend connections; Date Like a Grownup provides practical dating advice, encouragement, and a toolkit for moving past loneliness and game-playing toward a relationship built for the future. Heather shares her insights on social polarization, pandemic impact, dating and relationships, loneliness, community-building, and the impact of digital reliance in virtual and live speaking events and as a relationship expert for multiple media outlets.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My childhood was a mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. I was the oldest of four girls raised in a middle-class suburb of Columbus, Ohio, but we were lucky to have a very curious father intent on exploring the US and Canada by RV in the summer months. Our family’s many adventures included a cross-country drive up the Al-Can Highway to Alaska, where I saw my first bald eagle, spawning salmon, calving glaciers, and an albino grizzly. We eventually made it up to Point Barrow on the Arctic Coast, where I found a friend and pen pal (we’re still Facebook friends today). These early glimpses into the worlds beyond my zip code provided invaluable perspective and stoked an already active imagination. That heightened sense of a bigger world also helped me hold onto hope during some intensely challenging years.

I spent a lot of time writing plays, poetry, music, and short stories and, when stuck in a boring class, would often disappear into my own imaginary worlds — my DIY version of the VR experiences of today. I was a gym class wallflower, which surprises people — active outdoor adventures are such a huge part of my life, but that didn’t come until much later. It also comes as a surprise that I was terrified of speaking without a memorized script. I’m kind of proud of how far that timid little girl has come since then.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Not to be overly dramatic, but my short answer would be “pain.” Initially, I tried to escape it — that’s the natural and normal instinct, right? But our unaddressed emotions don’t dissolve from lack of focus; instead, they swirl in the background as an ever-growing, darkening cloud. Unless we pause to face the feelings, separating them to identify both origin and impact, we remain trapped beneath them. In my case, physical and emotional abuse distorted my self-identity. It’s not uncommon for victims to blame themselves, and I was a veritable guilt sponge (which tends to diminish confidence and weigh down your forward momentum). EMPATHY QUICKLY TOOK OVER when I found relief (and joy) by finally facing the messy emotions. I hated to think of anyone lingering in the miserable space I’d known, and it seemed essential to share the exit path.

I’m a big hiker who fully appreciates the value of landmarks and well-marked trails. I often think of my books, videos, speaking, and workshops, the women’s group I founded…as trail markers that provide warnings on the dead-ends and risky side spurs and guidance towards connecting, solving, and building the better lives we all aspire to.

Facing an uncomfortable feeling is hard. They’re easy to avoid with all the distractions available to us today. But it’s your room, your elephant. How much space are you willing to concede? Squaring up to a difficult feeling is the first step to downsizing its impact and mining it for useful information. And living without the fear of what’s looming in our shadows is a big step towards living in Joy.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have a special bond with my aunt, Monda Sue Prior, first formed during a long walk through my parents’ neighborhood shortly after my mother died (my dad had died about four months earlier). She was steady support to me when I had no one else, and I’ve never forgotten that. As a therapist, she delves deeply into both the impact and treatment options for trauma and emotional pain. We’re both fascinated by human relationships and personal development, and I think we often share similar messages, she to her clients and me through my books, videos, and speaking. I value her wisdom, and her ongoing encouragement as I’ve developed content has been especially affirming and meaningful. She’s a dedicated learner, intuitive, artistically creative, and big on setting healthy boundaries. I’ve learned a lot from her. My dad was always my biggest encourager until his death in 2000. My aunt filled that supportive gap and has become a valued friend as well.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

How about humiliating me and funny for any witnesses (who shall forever remain silent, I hope)? One of my earliest interviews (in the days before YouTube, thankfully), I began answering an interviewer on live television in front of a huge crowd before completely formulating my thought. I had instinctively jumped in to fill the silence, but after about nine seconds, the precariousness of launching my writer’s brain stream of consciousness in verbal form — with no delete button — was terribly obvious. My interviewer kept smiling, but her eyes grew concerned and impatient as I struggled to balance my way to an ending. I remember silently imploring myself to stop talking, but sadly, didn’t stick a final punctuating period to that misfired monologue for another minute or two. My takeaway was that silence is not the worst thing and to pause as needed. I’ve also had a few years to practice gathering thoughts in real-time — with or without that handy delete button.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m excited to be finishing up a couple of workbooks/journals that take some of the big picture ideas of Date Like a Grownup and The Friendship Upgrade into more detail. For those wanting to dig even deeper, and many do, these workbooks layout the evaluations and transformative steps needed to take friendships and romantic relationships to the next level.

A couple of book projects are also progressing well. The first — quite appropriately! — delves into Happiness and Joy. Writing this during an ongoing pandemic is my testament to the effectiveness of the content: Happiness is a learned process, not a goal post. I’m also collaborating on a doctor/patient healthcare communication book to address significant message gaps in healthcare that impact outcomes. My goal is to lay these out and identify the key points and questions that will aid patients in self-advocacy and managing their own care.

The pandemic has made information on the causes and impacts of the loneliness epidemic and strategies for connection especially relevant for my live and virtual speaking events at conferences, universities, and professional organizations. We don’t like social restrictions, but the transition back into engagement can be equally challenging, and many want to help their isolated friends, family, and community members. Our increased digital reliance and remote and hybrid-office trends have also heightened interest in differentiating and then navigating the conflict and confusion that can impact professional communications; I partner with a colleague on some continuing education presentations where we address real-life situations supplied to us by the client. Participants have found these especially useful to their career and business relationships. The positive feedback on these presentations and my takeaway toolkits have been especially gratifying.

Living in this relationship zone, I have frequent opportunities to weigh in on everything from political polarization and domestic abuse to family dynamics and COVID dating for various media outlets. Most news stories have an interpersonal angle worth exploring. I enjoy being a regular guest on some stations — we have a lot of fun and address more serious cultural trends and news stories as they pertain to relationships.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

This could be a very long list, but top three? Empathy is at the top, because we all long to be understood and are drawn to those who see us — with the hopes, fears, and battle scars unique to each. That ability to come alongside another human, appreciate their perspective and feelings without judgment, and integrate them into larger ideas and group goals is both affirmation and inclusion. Healthy leadership communicates both of these values to its invested parties.

Strong sense of a bigger purpose. Leadership is hard. Adherence to meaningful, well-communicated goals that are larger than the individual provides measurable accountability, helps filter out the side issues that create the drag, and encourages humility which is essential.

Curiosity. An open-minded, “what else can we learn/know/do” approach encourages novel thinking and the feeling that everyone can be a contributor and difference-maker. This facilitates personal development amongst group members and expands the base of opportunities available. It’s essential that this curiosity have a focus, but better to have too much information than a closed mind.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

Because I had to learn it in times and places where joy appeared scarce or non-existent, none of this is theoretical for me; it’s hard-earned and fully embraced. There were many valid reasons for me to feel miserable — but tapping into more helpful perspectives brought joy into that time and place. Then, that discovered joy was hugely motivating in ultimately transforming my circumstances. The joy came first, and then, change followed.

By living with an eye to preventing our own version of “the worst,” we can inadvertently block better opportunities. Learning that you can handle “the worst” removes a lot of the very human fears tied to ambiguity and change, and when you BYOJ (Bring Your Own Joy), it’s far easier to venture towards new ideas. You’re free to create, explore, and innovate. The world needs more Joy, but it also needs all the possibilities that come with it.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, about finding joy. Before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

Our privileges and opportunities are accompanied by some weighty responsibilities and unwieldy expectations, all measured against the exaggerated scales found on social media. Comparisons follow us everywhere, making it increasingly difficult to appreciate what is truly good in our lives. Our eyes are drawn to what’s missing rather than what we’re privileged to enjoy.

Secondly, our time-savers (smartphones, internet…) are also, paradoxically, our biggest time-guzzlers. Time saved is overrun by opportunities to spend greater amounts of it diving down the internet rabbit holes of our choosing! I personally love tech and all that it provides, but our digital reliance has diluted basic conversation and created separations. People are less likely to connect in real life. Meaningful dialogue comes less frequently, yet face-to-face interaction and feeling of being understood are core needs we all share. To live without feels unsafe, but once feelings of loneliness take root, it becomes harder to engage in ways that might solve the problem. It’s a spiraling dilemma we’re all a part of. Unfortunately, by diluting conversation and valuing it less, we’ve also neglected teaching it in a real way to our youngest generations.

Add to this the habits born of an isolating pandemic and the divisive and disturbing social and political polarization we’ve experienced, and we’re truly at a crossroads.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

One significant one is classifying Joy as a goal rather than a lifestyle. Yes, it’s a noun, but we’re more likely to find it if we approach it as an action, a verb. When joy is viewed as an alignment of perfect conditions and events (as a goal), we set up multiple distracting tasks on which to fixate. Joy then becomes this big pie, filled with slices for love and family, career, finances, health, recreation, friendships, success… and if any pieces are missing or deemed too small a sliver, happiness eludes us.

When we view Joy this way, it becomes a continuously morphing mark. I’m reminded of an early swimming lesson where the instructor coaxed a fellow beginner further into deep water by gliding backward and away from her — As with that long-ago classmate, seeking joy can become a desperate chase after something just beyond our grasp because we’ve identified it by conditions and parameters rather than as a process within us.

I’ve found joy to be more a matter of perspective and focus. When I hike through a park, I can look for the seasonal changes in trees and other foliage, or I can scan for carelessly tossed debris. I will find whatever I search for. One path offers the choice of two completely different experiences. I also think of a fan experience at a championship game. The diehards brave freezing temperatures and physical discomfort, but in the moment their team wins, the world is a wonderful place, right? They’ve chosen to focus on the good thing in front of them and ignore the need for food, warmth, and restroom facilities.

We can feel joy amid chaos and imperfection, and I think those chaotic moments often prove to be our highlights. Some of my own happiest memories include extreme exertion and challenging conditions as my kids, and I problem-solved our way down a remote hiking trail. Happiness was, and is, found in meaning, presence, and our own engagement.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

Happiness seekers who make a change in conditions the priority over simple changes to their perspectives are doomed to disappointment. Even if they manage to make all the magic alignments, happiness remains a moving target because we live in a changeable world. We can’t freeze-frame conditions when the mark is hit; tomorrow will bring new challenges and opportunities that require us to adapt, adopt, and adjust our thinking. The couple who sacrifices to achieve a lifestyle at the expense of their relationship will sadly find no joy in their dream home or travel adventures. The couples who live with less but appreciate more will always live happier lives.

“Someday living” is another unfortunate mistake. This is when we wait for an alignment of conditions to indulge in our fondest hopes, such as the single adult who decides to wait on travel until they find a partner or the couple who marks retirement as the point from which Life will truly begin. We have an odd habit of dangling many of our biggest rewards out in front of us like the proverbial carrot on a stick… and never bend our elbows! “Someday” never comes — it’s been blocked off by arbitrary parameters.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

Flexibility. Original plans are limited by our imaginations. When we lock on a Plan A, we’re more easily capsized by shifts in the environment and will miss out on unanticipated opportunities. When planning a hiking trip, I like to pick base towns with multiple trail options, gathering general ideas and a few chosen priorities. Daily itineraries can then develop and adapt to weather conditions, local surprises (such as festivals and races), and any additional ideas gained from helpful locals. This approach leads to low-pressure, optimized vacation time.

My happiest, most fulfilling speaking experiences grow out of that same flexible mindset and being willing to shift towards the specific needs of a group. One size never fits all. When we adapt to changing conditions, the heightened awareness and deeper connection that results stokes joy to a higher level as well. Happiness truly is something we carry with us, like a turtle with its shell.

Curiosity. Wondering what you might learn or discover is a great motivator for jumping out of bed in the morning! It’s less about any specific expectation and more about knowing you will be surprised that hope to learn, do, or explore something new within the world and relationships you already have or beyond them. With a focus on discovering what is good (slipping in a bonus word here: Gratitude), your happiness will be affirmed again and again. In my darkest times, curiosity kept me in the game — wondering what tomorrow might bring if I continued to lift a foot and lean forward.

Perspective. Happiness is not a straight roller coaster ride to the top. It lies, instead, within the understanding that Life will go up and down like the Dow Jones. Cherish your mountaintop successes, but know that they are fleeting moments; the ride will inevitably slide downward again at some point, but any setbacks that come will also be temporary. Rest in the knowledge that, for most of the time, bobbing around the middle is a pretty great place to be. One of the biggest challenges with isolation, pandemic or otherwise, is how it squeezes down your world to what’s immediately around you or in your head. A bad moment can feel like a whole lifetime. Happiness lies in the awareness that Life is bigger than the moment you’re in, broader than your own personal experiences, with yet-to-be-discovered opportunities worth actively seeking.

Purpose. Awareness of your chosen purpose is both a shock absorber for those discouraging but unavoidable bumps that might rattle the heart and fuel for those long stretches between milestone moments. The larger focus helps us shake off the superfluous negatives that are part of every journey. Purpose pulls our eyes from the splattered bugs on a windshield to the breathtaking landscape just beyond.

Connection. Connection is the heartbeat of a happy life. If Flexibility, Curiosity (plus Gratitude), Perspective, and Purpose were the colorful threads of a tapestry, a connection would be the framework on which it is constructed. Human beings have an innate need to feel connected. It’s subjective and at varied levels but inherent to all. We need to connect to our own selves –to know our thoughts and feelings (rather than avoid them with the many distractions at our fingertips). We need to connect with others: our neighbors, co-workers, families, and friends; so much of our identity is tied to these interactions, and without them, we flounder. And we need our loneliness blockers, our confidantes. These are the ones who see us and with whom we can share our deepest thoughts. They love us for who we are and as we are, flaws and all. Many also find joy in connecting with a higher power that ties into the purpose that fuels their lives.

Connection is an essential buffer against turbulence. And as we eventually emerge from the worst of this pandemic, it will be essential to help others rebuild lost connections and grow a solid foundation to ensure productive and happy futures.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

Ask questions and listen. The pain of loneliness stems from not feeling understood, connected, and seen. So, give them space to share their heart and demonstrate interest by asking questions. Remember what has been shared and follow up with additional questions or comments in a future conversation to further build that sense of connection.

Be consistent. Consistency says, “I care,” as opposed to “Checked that box!” If appropriate, set regular times to check in with one another. If time is an issue, establish times you can be available and when you will be occupied. Remember that a few days in the Life of a depressed individual will feel much longer than the same amount of time in your own.

Face-to-face. If practical, have at least some of these conversations in person. Eye contact, physical touch, and the back and forth that goes with same room interactions deepen connection, and face-to-face interaction is an opportunity to practice rusty social skills. Once isolated, it can be difficult to ramp up to regular engagement again; small conversations can help grow confidence and comfort.

Outside. Help them grow their world. When we’re down or depressed, Life gets smaller. Eventually, it can be hard to remember the possibilities available beyond the present space. So, get them outside for a walk or a museum visit. Help them explore a group that meets regularly and appeals to the individual’s specific interests. And, if they seem to be truly stuck in their unhappiness, help them get connected to a licensed therapist who can help them learn coping tools and possibly prescribe medication to help them self-stabilize.

Remind. Help them find happy memories and look for ways to bring elements of those previous times into present Life. Have they abandoned a previously loved activity? Did they have success and joy in a volunteering position? Remind them of who they are and who they can be. When we’re depressed, we forget our magical moments and relegate input to the negative comments of the heckler in our own head.

Temporary and common. When depressed, it’s as if we regress to toddler time. Everything is forever and far away, and the moment of misery extends horizon to horizon. These mental exaggerations squash hope, making it difficult to take even the first steps. And stuck in a lonely cocoon, it’s easy to blame a personal defect when, in fact, loneliness and isolation are more widespread than ever due to the pandemic, our digital reliance, loosened social structures, and a number of other long-standing factors. Understanding that it’s often an unfortunate but temporary set of conditions that can be addressed and changed can help generate motivation towards re-engagement.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My message is consistent. Communities, organizations, and motivated individuals must create more accessible opportunities for people to gather and connect.

Many of our relationships begin with simple proximity. Our paths cross, and we discover a common interest or that “click” of compatibility. Over the past thirty years or so, though, we’ve been less available to these serendipitous connections as we’re texting, checking a news feed, and multi-tasking our way through Life. Digital distractions, busier lifestyles, and less-connected communities are factors, but we also experience a narrowing of opportunity as we settle into adulthood. For many, the pandemic simply spotlighted an existing social gap they hadn’t the time or energy to notice previously.

As we emerge from COVID, many will be reluctant or immobile due to the long-term consequences of disconnection. People will also struggle against the habits built with pandemic life, still averting their eyes, avoiding social contact, and opting for digital connections or Netflix over real-life opportunities. Our social skills have weakened. It will be important to create easy connection opportunities and maybe even incentivize community gatherings in some cases. Communities and businesses in work from home mode need to recognize our inherent need for connection and give people excuses to gather and rediscover what it even feels like.

More open dialogue on this issue would also help a lot. Educating people on why disconnection happens (that it isn’t a personal failing) and how widespread the problem is (more than half of us lack meaningful conversations) removes the stigma. Communities and companies need to reassure residents and employees with this kind of information. People don’t typically raise their hand and say, “Hey, I’m lonely. I don’t feel understood or connected to the people around me.” It feels shameful. They hide the hurt, but it reemerges in increasingly negative ways. When given the opportunity, people are so relieved to talk about this, to know they aren’t the only ones experiencing these feelings! Group discussion can be powerful because once the issue is out in the open, we can take first steps toward reconnecting or begin identifying the people in our lives who might need a helping hand.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊

I have to put in another vote for our 19th and 21st US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy! His focus on healthy lifestyles and creating a culture of prevention has been forward-thinking and impactful. His work to diminish the stigmas tied to addiction, encourage more walkable communities, foster better medical/healthcare collaboration, and advance health education are legacies in the making. And he was the first American that I’m aware of to address the loneliness epidemic publicly and tie it to the larger social issues it feeds. I remember reading his words and thinking, “Yes!” His empathy shines through, and I’d love a conversation with him. Although, if he prefers a long healthy walk over breakfast or lunch, I’d be up for that, too!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m easy to find! My website,, has links to books, videos, articles, and information on how to book me for presentations and workshops. And please! Look for me on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram. I would love to connect with your readers.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

Original article in Authority Magazine

Testimonials & Reviews

Went to one of Heather's presentations recently and enjoyed it immensely. While she speaks from the perspective of a woman, she talks to the entire audience, male and female. Her talks will encourage dialogue in your organization.

Paula Miller; Chief Administration Officer; Fullen Financial Group, Inc.

I appreciate Heather's ability to address (as an author and speaker) the basic but oh so complicated issues we are all dealing with in our own individual relationships during this time of pandemic and social change. Heather did a well-received and inspiring presentation. I recommend her to any group for an engaging presentation!

Joseph M. Patchen; Carlile, Patchen & Murphy LLP Law Firm

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