What does it mean to be happy? Is it A feeling or a state-of-mind? We talked to women in different stages of life who are discovering a major pillar to happiness is the self-determination of choice.
Written by Sarah Kinbar | Photographed by Kylene White | Illustrations by Branden Barker
When it comes to happiness, context is key. Much of our world is decided for us before birth — our location, community, family, and DNA define our earliest years and then shape our journey. The choices we make along the way influence our self-satisfaction and how much psychological, intellectual, emotional, and physical pleasure we experience day-to-day.
But perpetual happiness is not guaranteed. If we look at patterns across the world, there’s evidence that people start out happy in life and conclude their lives with satisfaction. It’s the middle part that’s often troublesome. A 2020 study published by David G. Blanchflower, a Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, found that no matter the culture or geography, around midlife (circa 50 years of age), people are least satisfied with their lives, in what he calls the U-shape of happiness.
No one wants to be locked into a pre-charted course that promises dissatisfaction at midlife. Is there anything we can do to usher in happiness sooner?
We spoke to four women, ages 21 to 51, about the relationship between their choices and their happiness and found that in some cases, they unlocked the secrets to happiness at midlife and well before. Here’s how they did it.
Latasha Brown, Entrepreneur
An x-ray technician by trade, Latasha Brown participated in an entrepreneurial bootcamp in 2017. She was 34 and had felt somewhat tortured for years “because I didn’t know what my purpose was,” she says.
She relocated to Louisville from her home state of Tennessee for a healthcare job at the University of Louisville School of Dentistry four years prior and was getting the lay of the land in the city. Everyone knows Louisville for Derby and bourbon, but Latasha saw that there was more to be known.
“During the bootcamp, the idea for Global Lofts first came to me out of my own desire to travel the world. At the time, international travel wasn’t affordable for me, and I was thinking about ways to have international experiences without leaving home.” Latasha came up with the idea for Global Lofts, a hotel concept drawing from local international communities to help bring out “the cultural beauty found in the city,” she says.
“I was terrified at the thought of leading something like that. It really wasn’t until 2019, when I got my realtor’s license, that I accepted that this was going to be my journey. This was the thing I had been searching for,” she explains. “In this process, I’ve had so many moments of stepping outside of myself and stepping outside of my comfort zone.”
Latasha left her healthcare job to focus on real estate and Global Lofts. She’s getting ready to do a feasibility study to learn if her project can take root in West Louisville, where she wants to build. At the turn of the new year, she’ll launch a crowd-funding campaign.
“I have a sense of purpose when it comes to creating this brand and this hotel. Even though my desire to travel the world sparked the project, it’s not just about myself. I see the bigger picture and how this can affect the community, how I can bring joy and change to other people’s lives,” she says. “The fact that I know people are watching me — Black women and girls — I’m thinking of them. They want to have these experiences of being exposed to and celebrating cultures through local experiences,” Latasha says.
“My early thirties were probably my most unhappy moments. I was lost for such a long time. Now I have something that I can move forward with. It’s not easy. There’s a lot to figure out. But digging into that complexity is satisfying and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.”
Abigail Fierce, singer/songwriter & actor
Some parents understand their children’s gifts and make it a point to support them. Abigail Fierce’s mother, Krista, is one of them. At an early age Abigail knew that making music was what she was born to do. In acknowledgment of her daughter’s music gifts, Krista started taking Abigail to Los Angeles regularly when she was 13, to help her pursue her music interests. Eventually, the mom-daughter duo left Louisville permanently and made L.A. their home.
An indie-pop artist, Abigail’s 2020 song Girl in the Mirror has over 900,000 streams on Spotify. Another song, Scream it to the Whole World, came out in 2021 and has close to 600,000 streams. Those are good numbers for an independent artist. Her steady release of singles like I Miss You (which landed on five Spotify editorial playlists) and Shallow Love, has helped her build a following and has earned her over 100,000 monthly Spotify listeners.
“Girl in the Mirror and Scream it to the Whole World are the most personal to me lyrically,” Abigail says. “I would say songwriting is probably my biggest passion. I guess I’ve always been a little bit of a dreamer. I always loved to write as a little kid.”
As she got older and started writing more songs, Abigail envisioned a songwriting career. Someone had to sing the song, “and that someone became me,” she says. “I try to write every night. I play guitar and see what comes out. They can be stories from my life, [but] I also love to people watch, so sometimes they’re stories about other people just from what I witnessed or maybe if I sit on a bench in the park and try to put moments from someone else’s life into words.”
At 21 years old. Abigail’s life in L.A. has expanded to include acting. She was recently cast as a tough tomboy in the Kelly Rowland film, Fantasy Football that started streaming on the Paramount Plus network on November 25th. What she really wants is the music life – touring, hours spent in the studio, continuing her daily song writing ritual…Every day she is making choices to live the life she wants.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in entertainment,” she says “[Me and my mom] go through everything together. I cry on the floor sometimes, so it’s great to have a logically-minded person on this journey.”
Emily Ho, Influencer
After studying advertising and public relations at the University of Kentucky for undergrad, and later going on the earn her MBA, Emily Ho worked as a brand and product manager in the corporate world. A Lexington native, she’s been living on Louisville’s east side for five years.
“I was doing traditional brand marketing work for about nine years. In the middle of that, I started a blog as a personal outlet. I like to write. I like to express myself. I thought it might be a cool way to build connection among people I might not normally interact with, and it grew so much that companies started to approach me to work with them. This was 13 years ago, and I was getting brand deals before influencer marketing really even existed,” she says.
“A lot of the marketing I was doing for corporate was print collateral, pricing and positioning. I really like the online aspect of marketing, so I started consulting on nights and weekends. I had a side hustle going with the companies that partnered with me on the blog. I burned the midnight oil for probably a year,” Emily remembers.
The reality of the glass ceiling for women in the workplace was the push she needed to chart her own course. “We were going through annual evaluations and promotions. All of the men who were at my level got a title promotion, but not me. I didn’t know if that was because I was a woman. I didn’t know if it was because maybe I wasn’t doing a good job, but I was like, I know I do a good job in this other work that I do, so I’m gonna jump.”
“‘You have to get straight A’s, play all the instruments, win all the things, be skinny, be attractive, be a doctor.’ Achieving those things wasn’t giving me the dopamine hit anymore. That dopamine hit is temporary. It’s not a way to sustain a happy life.” — Emily Ho, Influencer
Although she didn’t have a safety net for security, Emily was able to navigate her next steps without being petrified of a fallout.
Her blog, Authentically Emmie, is now her primary channel, the core of her brand. Her content covers size-inclusive style, and her audience loves her. She’s an ambassador for eNell, the company behind Oprah and Ashley Graham’s favorite sports bra. She also had a long collaboration with Gwynnie Bee, the clothing rental subscription site that covers sizes 0 to 32.
Because it would be inauthentic to market, consult for or do community management for brands that wouldn’t serve her or the people that she knows as customers, Emily says she looks to work with brands that align directly with who she is. “I look for brands that share my personal passions of size, inclusivity, body positivity, plus size fashion, and embracing yourself. Inclusion in general is something that’s been really ignored across most industries and in most marketing across all facets — race, gender, sexuality, size. Marketers are needing to do a better job to more closely represent the population and the customers that they want to get. Especially now as we’re entering kind of a tough economic time, you have to try to figure out how to reach these people that you may not have tried to reach out to before.”
At 41, Emily says that her happiness is found in the steady expression of her authentic self.
“I grew up with an Asian tiger dad where it was, ‘You have to get straight A’s, play all the instruments, win all the things, be skinny, be attractive, be a doctor.’ Achieving those things wasn’t giving me the dopamine hit anymore. That dopamine hit is temporary. It’s not a way to sustain a happy life. The one-offs aren’t good enough to keep it going.”
Jada Lynn Dixon, Artist
“Being creative and making art has always been a part of me. I’m talking from the age of three and four years old. It’s never been a hobby, it’s just what I love. It’s ingrained from birth,” says Jada Lynn Dixon, a Louisville-based artist. “I would’ve loved to have gone to art school straight outta high school, but it just wasn’t necessarily nurtured in me, through nobody’s fault.”
Instead, Jada worked corporate jobs in healthcare and mental health. One night, after getting home from work, she settled in for the evening in front of the television. She grabbed her laptop and “noodled around, researching this and that,” and she happened upon the Kentucky College of Art and Design (KyCAD) website. She was 46 and on the cusp of a pivot that would take her where she was meant to go.
“Paying attention to KyCAD became a habit. I’d watch and see when they were having open houses, when they were doing portfolio reviews. I would look at their site and see what their students were doing. It became a love affair from afar,” she says.
Jada earned a KyCAD scholarship by pulling together a cohesive portfolio, a CV, and an artist’s statement.
“It’s just a beautiful thing, the way it happened. It could not have been more perfect,” she says, remembering the day everything changed. “I took my work in with me to present, and it happened. I was accepted.”
During her years of corporate work, Jada never abandoned art. “I had still been making art, exploring different mediums. I was doing popup art shows and showing my work in coffee shops. I went from illustrative work to painting and then to what my true love is, mixed media,” she says.
Now a KyCAD graduate, she is fully immersed in her calling.“In school, I learned everything I needed to learn to take my life and my art to the next step,” she says. “It taught me how to navigate that path. It taught me how to overcome obstacles. It taught me how to go forward and create the work that I want to create. How to research my work. How to write proposals for grants. How to identify markets for my work.”
The 51-year-old’s career as an artist is in full swing. She shares that a lot of times trauma and survival is the focus of her work and is a way that she is making peace with memories. “What I’m trying to explore is how to preserve good memories,” she says. “A lot of trauma survivors blank out. They push everything down. I can explore weaving and I can talk to trauma survivors in my part-time mental health job. That’s what’s informing my work.”