You can’t be successful without being happy. That is how Penny Locaso defines success. It is for this reason that after 16 years working for a global giant, at the top of her game, she left everything to focus on hacking happiness. In this conversation with Dr. Santor Nishizaki, Penny tells us about her pivotal move from Perth to Melbourne – an end-to-end journey that perfectly illustrates her shift from employee to entrepreneur. That was eight years ago, and to this day, Penny still enjoys her life as an entrepreneur whose sole intent is to help others define happiness on their own terms. Penny is well-known in business and leadership circles for creating the Intentional Adaptability Quotient, the world’s first psychometric tool that decodes the skills required to flourish in complex and uncertain change. She is also an international speaker, author, and podcast host. Tune in and learn how Penny created Hacking Happy, what happiness truly means, and how you, an emerging leader, can hack happiness for yourself.
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Personal Leadership: Hacking Happiness With Penny Locaso
Penny Locaso is the world’s first happiness hacker on a quest to teach 10 million humans by 2025 on how to flourish in life. Voted one of the most influential female entrepreneurs in Australia, Penny is her own ongoing experiment. A little while back, she turned her life upside down in pursuit of happiness. She left a sixteen-year career as an executive, relocated her family from Perth back to Melbourne, left an eighteen-year relationship, and started her own purpose-driven company HackingHappy.co.
With many years if experience in enabling adaptability, Penny’s calling is to empower people to release their fear of uncertainty, find their flow, and flourish. Penny works with governments, corporations, and educators to build a more intentionally adaptable society. She has partnered with the likes of Google, Microsoft, Booking.com, Salesforce, and Deloitte, to name a few. Penny created the Intentional Adaptability Quotient, a world-first psychometric tool and education program that decodes the skills required to not only navigate but flourish in complex and uncertain change. Let’s hear what Penny has to say about hacking happiness.
Penny, welcome to the show. I’m so happy to have you here. I appreciate you coming to the show. I would love to hear more about your story. You are a happiness expert and have studied this. Tell us a little bit about your story. I love to hear it.
I’ll give you the condensed version. I was 39 years old, which was where this journey into happiness began. I found myself in a situation that was very fortuitous where I had ticked every box that I was told would make me happy and successful. I was sitting there with the beautiful home and the white picket fence, and the executive career. I was like, “Why do I feel so unfulfilled?” I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t anxious. I know a lot of people suffer from those things, so I don’t want to take away from that. I was unfulfilled.
I was like, “There’s a complete disconnect here. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point. I thought when I arrived here that I’d be at the pinnacle of happiness.” I realized that when I stepped back and asked myself what makes me happy, I realized I created a whole life on someone else’s definition of success/happiness. I put those two words in the same sentence because I don’t believe you can be successful without being happy. I asked myself, “What does happiness look like on my terms?” and there were a couple of things that came up. It was being humanly connected, positively impacting the lives of others, being present in the moment, and sharing experiences.
Sadly, they were all the things I kept sidelining in my pursuit of success because I was so busy trying to be successful. Within a seven-month period, I turned my whole life upside down in pursuit of happiness. I left the sixteen-year career in a global giant at the top of my game, relocated my family from Perth back to Melbourne, which is like moving from LA to New York, left an eighteen-year relationship, and started HackingHappy.co. I became an entrepreneur for the first time with the sole intent of helping others define happiness on their terms. That was the beginning. That’s the start of the story. That was a few years ago.
It’s fascinating. As we were talking a little bit before, I ended up quitting the corporate world as well. I’m also a professor, so that’s one of the ways I find happiness, which is giving the skills to my students that I never learned in college. They should have a happiness class. It’s one of the first things you should take.
There’s a whole course now. It’s at Oxford.
I saw that. It should be at every school.
It should be in primary school. You call it elementary. We should be teaching it to children in the early stages of school because these are skills that are so critical.
I love that. I know this is a very broad question. How can one hack happiness? This show is for the first time emerging leaders. You’ve been in an executive role. I have too. We see it. We continue to climb the corporate ladder, but how can we hack happiness on a day-to-day level for a first-time leader? What’s something you wish you had heard when you first got promoted from a happiness perspective?
Here’s the first place to start with any of this stuff. I don’t think we realize the power of words. We take words for granted. I’m a big fan of the first place to start with change is by getting clear on a definition. The first thing I would challenge your readers to do is to define happiness on their terms. What we are sold is we are led to believe that happiness is the goal. It’s an end state. The reality is it’s not. It’s a way of being.We are led to believe that happiness is the goal, that it's an end state. And the reality is it's not. It's actually a way of being. It's a way of showing up. Click To Tweet
It’s a way of showing up every day. When we define it as that, it means that it gives us back the power to say, “What are the things that make me feel good? What are the things that give me energy? What are the things that fulfill me, the small things I can actively inject into each day?” That was perhaps where I started. I was like, “How do I define happiness?” I was like, “Happiness is not an end goal. It is a way of being.”
It’s not skipping down the street and painting rainbows every day. That’s not possible, nor is it healthy. It’s being able to ride the wave of every emotion that life throws at you, knowing you can come out the other side a little better than what you were before. As we know, off the back of a pandemic, crap’s going to happen. It’s the reality of life. Uncertainty is pervasive. What is most important is the people who are happiest in life are the people who are emotionally diverse, the people who allow themselves to feel every emotion, both good and bad, but build the skills to be able to navigate those emotions in a way that’s constructive rather than destructive.
When you’re talking about the pandemic specifically, a lot of people were worried about what they couldn’t control. Are you saying to shift that more to what we can control?
Without a doubt. You were asking me how you can hack happiness. In all of my work, in terms of the research and the psychometrics I’ve created, I’m a big fan of building skills in what I term intentional adaptability. The more you can bring meaning and intention to the forefront of how you adapt and navigate uncertainty because it’s not going away, the more likely you are to lead a life that makes you feel happier more often and more fulfilled. It’s simple things where you can keep yourself in check around the language you use. Here’s one of the practices I give people. Everyone now off the back of the pandemic that I speak to in the professional world is suffering from burnout. It is so pervasive.
When you ask them how many times a day they use the word busy, more often than not, professionals use it between 3 and 5 times a day, sometimes a lot more. One of the littlest hacks I can give you to start to create some space in your mind and your day and some awareness around how you are operating and the impact it’s having on your happiness is to take on the Busy = BS Challenge. All I challenge people to do is stop using the word busy just for one week and see what happens. I started doing this a few years ago now. I don’t use the word busy unless I’m talking about it in a dialogue like this. It fundamentally shifted things for me.
It’s such a small hack, but small changes practiced over time have a significant impact. First of all, a busy mind will go to anxiety. It’s only a matter of time. Busy perpetuates busy. When you stop using the word, it stops that hamster wheel in your head. It shifts the conversations you have because when you start a conversation after someone asks you how you are with busy, it’s not a conversation opener. It’s a closer.
We know that human connection is one of the foundations of being happy and feeling fulfilled. It makes us healthier physically and happier when it’s practiced on a daily basis. That’s one of the little hacks I give people to start them off. This is a practice in intentional adaptability. It’s not about doing it and saying, “I don’t want to do it.” Be intentional. If you want to do it, do it. If you don’t, that’s fine too. All of the stuff I give is centered around experimentation.
I took your assessment on the website. The reason I liked it a lot is your psychometrics is research-based. Where should the readers go if they want to take your assessment?
That assessment was several years in the making with companies like Deloitte, Microsoft, KPMG, and major banks here in Australia. We even worked with a couple of grammar schools and teenage kids to work out what are the skills that make someone intentionally adaptable and enable you to start to hack happiness in a way that’s meaningful for you.
If people want to take that, it takes about fifteen minutes. It’s completely free. You can access it at HackingHappy.co. At the end of it, you get a simple report that tells you what your intentional adaptability score is and a couple of simple hacks, like the Busy = BS Challenge to help you start to become more intentionally adaptable in a way that’s meaningful for you.
As a dad, what age can I start having my kids take this?
The language of the assessment is targeted at adults. I have an adolescent old son. A lot of the stuff that I teach, I bring into our everyday. One of the simplest practices with children I love is something we do at the dinner table every night called Rose, Bud, Thorn. You only have to look to Martin Seligman’s work. We know that gratitude is one of the most powerful ways, when practiced every day, to be grateful for what you do have, not what you don’t, and make yourself happier. We take a different slant on it.
We do a little exercise called Rose, Bud, Thorn. A rose is something good that happened in your day. A bud is something you’re looking forward to. That brings in the element of hope and excitement. A thorn is something that didn’t go so great. Every day we share that because it’s about experiencing all feelings. It’s about connecting them to the fact that it’s okay to have good and bad things happen in the day and practice gratitude. That’s something that we play with. There are so many little things like that that you can bring into your day with your children to start to help them build these skills.
I love that. I will be using that with my child. I appreciate that hack. Let me ask you this. As far as generations go, have you seen happiness change based on generation, like looking at Gen Z? According to data, they are the most anxious and depressed generation based on everything that the generation has grown up with social media and other things like that. What have you seen from happiness from generation to generation, if any at all?
First of all, I’m studying Psychology at the moment. All of my work is grounded in positive psychology. I did things ask about what we’d say in Australia. I’ve created a psychometric where I’ve done all of this work in psychology, but now I’m going back and studying it. What the empirical research says is that historically, from a lifespan perspective, as we get older, we become more content in our lives. Ideally, the happiest people of those that are over 60 because they get to that stage of acceptance and comfort with who they are. That’s not very helpful for your younger audience. That’s what the research tells us.
Off the back of living in Melbourne for the last few years, which I don’t know whether you know, this has been the most locked-down city in the world with the harshest lockdown restrictions to the point that we were locked down as a total of a whole year. Kids didn’t go to school for a whole year. We had curfews from 9:00 PM until 5:00 AM. We were only allowed out of our homes for an hour a day. I want to give context because lockdown means different things in different places. I get goosebumps when I talk about it because, having been an Australian my whole life, I never anticipated, as a country of freedom, that we would be in a situation where we would have restrictions like that.
I have watched what it’s done to my son’s generation. We are talking about kids in elementary school. I saw children put on 5 to 6 kilos that were 11 years old and not one multiple because they weren’t moving. Every parent that I speak to, pretty much, their child has some level of mental health issues. We had children who didn’t want to go back to school because they had such anxiety about being around a large group of people. I’m an extrovert. I feel uncomfortable about standing on a stage for the first time when I’m a speaker. I’ve spoken all around the world in front of 5,000 people at once. It’s interesting how that changes you.
The thing that’s perhaps most disturbing for me is the pervasiveness of mental health issues in the next generation. I’m talking about anyone below the age of 25. The incidence of mental health issues has more than doubled in that generation since the inception of COVID. I was speaking internationally before COVID about how pervasive mental health issues have become. My gut feeling from spending time with the next generation and listening to stories around this comes back to where we started this conversation.
We are not teaching the right things in school. We are not teaching children how to ask questions rather than answer them. We’re not teaching children how to navigate uncertainty. We’re not teaching children how to cultivate deep human connections that exist outside of technology. I’m not against technology. It’s extremely helpful when used in the right way, but there is a real issue. This is not new. The education system has to change. We have no resilience anymore.
The pandemic hasn’t made it better.
What’s sad is when I look at what it’s done here in Melbourne, we took kids out of school. We locked them in their houses for 23 hours a day. We did all of their schooling on devices. They weren’t allowed to socialize with their friends. Like I said, the kids here were locked down for a whole year. That was a whole year in total. It’s like locking up an animal that’s meant to be free. The long-term effects, there is a trauma associated with it, plus you’ve embedded behaviors where these kids are more addicted to their devices than they’ve ever been.
I’m in Los Angeles. We’ve been locked down, but nothing like that. We finally started to able to not have to wear masks inside. I remember the first time I spoke on the stage or did a workshop for a client. It was awkward. We now started to go back into classrooms for colleges for one of the schools I teach at. What advice would you give to help create more happiness and assimilate back into society?
The first thing to do is acknowledge that fear is an extremely natural emotion. We all experience it. The reality is, whether you know it or not, you are not alone because I guarantee you, whatever fear you are dealing with, the person you’re walking past in the street or sitting next to in a workshop has experienced or perhaps is experiencing that same fear more often than not. The first thing is to acknowledge the fear and say, “It’s okay. It’s natural. It’s what our body’s designed to do. It’s designed to protect us.” The second thing I would do is know that fear is not fact. The way your brain activates, whether the threat is real or perceived, your brain responds the same way. That’s why you can have a physical response, even though you’re afraid, but the likelihood of something happening is very low.
One of the ways that I have found extremely effective in the pandemic but equally before a brilliant practice in intentional adaptability to build your courage muscle, which is what we’re talking about, and builds that resilience that we’ve spoken about is what I call micro bravery. Micro bravery is doing small things every day that make you feel uncomfortable. They only have to be relative to you. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Put the blinkers on. Do one small thing every day that makes you feel uncomfortable. For example, for me, it was standing in front of an audience of 200 people. My level of discomfort is different because I’ve been practicing this for several years now.More often than not, what we're afraid of is nowhere near as bad as how we perceive it. Click To Tweet
For you, it might be as simple as reaching out to someone you’ve long admired and asking them for a coffee connect because you’d love to pick their brains. It could be signing up for a new hobby. You might have always wanted to paint, but you’ve been afraid because you think, “I’m not very good.” Do it. These are small acts of micro bravery. The more we practice them, the better we get at building the courage and confidence to step into bigger fears and change over time because we realize that what we’re afraid of is nowhere near as bad as how we perceive it more often than not.
I love that, Penny. That’s a great hack. It’s so true because it’s a chain reaction. I have two more questions for you. What’s the talk of the Great Resignation out in Australia? Is that a thing?
It is. I worked with some of the biggest companies in the world, and I have in the last several years, so you get a vibe for what’s going on. If I look at the big four in terms of consulting, what’s interesting to me is that at the start of the pandemic, some of them were asking their staff to take 20% pay cuts. What’s happened is in 2021, they’ve got the biggest bonuses they’ve ever had because the business has gone bonanzas because everyone’s looking for answers. What’s also interesting is in Australia, most of them have had a thousand seats vacant over the last few years. They cannot fill the jobs.
What they’re now doing is they’re worried because of what’s happened in America about this Great Resignation. I don’t know whether it exists on the same level. I do a lot of one-to-one coaching, and I meet with a lot of people who want to make transformational changes. I’ve never in my life seen so many people questioning off the back of the pandemic, “Is this what I really want to do? Do I want to continue to be a slave to the golden handcuffs?” We already saw it trending before the pandemic, but the pandemic created the space in a busy world where people got to step back and contemplate, “Is this worth it?” Money buys choice, and you need a certain amount to live a life.
I go back to Martin Seligman’s work. All of the empirical research shows that material items do not make us any happier. If we know that, what is the point of killing or working yourself towards a heart attack and cancer because you are so burnt out and chronically stressed? What is the point? The one thing I hear all the time, which blows me away, is people are like, “I’m going to work hard until I do this until I achieve this, and until this happens.” What you see is it happens, and they keep going for the next thing. That day never comes. If that day’s never coming for you and you keep jumping to the next thing, you need to ask yourself, “Is this what I want? At what cost?”
What advice would you give to employers on keeping them and creating that sense of purpose for these employees? It’s going to have to be a shift.
It’s interesting. It’s why I love studying Psychology. I wrote a psychology paper, which was a program on how we enable people working in corporations to flourish. I called it Flourish Forward. Ironically, the next day, one of the large consulting companies in the world ran me up and said, “We’ve got a burnt-out team. We want you to come and speak. We want you to teach people how to enjoy their work more.”The organizations that will lead in the future are the ones that invest in creating flourishing individuals, flourishing teams, and ultimately a flourishing organization. Click To Tweet
It’s the organizations that will differentiate themselves in the future and not the ones that are ticking the well-being box. That’s BS. We all know that throwing yoga on at lunchtime does not change things. If anything, it stresses people out and adds another thing to an already full to-do list. Companies that will differentiate themselves will be the ones that focus on enabling people and using the science that is out there enabling people to flourish. The organizations that will lead in the future are the ones that invest in creating flourishing individuals, flourishing teams, and a flourishing organization.
I’m talking about Martin Seligman’s definition of flourishing, which is, “Providing meaningful work, helping people create the space for meaningful and fulfilling connections, and leading a good life, not a burnt-out life.” That’s the space that I’ve been playing in. How do we cultivate flourishing teams and flourishing organizations? This focus on productivity has become a disease. All it is doing is fast-tracking individuals who are high performing to burnout, which means productivity has an inverse relationship with well-being in terms of the way that we are currently approaching it.
Here’s my last question for you, Penny. What is your thought on remote work, hybrid, or in-person? I’m sure you’re doing a lot of research around that as well on flourishing teams.
I’m going to start pre-pandemic. There was some brilliant research out of the US where this guy was the top expert on working remotely. They did a study in China on one of the biggest organizations they had, took 1,000 staff, and split them into two cohorts. 500 could go and work from home 5 days a week. The other 500 stayed in the office. After 6 months, the 500 that worked from home every day were desperate to come back into the office. On the whole, most of them wanted to come back into the office 3 to 4 days a week because they felt isolated and disconnected. This is what I found fascinating, not to mention that they found people who worked from home were less likely to get promoted because they weren’t as visible.
That was pre-COVID. After what I’ve observed during COVID, people love the flexibility. That has become acutely apparent. There are two things. People feel isolated, and that beautiful banter, which is where the magic used to happen in those random connections that happen in the office where you get up from your desk and walk to someone’s desk because you know you’ve sent them an email, but it’s probably at the bottom of 500, and you need an answer now. Those magical moments don’t happen on Zoom because everyone wants to get off as quickly as they can.
Most people probably want to go into the office three days a week or a couple of days a week. They want that connection. They want those brainstorming, those beautiful strategy sessions, those working sessions we so often miss, and those random human connections. They also want an element of flexibility to go with it to limit commutes and things like that or have the joy of taking kids to school and dropping them off or taking them to the sport. It’s healthier for people to be in offices because one thing I have observed is the level of burnout has gone through the roof because there’s no delineation anymore between home and work.
What I have observed with my coaching clients and equally with my corporate clients is that people weren’t switching off before. What’s happening is they are working more than they have ever worked. There was a study out of Deloitte during COVID that said 26% of professional women globally, especially in lockdowns, are considering opting out of the workforce because, not only in terms of what was happening at home with kids and not having any support services, but in parallel, their professional workload had significantly increased in the pandemic.
I remember seeing that study. It’s interesting. If you look back to Millennials, when they entered the workplace, they were concerned about having an open office space. Corporations did that and said, “Here you go.” They then said, “I can’t get any work done.” We need these quiet spaces. Do you think that giving employees a choice might be a better option, even though most likely they’re going to probably lean towards more in-person interaction?
I don’t think you can give everyone a choice because I don’t think it works. This is just my perspective. If you want teams to work effectively, you want those teams in the office on the same day. There’s an element of give and take here. You want flexibility, but everything comes at a cost. It’s this trade-off. You can offer flexibility, but there are certain days that you need to be in the office because that’s how we connect. That’s the stuff that we do as a team together. That’s my thinking around it. Also, you can’t cultivate that randomness on Zoom because no one wants to be on it longer than they have to.
Sometimes they don’t even show their face.
The other thing is there’s research where I did a whole podcast on this on my podcast series called Zoomed Out. There is research about how unhealthy it is. I speak to people on Zoom for twelve hours a day and children on back-to-back Zooms in homeschooling for seven hours a day. It is not good for your brain. It is not healthy. It’s great that we’ve had the technology, but the long-term use of Zoom is unhealthy. Everything should be in moderation. It’s not good for you.
Thank you so much, Penny. I appreciate your advice. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’re going to be doing next. It seems like you’ve been able to extrapolate a lot of useful information during the pandemic to help us get prepared when we exit, whenever that may be.
Hopefully, we’ll make it back to one of my favorite places being the States. In the near future, it will be wonderful to jump on a plane internationally and speak to American audiences. It’s been a little while.
I’m looking forward to it. Thank you, Penny.
Thanks for making the time for me.
I appreciate it. Have a great rest of your day.
- Intentional Adaptability Quotient
- Busy = BS Challenge
About Penny Locaso
Hi, I’m Penny.
A coach, keynote speaker, yogi, author and imperfect experimenter, on a mission to teach 10 million humans, just like you, to flourish by 2025.
After 20 years in corporate change management, I knew the life I was living was not in alignment with the things that truly mattered to me. My happiness had been side-lined by my busyness.
Yet change felt huge and overwhelming, so I made excuses to stay in the safety of the familiar.
Until one day I realised that by ignoring my unhappiness, I didn’t like who I’d become. So, I leaned into my fear of uncertainty and turned my whole life upside down in pursuit of happiness.
Within a seven-month period, I left a 16-year career as an executive, relocated my family from Perth back to Melbourne, left an 18-year relationship and started my own purpose-driven company.
Now I’m a published author of the book ‘Hacking Happiness’, TEDX speaker, passionate yoga teacher, faculty member at Singularity University and Psychology student.
I spend my days challenging busy professionals to look at the world through a different lens, helping them live in the present and flourish on their terms.