23 Transcript: Reimagining Life After 40 (with Barbara Bradley Hagerty)
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J: You are listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, episode number 23.
B: There is no such thing as an inevitable midlife crisis. You know, like midlife is a peak time for your brain, it's a peak time for your marriage if you're married, it's a great time for your career if you are intentional about those things.
Intro: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, stories of vibrant women living happy lives. And now, your host, Jen Riday.
J: Welcome to today's episode of Vibrant Happy Women. On our last episode, I had the privilege of interviewing Stacey Myers from Humorous Homemaking. We talked about choosing joy and finding more happiness at home as we get more organized. In today's episode, I'll be talking with Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a New York Times bestselling author, all about the opportunities we have at midlife to completely change our lives. So without further ado, we'll go ahead and get started.
B:elcome to today's episode of Vibrant Happy Women, I'm Jen Riday, and today, I have the pleasure to interview Barbara Bradley Hagerty and she's a New York Times bestselling author of ‘Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife’ and also the book ‘Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality’. Her 6-part series on how to thrive at midlife aired on NPR in March of 2016. Barb worked for NPR for 19 years, covering law and religion. She's written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Vogue, and the Independent, and she has appeared on The Today Show and PBS programs Washington Week in Review and the news hour. Before NPR, Barb covered law and economics for the Christian Science Monitor. Barb lives in Washington DC with her husband, Devin, and their yellow lab, Sandra-Day. Welcome, Barb.
B: Thanks, Jen, it's great to be on.
J: So, Barb, I'm so glad you could be here and I'm excited to talk about your book in just a little bit, but before we go there, go ahead and tell us your favorite quote; we like to start off our show that way.
B: Okay. Well, I have a favorite motto and a favorite quote, is it okay to give you both?
J: Yes, please.
B: Okay, great. So my personal motto is, you know, something that I came up with and try to live by and… and that is, “Engage with verve because autopilot is death.” And what I mean by that is, you know, taking things for granted is like the fastest way to have the blues, to have a midlife crisis, that kind of thing. But if you kind of select the stuff that you really care about, you know, whether it's your family or your work or learning the flute or going cycling or your church or a political cause, anything like that, if you really throw yourself into those things that you care about, you're just going to kind of lose yourself and gain the world. So that's my personal motto and I try to live by it every day, but let me tell you my favorite quote. This was a quote that I had at the front of my first book, ‘Fingerprints of God’, which was about the science of spirituality and it's by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and it goes like this, “What if you slept and what if in your sleep you dreamed? And what if in your dream you went to heaven, unplucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand; ah, what then?” What I really loved about that quote, because I am a person who really cares about faith and spirituality, I love this kind of mystery about it, about, “Is this all there is? Is there more than this kind of material world that we engage in every day and, you know, is there any evidence of God or another non material dimension?” And, you know, there… you can't definitively say whether there is such a thing or not, but I love his mystery. I love the mystery associated with that quote, so that's like my favorite quote.
J: Hmm, I love that, and that kind of goes along with your book; mm, great. Well, we will go ahead and transition into your low point, and I don't know if you've ever had the opportunity to talk about a low point before on air or any of your articles.
J: But let's go ahead and go there. (Laughs)
B: Well, I've had a lot of low points, you know, here and there. But if you don't mind me telling you the most recent one, the one I kind of grappled with just a few years ago; and it was actually what launched me to do this most recent book, ‘Life Reimagined’. Basically, right before Memorial Day in 2011, my mom had a stroke and my mom was my best friend, is my best friend… was my best friend. And it was kind of devastating because we weren't sure whether she would ever regain consciousness; we weren't sure if she would ever speak again. And what was sad about that was that my mom's kind of singular gift was, I give her a dilemma and she was able to kind of walk me through what I needed to do, how I needed to think about it, and suddenly, I wasn't sure that she would ever be able to speak again. And so I remember coming home and after spending several days at the ICU and what was really strange about that moment was this… it was… there was a moment of recognition, I felt unbelievably kind of blah, I felt like, “Oh my gosh, is this as good as it gets right now? You know, I'm 51 years old, this is as good as it gets, it's all downhill from here?” You know, I kind of felt like, “Oh gosh, I'm stuck in my career,” you know, I've got arthritis in my right knee which kept me from running which was like my lifelong passion, you know, “Is this all there is?” And I remember thinking this as I was looking out the window on this beautiful day right before Memorial Day and turning to my husband and saying, “Devin, I think I'm having a midlife crisis,” and he turned to me and he put down the tomato and he turned to me and he said, “Don't do that.
B: “Don't have a midlife crisis, please!” And so… so that was kind of a really low point that's etched in my mind. I just really viscerally remember thinking, “I'm having a midlife crisis.”
J: Mm-hmm. So how did you get out of that low point?
B: Well, I did what a reporter does, right; what does a reporter do whenever, you know, faced with a question? I got on the Internet, I started reading about midlife crisis, you know, “Is there such a thing is a midlife crisis? How common is it? Is this what I'm having? How do I get out of it? How do I thrive at midlife?” And I began like doing research and I started calling people up and asking the experts, you know, “What is this thing called midlife and midlife crisis? I mean, like is it inevitable? Do I have to have one?” you know? And I didn't have a sporty car at that point that I was… I would have loved have used that as an excuse to get one. But, you know, what I found… this is so cool, Jen, what I found in doing that research was that there is no such thing as an inevitable midlife crisis. You know, like midlife is a peak time for your brain, it's a peak time for your marriage if you're married, it's a great time for your career, if you are intentional about those things, it's a really, really good time because you know yourself, you have a lot of biography, you know what you're good at, what you aren't good at, what you like and what you don't. And so what happened is I just decided the way I fix this is I… I wrote a book (Laughs); which seems kind of like an extreme measure, right; oh, you have a question and you write a book. But, you know, what happened as a result is, for one thing, you know, I allowed myself to become friends with a cancer survivor who cycled competitively and he persuaded me to start cycling, and last year, I competed in what's called the Senior Olympics. I went on an RV trip with my husband, just to kind of mix things up; my husband 2 friends and Sandra-Day, my dog (it sounds like a bad joke). I changed careers; I went from news to long-form writing. And so while some of the stuff is kind of terrifying, it's also incredibly exhilarating. And that is how I solved it; I took my own advice, I mixed things up.
J: Mm, that's great. And so, have you been able to talk with other women who have really benefited from reading your books and learning your ideas?
B: Oh gosh, you know, it is so gratifying. I probably get like… I get… still get about an email or 2 every day. And what's surprising, I mean, a lot of people… there are a lot of people who are this age, right? There are a lot of people between the ages of kind of 40 and 65, which is what research say it's midlife. And so there are a lot of people going through this existential… what they think is an existential crisis and they're so relieved to know, A, “I don't have to have an existential crisis,” and B, “There things that that I can do,” and C, “There are a lot of other people in this boat.” Because like I interviewed something like 400 people for this book… book and was in the email contact with about 700, and so I know; it was just like… it makes my head spin. But the point is that people really like to know that they're not alone in this journey. And one of the interesting things I've found actually with this book is, I thought it would be all only women who were interested in it, but I would say that at least half the people who write me are men; they go through it too. They probably take the jacket off the book when they're reading it because it's like bright yellow and it looks all feminine, but…
B: But they talk about it as well.
J: So have you heard some stories of people completely overhauling their lives because of your book?
B: Oh, because of my book, you know, no, I can't say that I've heard that. I've heard people who wanted to and they were thinking about it and my book was giving them courage to do it, but they hadn't… and I've asked all of those people, “Please, keep me in the loop; I'm keenly interested to know what you end up doing.” It's like they were at the edge of… edge of the high dive and they hadn't quite jumped yet and they're writing me to tell me that they're about to jump. But I also read… I also got a lot of emails, a lot of emails, from women who said they had make the… made these changes and that it was the best thing they ever did. And, I mean, I heard this over and over again, and let me tell you the kind of psychological change that people made, both men and women. People who transition successfully do 2 things, they make this kind of pivot; they make a psychological pivot. They go from really valuing things, accomplishments, you know, the resume, the large house or, you know, the cars or whatever it is, they go from valuing things and accumulating things to shifting to carrying about 2 things, and those 2 things are other people and causes that are important to them, activities that are important to them. And what's really cool about that, as I thought about this, I thought, “Why is that?” Because brain… brain science shows that that's what… and in Psychological science shows that that's what people do as well. And I think the reason people do this is because they can't really control… you know, you can't control if you become a CEO or if you win the Pulitzer Prize or if you make a million dollars, you can't control that stuff, but you can control the tenor of your relationships and the things and activities and causes that you invest in. And so you can act… you have that under your control, you can invest in those things. And the people who do that, who make that pivot, that shift, they're really happy.
J: Yeah, maybe it's because they just want to feel like they're making a difference with…
J: Yeah, yeah.
B: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that is one of the big keys is people go from accumulation… and we should be accumulating, you know, in your 20s and 30s, you're building up a family, a career, you need to get enough money to send your kids to college or pay for the mortgage or whatever, I mean, you should be accumulating. But at some point… Erik Erikson the great psychologist talks about this, at some point, you need to start shifting your focus from inward to outward, investing outward, either in the next generation or in causes that will outlive you, and it's called generativity. And we… that is the hallmark of a happy midlife. People, sometime in… in their 40s or early 50s, they begin to make that shift and it's a smart idea long-term because obviously, you know, when you're 70 you're not going to be out there pulling all-nighters for NPR. But… and so you can't really… you can't really go at your career as hard as you could when you're 30 or as hard as the 30-year olds are going to do it, but what you can do is see the return on the investment that you've made in others. You can counsel younger people, you can counsel your children or grandchildren, and those are the kinds of things that are satisfying and they outlive you.
J: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm; oh, I like that. So I'm 41 and I think a lot of women can resonate with my story, but several years ago, I started to feel like, “Hmm, what's next for me? I'm done with this child bearing phase,” and so I became a life coach and a podcaster. What advice would you give women or men to who might be listening who are struggling with that same feeling wondering, “What's next for me?”?
B: Yeah, you know, I did a lot… I did a chapter on career shifts and… but it could also apply to people who have been at home raising kids and just trying to think about the next stage. One of the most insightful people I talked to was a psychologist named Carlo Strenger who's in Israel, and he… he counsels a lot of people on mid-career shifts. What he said is that… that, at some point, you need to make a shift, either 1 of 2 things will happen. If you are in the wrong job or in the wrong situation, 1 of 2 things will happen to you; either you will leave your job or that situation you're in, or your body will force you to because of the stress or the disease. Actually, that's happened with… that's what happened with me and NPR; I got a partially paralyzed vocal cord and the chronic stress was so bad… the chronic pain was so bad when I was on deadline that I had to begin thinking about, “What do I do next? Because this isn't sustainable,” right? And so what Carlo Strenger said and other people… I mean, I talked to so many people about this, but the idea is, when you are in your 40s, you have enough kind of biography, enough years under your belt to know, you know, what you're good at and what you love doing and all of that. And what you should do is begin to kind of try to pivot and stress those things that you're really, really good at and try to minimize the stuff that you're not as good at or that you really dislike. So if… if I can use myself as an example, I love telling stories, I love journalism, I love writing. This wasn't… the all-nighters and the stress of NPR wasn't sustainable for me because of my paralyzed vocal cord, and so I said, “Okay, what am I good at? I love telling stories. Let's just pivot on that; let's keep doing the same thing except do it long-form without, you know, the daily deadlines. Do books, do magazine articles, do podcasts, you know, do that kind of thing.” And I think the people who do that… like, let me give you one other example, if I may. There was… Carlo Strenger had a client who was a banker and he really, really wanted to get into kind of this show business. Well, obviously, if you're… if you're 50 years holding you've been a banker all your life, you're not going to become a Hugh Grant, right? You're not going to… you’re not going to go to Hollywood and start your Hollywood career. But what he said is, “Okay, what do you really love about… about kind of show business?” and he said, “Well, what I love is the creativity. I want to be around creative people who are able to tell stories, you know, through movies and plays and things like that.” And so what this man ended up doing was joining a group of actors and producers that wanted to start their own company, but didn't know how to raise money and didn't know how to run it. And here's his guy who's a banker, who knew how to raise money, he knew how to run an a financial organization, and he became their guy who got their company up and going. So there he was, in show business doing what he should do.
J: Perfect, that's brilliant. Well, so, Barb, shifting a little, tell us what vibrant happy living looks like for you today now that you're a long form writer and doing the… the writing and the interviews.
B: Yeah, you know, it looks like a life that is slightly terrifying and really, really engaged. Okay, so let me kind of tell you what I'm excited about. Okay, I have 3 parts of my… 3 or 4 parts of my life that I really feel are important; my family, my hobby (which is cycling), friends are extremely important to me, and also this writing and storytelling, and then I have other things like I'm involved in my church and things like that. But today, let's just take today. Today, I went out and I… I cycled 30 miles at 6 a.m. with 2 dozen guys and my legs are still hurting me, right? But I've created a whole new group of friends because of cycling. So cycling is not only good for me as a hobby, it's good for me because it brings me in contact with new people and I have all these new friends, which is free good for your health and your memory. Okay, I'm working on a magazine piece about mid faith crisis which I took out of my book and so I'm doing it as a magazine piece, and I'm also working on a magazine piece on wrongful convictions; one that I'm investigating. I'm seeing my mother tonight and my brother tonight, we're… and then I'm having dinner with my husband and stepdaughter and her boyfriend. So it's a really balanced life. It's… it's family, it's hobbies, it's good work, and I am very, very, very lucky.
J: Hmm, you are; that sounds great. Well, so even though you've come so far and made these shifts in your life, what would you say would be a weakness or an issue you currently struggle with and what helps you to improve that?
B: Yeah, okay. Well, you know what? I am chronically (Laughs)… I am always anxious about the future. You know, I sound a happy-go-lucky, but, you know what? For all… I think maybe a lot of women that feel this way, you know, “Oh my goodness, am I going to… what's the future going to look like for my career or my kids or things like that?” You know, in the journalism world, you're only as good as your last story so it's a way to… you kind of develop this brain wiring that makes you a little bit anxious about the future. And, for me, you know, I've always been employed; I work for the Christian Science Monitor and NPR for my entire career. And now that I've taken this buyout, you know, I have this great freedom, but it's… it's pretty scary. So, you know, it's risky so I'm on the high dive. But the way I get through it is, I do a couple of things. One is, I just put one foot in front of the other, you know, I just… I get up, I do… I make phone calls, I do my… the reading I need to do, I just… I just do it bit by bit. You know, I do these small achievable goals, and that's how you write a book, that's how you write a magazine article. But the other thing I've had to do (and I'm still in the process of doing this) is I've kind of had to change my mental map. So, you know, a few years ago, I realized… when I was in my late 40s, I realized that like I was never going to be the writer that David Brooks is at the New York Times her Christopher Hitchens who has passed on now, but a wonderful writer. You know, that… that as hard as I worked, that wasn't going to happen, and so I should just say… not that you accept defeat, but you go, “Okay, if I'm not going to be a New York Times columnist, how am I going to rewrite the script so that I am doing something that I do really well, maybe better than anyone else?” right, “What am I going to do? You know, I am a unique person with unique interests and talents and all of that, how am I going to rewrite this script?” And so that is what I'm doing. I am… you know, I'm doing long-form but, you know, long-form with the content. I'm really passionate about injustice issues; my next book will probably be about those issues, right? So there is something… you know, I like long-form radio; I can do podcasts. So what I'm trying to do is rewrite my mental script and stop comparing myself with other people who are hugely successful and start saying, “What do I have to offer the world that no one else does?”
J: Right, right. I'm curious, having written ‘The Fingerprints of God’ book, is there a level of intuition or a spiritual kind of connection that helps you with this decision on how you're going to pivot in midlife?
B: Oh yeah. You know, it's interesting because my first book, ‘Fingerprints of God’, was about the science of spirituality. My second book really mentions… I mean, it mentions that, you know, I'm a Christian and I go to church, but that… that's all it mentions, right; it doesn't go into spirituality at all. It's been surprising to me that a number of people have asked me to kind of do a curriculum that's aimed at churches or synagogues because they find this to be a very spiritual book. So a lot of the things that we're talking about in this book are essentially kind of spiritual principles. So one of them that I find to be… this… science shows this, but I find it to be very resonant for me. One of the big takeaways I got from this book is that, you should choose meaning over short-term happiness because in the long term, it will bring you both. And so it's really important to invest in the right things; you know, invest in your kids, invest in your career if you love it, invest in the causes, whatever. But we should have kind of the long view of life because when you… it's like there's something called eudaimonia which is a concept that Aristotle really talked about a lot. And eudaimonia is this idea of long term, this… this long term meaning and happiness. So eudaimonia is the idea that, not that you go out and you have… you know, have drinks with friends and a good meal (that's hedonia; that's hedonism), but it's the idea that you raise good kids who invest in your… you maybe occasionally pull an all-nighter because you need to do it for your work or for your kids, you train for a marathon, you practice the flute. These kinds of things that are longer-term that don't bring instant gratification, these are the things that really bring joy in the long term. And that's kind of a spiritual concept in my mind. It's a less self-oriented concept in the sense of, you're not just trying to have a good time in the moment, you're investing in others and investing in things that are long-term and that are important causes and things like that. And I think that really is a kind of a spiritual concept.
J: Yeah, I like that. So shifting into our next topic, your favorite things.
J: So you mentioned… say that word again, eudonia?
B: Yes, eudaimonia.
J: Eudaimonia. Speaking of eudaimonia, what is a favorite…
J: … personal habit that contributes to your success or long-term happiness?
B: It sounds a little… I mean, I think the… the cycling kind of goes to this point. I'm a pretty disciplined and energetic person so that helps me a lot. I mean, a friend of mine used to say that metabolism is destiny.
B: You know, I kind of think there's some truth to that. But I think what really contributes to in my long-term successes or my… any modest success that I have is that I'm pretty disciplined, I just keep going, I don't give up, I just… I'm like a terrier with a slipper, you know, I just don't keep up. The other thing I think that's contributed to my success as a journalist is that I really, really like people and I like my sources and I will never sell a source that… you know, I will never sell out a source. I will never betray a source and… because I have a… I have a loyalty; you know, I like them and I have a loyalty to them. And that's actually… that ends up to be a really smart thing, I didn't think about it, but it means that your sources are very loyal to you as well. So I think, in journalism, that's been… that that kind of character issue has been very important to my success.
J: Hmm, that's great. Share a favorite easy meal that you like to eat regularly.
B: A banana yogurt smoothie. (Laughs)
J: Ooh. I can’t… I can’t tell you the number of guests you love smoothies; it must be the fuel of amazingness.
B: (Laughs). I also like salmon a lot. (Laughs)
J: Ooh, good for you, good for you. I'm going to put that down on the show, “Barb like smoothies and salmon,” you are amazing.
J: What's your current favorite kitchen gadget?
B: Oh, this one is so easy because I'm a really bad cook.
B: My electric teakettle. (Laughs)
J: Oh, well, there you go.
B: I make really good coffee and tea. (Laughs)
J: Foolproof, perfect.
B: That’s right.
J: What's a favorite book that you'd recommend to the Vibrant Happy Women community and why?
B: So there… I want to mention a fiction book and a nonfiction book. One of my favorite fiction books is called ‘The Wonder Worker’ and it's by a British author named Susan Howatch, h o w a t c h. And what I love about it is it's a mix of absolutely gorgeous writing, beautiful writing, and a very kind of spiritual psychological theme to it. So you really care about the characters, there's a kind of mysticism to it, which I really like. So that's… that is a wonderful fiction book. The other one… one of the most edifying books I've ever read is something called… a book called ‘Triumphs of Experience’, it's by a man named George Vaillant. And George Vaillant ran the Harvard longitudinal study, the adult study that ran for… that is still running for like 80 years where it looked at Harvard, the Harvard class of 39, 40, 41, and 42; I think 43 as well. And what he did is he looked at he followed these people and… and they were in touch every couple of years and they did in-depth surveys and interviews and all of that right through their lifetime and he could look back at the end of, you know, 60 years, 70 years, 80 years and say, “What are the themes that make for a truly meaningful and happy life?” And it is a fascinating book, full of stories. I'll do this… I hope they buy it, you can probably get it for, you know, $1.50 on Amazon, but let me tell you the big takeaway. I asked George Vaillant, “What is it, what's the key to happy… to a happy life over the long term?” and he said, “Happiness is love.”
J: Hmm, true.
B: And that's what it's all about.
J: Mm-hmm, that's great. What's the best advice you've ever received?
B: So the best piece of advice I ever got was my dad when he was about 80 years old and he said to me, “You know, Barb, if I could do one thing over, I wouldn't worry so much.
B: (Laughs). Now, I don't take his advice. (Laughs)
J: Easier said than done, right?
B: That's right, but I'd like to take his advice. But he's right, you know, a lot of the worst things that you think are going to happen in your life never happens, so I'm beginning to try to start to take his advice.
J: Hmm, good for you. So like what are the steps to… to taking that advice? I mean, you can't just flip a switch, what helps you?
B: You know, I think actually age every day helps, putting on the days, putting on the miles, you realize you get perspective and you go, “You know what? I've been here before. I've been in this kind of situation, I panicked then, you know what? Everything turned out fine. Here's what I'm going to do.” So that sense of perspective really, really helps. I think as we get a little bit older… I'm 56, I'll be 57 next month. As you get a little bit older, as you begin to value different sorts of things then the things that you worry about differ; they begin to shift. You don't worry as much about… I mean, I… you know, I still worry about success and all of that, I mean, I think those are… that's hardwired into many of us, most of us; I know me. But the things I worry about more are, you know, the health of my husband who has type-1 diabetes or, you know, how will my stepdaughter do… you know, she's… she's in grad school, she's going into grad school, but, you know, “What kind of job will she get?” There are things that are a little bit more close to home that those are the things I tend to… to worry about more. And what's cool about those things is that you're actually able to do more about them…
B: … than say, you know, being a Pulitzer Prize winner.
J: Right, right.
B: I can't worry about that.
J: No, out of your control for sure.
J: Well, I want to tell our community of listeners that they can find links to everything that you've been discussing by going to jenriday.com/23. And so now, Barb, we're at our final and most important question and that's your happiness formula. Go ahead and share that with us.
B: Well, it's a little wordy (Laughs) and I apologize for that, but so I am happiness… happiest, I am happiest when I am facing a hard, but conquerable challenge (number one), I'm having dinner outside with my family on a summer night (number 2), and have a great story that I am reporting and telling. So the themes here are to challenge yourself to engage with life, relationships, and focusing on something outside of yourself; those are my themes. And when I'm doing those things, I'm really happy.
J: Hmm, that's great. And then finally, Barb, we'd love for you to give our community a parting challenge and then we'll say goodbye.
B: A parting challenge, okay. What I challenge people to do is to pick 1 part of their lives and really focus on making it better. It could be, you know, doing something for your spouse or a friend, doing an athletic or musical challenge, practicing the flute, you know, something like that, but make it affirmative, not negative. Don't go, “Oh, I'm going to go on a diet today.”
B: Make it affirmative because it's really going to help you feel engaged and vibrant and the world would just seems so much more colorful…
B: … when you are doing those things.
J: Great, that's great advice. Well, thank you so much for being on the show, and everyone should definitely go out and get your book. And tell us again the name and where they can find it.
B: Sure, sure. It's called ‘Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife’. If they want to read about that before they, you know, purchase it, if they want to read about the book or my other book, ‘Fingerprints of God’, they could go to my website which is barbarabradleyhagerty.com. So that's… I'm going to spell it because ‘Hagerty’ is a little tricky, it's Barbara, b a r b a r a, Bradley, b r a d l e y, Hagerty, h a g e r t y.com.
J: Okay, and we will include links to everything you talked about on our show notes page at jenriday.com/23. Thank you so much for being on the show, Barb.
B: It's been a delight. Thank you, Jen.
J: Thanks so much for joining Barbara and I. And if you're in midlife, I hope this gives you a little courage to do something amazing; reevaluate, and do something new. Be sure to join me next time when I chat with Dr. Madhu Bazaz Wangu, an author and the founder of the Mindful Writers Group and she tells us how we need to change what's on the inside in order to change what happens to us on the outside. It's a really, really intriguing conversation, I had a lot of fun with it, and I know you're going to love it too; we'll talk to you soon. Take care.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast at www.jenriday.com.