Keely Herron: The Cult of Happiness and how Hard is it to be REAL?

"Leaving the Cult of Happiness is about walking through the darkness of shame and suffering to the light of compassion, purpose and ultimately fulfillment." Keely Herron

Keely is a strategist and writer, with nearly 20 years of experience in advertising and business. She's traveled the world in search of a meaningful life, eventually landing in Jackson Hole.

She has a BA in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, and an MBA from ESADE in Barcelona, Spain.

Emy diGrappa (00:00):

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Keely Herron (00:18):

You know, I think social media makes that 10 times worse, because we look and we see what everybody else is doing and we think that we're the only ones that are suffering. And it's this idea of the cult of happiness is, it's such a pervasive idea that we need to present our best selves to the world. That in some ways we're not even able to be honest with ourselves.

Emy diGrappa (00:44):

Hello, I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why. Each week we bring you stories asking our guest the question why. We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape then from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming, and what better organization than Wyoming Humanities. Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why.

Today we are talking to Keely Herron. Keely is a writer, a storyteller, and a strategist. Welcome Keely.

Keely Herron (01:41):

Thank you for having me. I mean it's great to be here.

Emy diGrappa (01:43):

So I just want to, want to talk about the work you've done on yourself and how that makes you a great storyteller.

Keely Herron (01:52):


Emy diGrappa (01:52):


Keely Herron (01:53):

Oh gosh. I grew up in Minnesota, and my grandfather was Irish. And I don't know if you're familiar with stereotypes about Irish-Americans, or Irish people in general, but there's a lot of storytelling that goes on. And my grandfather's favorite past-time was to sit anywhere in the back yard, or the living room, or wherever, and have a beverage, it could be a Pepsi or it could be a- a beer, (laughs) and tell stories. And, so, that's, kind of, how I grew up, um, spending time with my- my family. And humor was always a big part of that. And being able to tell a good story, um, and make people laugh was something that I always, um, aspired to do.

Emy diGrappa (02:36):

When did you decide that that was gonna be your passion in life, uh, bein' a storyteller?

Keely Herron (02:42):

Um, well, you know, I- I started out as a, as a writer. I was always interested in writing, and I was the, um, editor of my high school yearbook, and I wrote for the paper, um, and then I studied, uh, journalism at the University of Minnesota. And I was an arts and entertainment reporter for the Minnesota Daily, um, which is a great job if you're in- in college and you don't have any money, because I got to go to all kinds of events, and concerts, and dance performances, and theater, and art installations and everything, and- and then write about them.

                 And somewhere along the lines I picked up a camera and did photo journalism for a while, which led to design, which led to advertising. And so that's where I have spent the majority of my career was in advertising. And not as a writer, actually, but as a, as, sort of, an account manager and a strategist. And so that's where the- the strategy part of it came in, and a lot of writing, also.

                 But after I moved to Jackson, and I worked for, um, two years as the marketing director at Snow King ... When I started my own business, and it became clear to me right away that writing was, uh, the way to connect with local businesses, because it was something that they understood and knew that they needed.

                 And, so, as I looked at how to develop my own business and- and make a little money, and pay my rent, I s-, just started writing again and- and that, kind of, reawakened that latent passion, I guess, or just ... I- I've always loved t- to write, and so that's- that's where that started. And it really kicked into high gear when I did the TEDx talk last summer.

Emy diGrappa (04:12):

And I wanted to ask you about your TEDx talk, because it was called Leaving the Cult of Happiness.

Keely Herron (04:18):


Emy diGrappa (04:19):

The only way out is through.

Keely Herron (04:21):


Emy diGrappa (04:22):

What was your talk about? What, uh, what message, what was your greatest message there?

Keely Herron (04:26):

The message that I wanted to make sure to get across is that listening is not a passive practice, it's an act of healing. And that we can all change the world by learning to be good listeners because everybody's broken, and it's just a question of how much and where. And by listening, people can begin to unravel the things that are difficult in life. And no one, no one gets out alive, we all know where- where this life goes, and- and throughout that experience of being human, everyone is bound to suffer.

                 And, so, some people have, you know, really big burdens, and- and some people get lucky and they don't have as- as large of a burden, but everyone suffers. And I think the lesson that I learned from the things that I've experienced in life is that having a friend who is willing to listen to me, and not judge me, and, also, not diminish what I was, what- what I was experiencing. Not say, like, "Oh, it's gonna be okay," or as Rene Brown says, "To silver-lining it." Like, "Oh, well at least you can have kids, or at lea- ..." You know, you find out that your child has some kind of a disease, and- and then people are, like, "Oh, well at least you have a ch-, a child. You know, at least they're still alive."

                 And it's, like, it's difficult to be able to sit with something that's really challenging if the people around you don't sit with you too. And so that's where I came to my conclusion of that talk, which is that, you know, listening, even if it's uncomfortable, or even if you don't have anything to say, or you don't have any recommendations or advice, the simple act of sitting beside someone and listening to them, and just bearing witness to what they're going through-

Emy diGrappa (06:18):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (06:19):

... is an act of healing. And- and everybody can do that, everybody can learn to listen.

Emy diGrappa (06:24):

And how is that a part of the cult of happiness? How did that message come through and get woven in there?

Keely Herron (06:31):

You know, I've had my share of stuff that I needed to- to work through, and, um, there are people who I realize the second I said, you know, "I'm havin' a bad day," that I couldn't go any further. There are some people that they just don't have the capacity to deal with anything that's not bright and shiny. And I think that there are a lot of people, specifically in American culture, um, but in- in western culture in general, and in- in a lot of cultures around the world where anything that's not bright, and shiny, and happy, is just not discussed.

                 So even with the people that are closest to you, you're hiding who you really are, because it's not acceptable. It's not acceptable to discuss in polite company, even with the people that are closest t- to you. And, so, the idea of the cult of happiness is that we're all trying to put a shiny façade on whatever we're dealing with. And we're not able to come to the table and say, "Like, this really sucks. I'm really struggling. I don't know what to do."

                 And, you know, I think social media makes that 10 times worse, because we look and we see what everybody else is doing, and we think that we're the only ones that are suffering. And it's this idea of the cult of happiness is, it's such a pervasive idea that we need to present our best selves to the world, that in some ways we're not even able to be honest with ourselves if we're suffering.

Emy diGrappa (08:06):

Do you think is comes from the rhetoric that people say, "I don't want to be around-

Keely Herron (08:12):

Negative people.

Emy diGrappa (08:12):

... negative people.

Keely Herron (08:13):

Yeah, toxic people or whatever. Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (08:15):

Right, uh-huh (affirmative).

Keely Herron (08:17):

You know, I get into it with friends and acquaintances about the positive psychology movement. Uh, I think there's a lot of value in the positive psychology movement. I think that there's, um ... It's a slippery slope when we look at real mental illness, you know?

Emy diGrappa (08:34):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (08:34):

Um, and then, also, trauma. You know, when people are dealing with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, there's only so much positive thinking that you can do that's going to help shift something that's really deeply lodged. And I guess that's the only that I can explain trauma is, you know, I've done a lot of work with, you know, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, group work.

                 And for me, you know, I'm 43 years old, and where I've finally gotten to is the point where I realized that it is an energetic shift. And I- I don't know where that's gonna go for me, but, you know, there's only so much you can do cognitively or rationally before you need to start getting into, uh- uh, a deeper understanding of what trauma is, and how we can really resolve it.

Emy diGrappa (09:25):

Do you think there's a place where you can help others as well, that you've learned from your own experience? That you can help others deal with their trauma?

Keely Herron (09:34):

Yeah, I think for me, part of the reason I was so excited to give the TED talk, the TEDx talk-

Emy diGrappa (09:34):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (09:42):

... is because I've always known that I would tell my story, I just didn't know how or where, you know, and in what form. Because as I looked at that experience, and I lived with that experience, and I worked through that experience, you know, you do ask yourself, like, "Why me? Why do I have to do this?" Like, "Wh- why do I have to deal with all this? It's not fair."

                 You know, and you- you wallow around in that for a while. And I think after really working on it, the conclusion that I came to is why I had to deal with these things is so that I could help even one other person figure out why they have to deal with it too, you know? So, by telling my story and just being really honest about how difficult it has been to overcome some of these things, you know, maybe, uh, a younger person who's, maybe, still in the middle of it can get help faster, and can get from A to B a little bit faster than I did, at 43. (laughs)

Emy diGrappa (10:44):

Do you think that storytelling just comes naturally to you or, uh-

Keely Herron (10:48):

Well, I joke that when I die you're gonna have to pull the mic from my cold dead hands. I come by it naturally. That's what my family has always done, you know. We'll sit around after dinner and for hours, and hours, and hours. And my brother and I joke that when we talk to our aunt on the phone, we have to set a timer, because otherwise it's, like, we'll be, we'll be on the phone with her for three hours, literally. And it's just stories. And it's the voices, and the characters and all, you know. And we tell the same stories over and over again, and we still think they're funny. So, you know, perhaps it's in my genes.

                 And, you know, I- I think if I can use my voice to, like I said, to help someone, I think that that's ... It helps make everything that I've done have meaning and make sense.

Emy diGrappa (11:34):

I think it's great you want to be a storyteller. I think I've read some quotes that storytelling is the oldest form of education, right?

Keely Herron (11:42):

Yeah, I mean, you- you look at the stories in the Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah, or any of those. I mean they were all oral traditions before they were written down-

Emy diGrappa (11:51):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (11:52):

... and that's the way that we understand the world.

Emy diGrappa (11:54):

So when you talk about your trauma, what- what is that trauma?

Keely Herron (11:59):

Well so, as I s- spoke about in my TEDx talk, part of the reason that I even began the conversation with the committee, who select the speakers for TEDx, was because my father committed suicide. My father died by suicide. And I've been pretty open about that. And I am an- an advocate for mental health equity, um, and mental illness awareness.

                 And then as the conversation continued with the steering committee, we just started talking about other things that I had experienced that informed, kind of, my perspective on, you know, what, uh, ended up being the subject of the talk, which was the cult of happiness. And that was, um, some additional sexual trauma. I was raped when I was 16, um, and I was also first sexually abused when I was five years old. And, so, those were experiences in my life that a- absolutely shaped who I am.

                 And it's, s-, you know, since the wars in the Middle East and a lot of the soldiers coming back, the awareness of PTSD has grown. For that I'm very grateful. And I think the understanding of complex PTSD, which is generally how people understand things that happened when you're much younger. The experience manifests, is what they call complex PTSD.

                 Ad so that's, kind of, become the- the envelope or the bucket of what I want to talk about, is our understanding of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and our collective ability to listen to those stories, and to overcome the stigma that is attached to some of the things that really traumatize people.

Emy diGrappa (13:30):

And, so, sometimes you find that that makes people uncomfortable-

Keely Herron (13:34):


Emy diGrappa (13:34):

... when you talk to them about that.

Keely Herron (13:36):

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. And I get it, I mean I get it. I get, you know, it's not pleasant. If I never had to talk about it ever again I wouldn't, probably, but it's part of who I am. It's a part of what shaped me and made me who I am. And, unfortunately, my experience with trauma is that it's not something that you just put in a box, and put on a shelf, and just walk away from. It's something that I deal with not every single day, but it doesn't just go away.

Emy diGrappa (14:03):

It manifests itself in different ways.

Keely Herron (14:05):

Mm-hmm (affirmative), and it's ... You know, I hate to use the word triggered, 'cause that's such a, like, a snowflakey word now. But it is, you know. Like a certain interaction with someone who has nothing to do with an incident that happened 40 years ago can just set me off, and that's my reality.

Emy diGrappa (14:23):

What can you tell people that they can walk away with that you've learned, that you feel better about yourself, that you've ... a- a great outlook on life and- and a bright future?

Keely Herron (14:36):

I would say it's a process, it's a process, and that it's not linear. It's difficult to do this, uh, in- in audio, but I feel like my trajectory has been very much, like, loopty loops. I'll go forward, and then come up the loopty loop, and back down the loopty loop, and then go a little bit forward and up, and back down. And I do make progress, but it's not always forward. You know sometimes (laughs) it's- it's a little bit circular. And I think finding a single person who is able to sit with you when things are tough, can make a huge difference, you know, and to just be patient, and to find a single person who is able to bear witness, and you just keep tryin'. And it's not always gonna be forwards. Sometimes it's gonna be backwards.

Emy diGrappa (15:26):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (15:26):

But to be patient and to understand that life is not all, you know, that there is value and meaning in the suffering. We don't choose it. If I never had to suffer I would prefer that. But, you know, you go to war with the army that you have. You play the cards that you're dealt. And when you've got crappy cards, you still have to play 'em, you know, and to- to take a step back from the idea that life is all about happiness, and fulfillment, and success, and achievement.

                 That's definitely a- a big part of life, and we strive for that. But there is also value, and honor, and dignity, and self-respect, and respect for others. And things that we can learn about life, and who we are as people, and what gives life meaning, all of those things can be found in the shadow side too.

Emy diGrappa (16:19):

Success looks different for everyone doesn't it?

Keely Herron (16:22):

Yeah, it's not about money, and cars, and-

Emy diGrappa (16:22):


Keely Herron (16:25):

... you know? I mean-

Emy diGrappa (16:25):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Keely Herron (16:26):

... it- it can be, and, I mean, Lord knows, I would love an Audi Q5, but-

Emy diGrappa (16:31):


Keely Herron (16:32):

... that's not what gives life meaning.

Emy diGrappa (16:36):

Right. I think it's a great thing that you're doing this-

Keely Herron (16:39):


Emy diGrappa (16:39):

... and I wish you so much luck.

Keely Herron (16:40):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (16:42):

I, and I can't wait to hear where you go next with your storytelling.

Keely Herron (16:46):

Thanks. Yeah, me too. I mean we'll see. I don't know what it's gonna be, but I'm- I'm workin' on it.

Emy diGrappa (16:51):

Good. Thanks Keely.

Keely Herron (16:52):

Thanks Emy.

Emy diGrappa (16:59):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This Think Why podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at