Find your self-care squad
And other happiness tips from Dr. Kortni Alston.
I was sitting on a stage in front of a room full of journalists when I discovered just how much Dr. Kortni Alston and I have in common.
It was September 2019, and we were two of three panelists talking about self-care and mental health. We’re both advisory board members for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, which is what brought us to that stage.
Dr. Kortni and I were connected professionally through The Carter Center. We also both worked in newsrooms. Prior to getting her Ph.D. and becoming a happiness scholar, Dr. Kortni spent more than 15 years in journalism, including a stint as a news director at a National Public Radio affiliate station in Baltimore. And we both can’t help but smile whenever we talk—in particular, Dr. Kortni exudes an infectious sort of energy that makes you smile in return.
But the most surprising connection we shared, one that neither of us knew about the other before getting on that stage, was that we both became widows early in life.
In 1999, Dr. Kortni’s husband, Brian, died after being shot in the face. She was 25 years old, and they had only been married for 86 days. In her grief, she turned to books—looking for guidance on how to face such intense sorrow.
“I remember being so enamored with books and literature, finding out more about grieving and happiness,” Dr. Kortni said. She also recalls her drive to find more people who understood what she was going through.
“I wanted to find my tribe,” she said. “I didn’t want people to join this club—if you can call it that,” she explained, “but I didn’t want to feel isolated.”
At the time, Dr. Kortni was working as a television reporter in Philadelphia. In the grief-filled years after, she bounced around a few different TV markets before landing a job as the news director at WEAA-FM, Baltimore's NPR affiliate station.
If losing her husband was what first sparked Dr. Kortni’s interest in learning about happiness, managing a newsroom of journalists was “what put it on fire.”
“I was constantly thinking about how I could be a better manager, to help with their goals and well-being, Dr. Kortni recalled.
After four years as a news director, Dr. Kortni was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Florida. Initially, she was interested in studying labor issues—specifically, how to support journalists amid waves of layoffs. While trying to narrow down her focus, she discovered the field of positive psychology.
“The rest is history,” she said. “It started with that spark of seeing the world differently after loss, and then this real flame when I became a manager in a newsroom thinking about the well-being of journalists.”
Dr. Kortni admits that she was “awful” at taking care of herself when she was a reporter. “But, for me, it made me a better manager, because I thought to myself, I don't want other individuals to live that way.”
Today, Dr. Kortni has turned her passion for happiness into a business. She owns a workplace happiness consulting firm, has a podcast, and regularly gives talks on topics like resilience, mental health, and inclusive well-being. Her personal life looks a lot different, too. She now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her fiancé, Ken. And, like all of us, she’s finding her way back into the real world after two years of living in a global pandemic.
There were many times when I thought about Dr. Kortni over the past two years. As someone who not only studies happiness, but fully embodies it, I wondered how she was handling such an especially trying time. Was the pandemic as hard for her as it seemed to be for the rest of us, or was she still finding plenty of reasons to smile?
“When people ask me about being a happiness scholar, I think sometimes it comes with an assumption that I'm happy 24 hours a day,” Dr. Kortni told me.
“And you know me, I love smiling. I love wearing positive energy. But the interesting part is that I'm not happy 24 hours a day,” she continued. “The hardships I’ve experienced have allowed me to value happiness. They’ve allowed me to value resilience. They’ve allowed me to value meaning.”
“I think one of the things that you and I have in common, amongst many things, is the meaning-making of it all,” Dr. Kortni added. “How am I going to live a meaningful life? And how am I going to make an impact on other people’s lives?”
Although Dr. Kortni and I used Zoom for this interview, our conversation transported me back to the moment when we connected on that stage, beneath the glare of spotlights. As soon as our panel was over, we found a quiet table, hugged each other, and talked about all of the ways we could use our shared passions to make the world a bit better.
The conversation that Dr. Kortni and I had last week felt like that first hug. Here are some of my favorite takeaways.
Change starts with self-compassion
Dr. Kortni understands the criticism that studying happiness and positive psychology can seem frivolous in a time of suffering—when people are living in a pandemic, witnessing a deadly war, and experiencing untold hardships. At the same time, she argues that having a strong foundation of happiness makes us better equipped to help others.
“What I love so much about positive psychology and studying happiness is that it's taught me the value of compassion and the value of self-compassion,” she said. “By really valuing compassion, you can understand someone's suffering.”
“It's not dismissing suffering,” Dr. Kortni explained. “It's really being able to be empathetic by valuing empathy and being compassionate.”
Dr. Kortni says that by practicing empathy with themselves first, people are able to improve their well-being and extend that kindness to others, whether by making a friend feel seen and supported, or using their energy to volunteer for a cause they believe in.
“When you value compassion and happiness, it’s not about just looking at all that is right with us,” she said. “It’s about being compassionate also about the suffering that happens in the world and that can happen also to you individually.”
“If you start with a level of being kind to yourself—and that's what self-compassion is all about—you can then share it with the world.”
Figure out what works for you
Dr. Kortni said that one important way to practice self-compassion is by figuring out the things that make you feel happy—and not judging yourself if those things look different than what other people may choose.
“One of the things I learned through grief is that there's no one-size-fits-all as relates to grieving, just like there's just no one-size-fits-all as relates to improving your well-being,” she said. “It's about having that growth mindset of being really open to embracing what those new experiences can be for yourself and enjoying the process.”
Dr. Kortni offered a few examples of things that are scientifically proven to boost happiness levels: regular exercise, meditation, practicing gratitude, and spending time with loved ones. The key, she said, is to make a plan to do the things that feel good—and stick to it.
Dr. Kortni’s happiness plan includes weekly date nights with her fiancé (during the pandemic, they kept the tradition going by trying as many different takeout options in Charlotte as they could); keeping a gratitude jar, where she stores slips of paper with daily things she’s thankful for; and leaning on a supportive group of friends, fondly known as her “self-care squad.”
Find your self-care squad
Of all the topics we discussed over Zoom, nothing made Dr. Kortni light up quite as much as when she talked about her friends.
“I always encourage people to think about relationships when it comes to happiness, because our social connections really can improve our well-being,” she said.
For Dr. Kortni, some of her most important relationships are her closest friends, who form her all-important “self-care squad.” The friends, who “are all positive people” in her life, connect through a group chat, where anyone can share anything.
“My self-care squad particularly has a heightened level of empathetic understanding,” said Dr. Kortni. “They're incredible as it relates to understanding support and in regards to not judging one another. If someone wants to text at 4 a.m. to get something off their chest because something stressful might have happened throughout their workday, there's no judgment.”
“What I love so much about it is that we have really created a safe space for each other,” she added.
Dr. Kortni said there’s a lot of power in devoting a group of friends to self-care. “We’re not just simply besties or friends, we’re proud members of each other’s self-care squad,” she said, adding that her group has supported each other through things like burnout, divorce, and health scares.
“These self-care squads serve not just your well-being. They really create a ripple effect and allow you to serve each other.”
As soon as our conversation was over, I felt a strong urge to reach out to my own crew of friends whom I rely on for wellness checks and realness. Dr. Kortni’s right, there’s nothing like having those trusted people who support you—and you likewise support back—through all of life’s ups and downs.