“She Told Me What I Needed to Hear and I Was Ready to Listen.”

Happiness interview: Tory Johnson.

I got to know Tory Johnson when I spoke at her conference for startups, Spark and Hustle. Tory has a crazy amount of energy, and in addition to running this series of conferences, she’s also an on-air contributor to Good Morning America, and a writer.

In this last role, she has just published a fascinating memoir, The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, about how she changed her eating habits, and lost more than seventy pounds, by making what she calls “The Shift.” The book was especially interesting to me because she writes at length about how the change in her habits and in her weight affected her happiness. For a long time, she’d felt out of control and trapped by her inability to control her weight. Losing weight wouldn’t boost everyone’s happiness, but it had an enormous consequence for Tory’s happiness.

One of my chief interest is the question: What allows people to change? Why is it that sometimes, people can’t seem to change, no matter how much they want to, and other times, they can change? (Hint: this is the subject of my next book!) For Tory, a single conversation with a colleague ignited “the shift” that allowed her to make a change that she’d wanted for a very long time.

Gretchen: In the last year, you’ve experienced what you call “The Shift.” What happened?

Tory: Eighteen months ago, Barbara Fedida, one of my bosses, told me my clothes didn’t do me justice and she wanted to send me to a stylist. Barbara is the highest-ranking woman executive at ABC News and I am an on-air contributor for Good Morning America. She never used the words “fat, diet or obesity” but her message was clear: I needed to lose weight. Let’s face it: on TV looks matter. I took her words to mean “lose weight or lose your job,” even though to this day she insists my role was never in jeopardy.

Barbara changed my life. I think she actually saved my life. She stopped me from continuing on an unhealthy path both mentally and physically and for that I will be forever grateful to her. That’s why I dedicated The Shift, my new book about how I lost 62 pounds in one year, to her. She told me what I needed to hear and I was ready to listen. In a nutshell, what I learned was that what I put in my head is much more powerful than what I put in my mouth. I changed my mind for a better life.  Now, with this book, I’m on a mission to share that message and more with others who have battled their weight for years and are finally ready to do something about it once and for all. If I can do it, anyone can.

What simple activities consistently make you happier?

Walking daily in Central Park, I notice something different every time. It might be a squirrel, a plant variety, details in the surrounding skyline or a cool sneaker color. I walk the same loop every time, but the scene is always refreshingly different and never fails to make me smile.  I return home energized and happy.

And as a girl who’s been fat forever, who was tortured by gym teachers, I never imagined that voluntarily going to the gym would make me happy. That was something I’d avoid at all costs and have for most of my life. Now it’s among my favorites activities of the week – a chance to think about nothing but pushing myself to be my very best.  I always leave happy.  Imagine that.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That it’s not a given, nor is it owed to me by the world. Happiness is a deliberate choice, one that only I can make for myself.  If I want to feel the joys of happiness, I must choose to be happy—and I do.

Is there anything you found yourself doing repeatedly that got in the way of your happiness?

Until I embarked on The Shift, I didn’t realize just how much being overweight distracted from my greater happiness. I was by no means unhappy on any given day, but once I began to lose weight and take control of my body, I began to reflect on many of the unhappy choices I felt forced to make because of my weight. Those choices range from my fashion limitations, which led me to wear a navy suit instead of white gown on my wedding day, to more serious issues like avoiding all doctors for more than a decade because I didn’t want to hear the inevitable lecture about my size. Losing weight freed me to focus on the stuff that makes me happy, from petty to serious, rather than settling for blah.  Now my happiness is increased from simple stuff like having an abundance of clothing choices to much more important things like hearing my doctor say everything looks great and I’m healthy.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that speaks to you?

“There is no cavalry. No one is coming. It’s up to me.”  The people I’m surrounded by give me great joy and happiness, but I always remind myself that I can’t rely on them or others to create my happiness. It’s up to me to find joy in them, to find joy in myself and to look for opportunities to turn the mirror on myself rather than blaming others.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

In the last 18 months I’ve experienced both: I’ve had valleys where I’m upset that I wasted so much time being fat, then tall peaks when I’m the most content girl on Earth for discovering a greater sense of happiness by focusing on truly striving for my best, which includes pursuing and living a healthy lifestyle.  Keeping those moments of unhappiness top of mind — not in a way that dominates my thoughts, but as simple reminders — prevents me from slipping back into bad habits and downers.

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • Lisa Y

    I also finally got to a healthy weight as an adult. While I would never say being thin is the key to happiness, the knowledge that I am not out of control of my habits or of my body has definitely increased my happiness.

  • Tony Thompson

    The biggest thing about happiness is exactly as she said, you must choose to be happy. It doesn’t come on its own, you simply choose to be and you will be.

  • Betsy Powell

    Very interesting to read, but, it seems to me that however much Tory’s former boss, Barbara, says her job wasn’t in jeopardy due to her size, that’s precisely what the issue was.

    “Lose weight or lose your job” is never a good message to send. Granted Tory was overweight and unhealthy by her own admission, but there are plenty who strive for Victoria Beckham’s ‘extra half inch’ to the detriment of their physical and mental well-being.

    On a plus side, great that Tory feels so much better and huge congratulations are deserved.

    • peninith1

      That said, many of us hear ‘lose weight and lower your risk of recurring breast cancer,” or “lose weight and improve your dangerously high blood pressure” or “lose weight and reduce the dangers of diabetes” or “avoid / delay joint replacement surgery.” And still we find it really hard to even hear those messages, much less act on them. I applaud Tory Johnson for taking hold and doing herself the favor. She may have saved much more than her job.

  • Felicity

    Looking forward to that book, Gretchen!

  • Janie

    Something I heard a long time ago has stuck with me–“thin is not well”. Being overweight is not necessarily well either, however the myth that because someone looks good on the outside their life is better, easier, happy, isn’t necessarily true either. Thin is not well, strengthens my resolve to follow whatever choices I think are best for me and that’s a place happiness can thrive.

  • peninith1

    Day 8-Delay and silence are my main weapons, especially since the criticisms I deal with are almost never direct, but rather sniping from the sidelines. I figure if I pretend to be oblivious, the ‘payoff’ of a big scene with drama (which is desired) cannot happen, and just maybe the barbed remarks will be less worth making. I do consider what is implied or meant by what’s being said, and CHOOSE whether to pay attention and make a change of some sort. Sometimes I do, when I know that is right. Sometimes I don’t. In this case I find it important to make it clear that I make decisions for myself (i.e. about my weight, my exercise program and the like). I consider it unnecessary and inappropriate for a parent to be trying to direct my activities (I’m 66!) and act accordingly without ‘fighting’ about it if at all possible.

    • peninith1

      oops that was day 10 . . . how time flies!

  • Felicity

    I’ve been thinking… it reminds me of the scene in ‘Knocked Up’, where the female protagonist has been promoted to an on-screen role on E! News, and her superiors are telling her they don’t want her to lose weight, they just want her to be healthy. By eating less. So funny.

  • Tanzle

    There is so much about this piece that I find disquieting – the idea that it is somehow okay for a boss to make a threat to sack someone if they don’t lose weight, the blank acceptance of the weight = health equation, the uncritical plug of yet another celebrity weight loss story and that is just for starters. Fact is, research strongly shows that dieting simply doesnt work for the vast majority of us long term and the weight loss industry (which no doubt Ms Johnson is positioning heself to make some money in) damages the self esteem of millions of people termed “overweight” and “obese” by the medical profession (and makes them fatter). See http://www.lindabacon.org/ and http://www.beautyredefined.net/ for a much fuller discussion of this subject.

  • Stacey

    I read the book and I think it is a great accomplishment that Tory could stick with her plan. She looks great. But I found her approach to be very obsessive. As an all or nothing person, I agree that I can’t have a cheat day where the floodgates are wide open. And moderation is oh so difficult for me. Still in keeping with Voltaire’s “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” I am trying to be less rigid both for myself and for everyone else around me who I don’t wish to make obsessed with food. Ultimately, we all need to do what works for us. Ideally, at least for me, I am trying to change my lifestyle and relationship with food.