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The Pursuit of Happiness

By Wendy Simard
UCLA Associate Professor of Marketing Cassie Mogilner Holmes ’98, Ph.D., studies happiness, highlighting the role of time. She shares how she deliberately spends her time and makes decisions that are driven by happiness.

On any given weeknight at 6 p.m., in a house three blocks from the University of California, Los Angeles campus, it’s not unusual to find a professor, a media technologist, a preschooler and a toddler engrossed in a dance party with the Moana soundtrack on loop. The dress code: PJs. The vibe: Silly. Spontaneous. Happy.

As a social psychologist and happiness expert quoted in at least 60 media articles, with more than 20 published research papers to her name, UCLA Associate Professor of Marketing 
Cassie Mogilner Holmes ’98, Ph.D., holds a long list of accomplishments in academia. But for this mom of two—Leo, 5, and Lita, 2—what brings her the most joy are moments like these spent with her family. In fact, Mogilner Holmes architects her life to allow for them. “I study time and happiness, so I’m very deliberate about how I spend my time. I make all of my decisions driven by happiness,” she says.

For instance, that’s why they live so close to her office at the Anderson School of Management. From her research, Mogilner Holmes knows spending time commuting is negatively correlated with positive emotion. “I’m not only reducing commuting, but it’s a lovely commute because I’m walking through UCLA’s campus. Birds are chirping, and the sun is always shining. ... My daughter’s school is on campus, so I often walk her there. We commute together!”

Her Journey to UCLA
As Mogilner Holmes recounts her story, you envision her heart lighting up like a GPS, guiding her to criss-cross the country. Mogilner Holmes recalls her time at LJCDS as an extremely happy period, in which she played “varsity everything,” participated in student government, and had many close friends. 
 
Before LJCDS, her family lived in London—what started as a year-long experiment turned into six years because they loved it so much. After graduating, Mogilner Holmes attended Columbia University, mostly for the experience of living in New York City. During her sophomore year, she got hooked on psychology: “I loved watching people and understanding how they interacted with each other.” A social psychology course in her junior year moved her into her chosen field of research, in which she studies the factors that influence how people behave.

She went on to get her Ph.D. in marketing at Stanford University, opting to return to her beloved West Coast. There she met her husband, Rob, an MBA student at the time. Her studies also changed direction during that period. “In the midst of my Ph.D. program, I shifted my research from understanding the choices people make amongst products to trying to figure out the choices one can make such that everyone could be as happy as I felt,” says Mogilner Holmes.

“The ingredient of happiness that shows up in [my] research also shows up when I look back to my experience at Country Day. It’s really about how you spend your time, and the relationships you forge, and the benefits of exercise and being outside.” 
 
She fondly remembers Mr. Newell’s Theory of Knowledge class and recently came across an essay she wrote for it titled “Kiss.” In it, she discussed the web of interpersonal relationships that drive well-being. “This is true,” she explains. “It is so important to have strong relationships. Unfortunately, what often happens is that when we become stressed and feel like there’s too much on our plate, we disconnect from the people around us. I have research that shows if you were to give a little bit of your time away, it would make you feel as if you have more time!”

Grace Under Pressure
Following her Ph.D. program, Mogilner Holmes was recruited as a tenure-track professor in marketing for The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which took her back east. She describes herself as decisive: “Once I know what I want, I work hard to get there,” she says. “[Rob and I] moved out to Philly together. And within that first year of getting a job and moving in together, we got married. There was lots of change.” Another big shift came when the couple decided to start their family in the midst of her tenure push.

You’d think being an accomplished young woman in academia would present its challenges, but according to Mogilner Holmes, “It wasn’t hard being a woman, but it was hard being a parent while having a demanding full-time career.” She explained that the tenure clock is a pressing force in people’s lives, but she and her husband didn’t want to put off having kids, because it never would have been a good time. 
 
Instead, Mogilner Holmes handled the situation the way she had during other stressful times in her life. “I put my head down, did the work that I knew was required, and kept reminding myself that what I was doing was in line with my values,” she says. “I was in love with my baby and in love with my husband, and I was doing work I cared about. When I get stressed, I remind myself I’m really frickin’ lucky I have so many things I care about. Abundance is the situation.” It’s not a glass-half-full mentality; her glass is overflowing.

Mogilner Holmes explained that you have seven years to secure tenure. She didn’t need it. About four years into her time at Wharton, she gave birth to her son. A year later, she went up for tenure and secured it while pregnant with her daughter. Her plan was always to return to the West Coast, and good news came soon: “The same month I found out I got tenure there, I got the offer from UCLA. And I was excited to have the option to stay at Wharton forever, but I was more excited about the opportunity of going back to Southern California.”

Prioritizing Her Passions
When it comes to routine, Mogilner Holmes could write the book. She adheres firmly to a strict schedule, but that’s a result of her prioritizing happiness. Keeping strong boundaries around her time allows her to show up for her loved ones and enjoy all aspects of her life. 
 
She and her husband alternate “on” mornings with the kids, and when she has an “off ” morning, she’s awake at 6 a.m., lacing up for a run. Her workday begins at 8:30 a.m. and is mostly focused on research—reading, writing and evaluating data, along with meetings. She loves that no day is the same. She stays on point with what she needs to get accomplished and leaves promptly at 5:30 p.m. “And then I go home, and we have our precious, precious hour and a half with the kids before they go to bed,” she says. “And again, being very deliberate with how I spend my time, I make sure it is totally focused on them.”

When asked what she does in her free time, her academic pedigree shows: “There actually isn’t such a thing as ‘free time.’ It’s quality time spent on X.” While weekdays are work-heavy, her weekends are hers to enjoy. 
 
Another piece of Mogilner Holmes’s research shows that if you tricked yourself into spending your weekend as a vacation—you don’t do anything all that different, but the feeling is different—you are much more attentive to the present moment. “I’m deliberate about not working on weekends because that is family time and fun time,” she says. Friday night is date night, and the family has a treasured Saturday ritual: “We wake up, put the kids in the car, and go to the beach. My husband and I each push a stroller, and we go for a run. Then the kids play in the sand, and it is just fun and beautiful— we’re running along the beach in Santa Monica! We go home for lunch, the kids nap, and anything later on in the weekend is just gravy.”

On their drive to the beach, you can’t help but wonder if the happy family has the Moana favorite “How Far I’ll Go,” queued up:

I know everybody on this island,
seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design...

Whatever you do, don’t call this happiness expert Pollyanna. Mogilner Holmes remains grounded in her research, choosing to embrace her overflowing glass.
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