Nataly Kogan

Startup Idol: Happier wants you to share the love

July 19, 2013: 4:09 PM ET

Founder Nataly Kogan has good reason to spread cheer.

By Kurt Wagner, reporter

Good cheer.

Good cheer.

FORTUNE -- Nataly Kogan understands the pursuit of happiness -- in her younger years, she lived for it. As a Jewish refugee from Soviet Russia, Kogan escaped her native country at the age of 13 with a handful of suitcases and $600 in cash for her entire family of four. Jumping between refugee camps across Europe, Kogan finally made it to the United States where her pursuit of happiness really took off. She graduated top of her class from Wesleyan University. She worked at McKinsey & Company, then at Microsoft. She got married and had a daughter. On paper, Kogan had achieved the American Dream. But still, she wasn't happy.

Kogan is the CEO and Chief Happiness Officer of startup Happier. She not only finds herself in better spirits but spends her days trying to pass the feeling along to others as well. The secret, she says, is understanding that you can't actually be happy, but you can always be happier. That's the message conveyed with her new app, Happier, which she describes as an "emotional bookshelf in your pocket." Users upload anything that makes them happy, from posts chronicling their small daily success stories ("I got a great parking spot!") to photos of their favorite foods or places. Anytime you need a pick-me-up, simply open your Happier app and enjoy all of the happy moments posted by your friends.

Since its launch in February, users have shared over one million happy moments, says Kogan. The app is only the first step along the way, however, and Kogan hopes to build the business into a media company and lifestyle brand, similar to Oprah or Martha Stewart, she says. In addition to "Happier TV" and "Happier Videos," Kogan envisions licensing Happier products, like clothes, cars, or even a Happier Airline. With a $2.4 million seed round under her belt from investors like Venrock and Resolute.vc, Kogan's march toward making the world a happier place is well underway. "Life is made of moments," she says. "Choose to create and collect the happy ones."

Fortune interviewed Kogan about the app, the American Dream, and how happiness is changing lives around the world.

Many people use mainstream social media sites like Facebook or Twitter to post things that are negative or even hurtful, but you think Happier is different? Why?

A: There is a tremendous amount of research that shows that Facebook (FB) makes people miserable. Dr. Nicholas Christakis (Harvard) is a formal advisor to Happier, and he's looked into a lot of research of social media making people miserable, and I think it's one of our strongest selling points. I totally get why Facebook makes people miserable. It's a stage now where we are all creating these versions of ourselves that are awesome -- we have great vacations, look great, have awesome friends. And then what people do is compare their real life to this very braggy, curated life that your friends are posting on Facebook.

In Happier, the expectation is everything is positive, so you don't need to show off. A happy moment is a different type of social content, it's smaller, it's more personal. It doesn't need a cool photo, and it doesn't need to be impressive. It can be as tiny as "I just got a great parking spot!" or "My kid gave me a hug after work." You don't need to feel bad when you're posting positive things, nor do you need to feel like you need to make a big deal out of it like you would on Facebook.

Happiness has many side effects like higher productivity and better long-term health. What is a side effect of happiness that you found surprising?

Kids learn better when they're more positive. There was a study that they ran, I believe this was in London, and they took second graders and one second grade class just carried on as they usually do, but the other class started every single day by sitting in a circle and sharing one or two things that they were happy about from the [day before]. The class that did this improved their grades, aggression and bullying were lower, teacher satisfaction went up, and their test results went up. This idea that if people are more positive, we can learn better, that kids can do better in school, that employees can do better -- to me that's very powerful.

Do you spent most of your life in the United States chasing the "American Dream?" Does it still exist in the same form today, and does it need to be changed?

It's interesting, someone came up to me after my TEDx Talk and said to me, "This is really incredible and inspirational, but aren't you still in a way chasing the 'big happy?'" And I guess that's the whole point. It doesn't mean that we stop creating. It doesn't mean that you don't have goals or don't create new things or learn new things. But it does mean that you don't hang your happiness on that. I don't need to wait to be happy until I build a billion dollar company. The point is that every day, even if they're really hard, have some happy moments in them.

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