Michele Larsen: Buoying Spirits

Michele Larsen

Michele Larsen: Bringing joy, one billboard at a time

written by Erin Middlewood | photography by Shauna Intelisano

Bright yellow billboards emblazoned with encouraging words have been springing up around the country thanks to a nonprofit based in Vancouver, Washington.
“I thought it would be nice to put positive thoughts out into the world,” said Michele McKeag Larsen, 49. She launched The Joy Team after suffering a devastating professional loss during the Great Recession.

After the local magazine Larsen founded in 2004 crashed along with the economy, she felt herself spiraling downward. She had trouble getting out of bed or leaving the house.
“I knew I was in bad shape when I saw a really bad car accident and thought, ‘That person’s lucky,’” Larsen recalled. “I heard myself and realized I had two small kids who needed a mother who was present.”

She plunged into reading about people who suffered failures and then clawed their way back to success. The common denominator—they changed their thinking.
“When you have a daily practice of looking for the good, eventually you see more of it,” Larsen said.

She started by keeping a gratitude journal. It occurred to her that spreading good cheer might make her feel even better. With her young children in tow, she began leaving uplifting postcards around her hometown in 2009. The message and the mission grew. Now the Joy Team places billboard and bus shelter posters in as many as 130 locations at a time, from Portland to Philadelphia.

Instead of urging people to buy something, the billboards seek to spread good feelings with messages such as “Happiness is contagious. Start an epidemic,” or “You make a difference.”

“One of the things that’s so brilliant about the billboards is that they’re so unexpected,” Larsen said. “You expect to see a billboard for Verizon or Fred Meyer. But when you’re driving—maybe with the same thoughts rolling over in your head like ‘My job sucks’ or ‘I hate this commute’—and you see ‘You are so freaking awesome’ on our billboard, it shocks you out of it.”

The Joy Team’s 2016 budget was about $20,000, money raised through donations and sponsorships. Larsen hustles to secure donated billboard and bus-shelter space, and designs the posters herself when she’s not working full-time as the communications manager for Educational Service District 112. She makes a push each spring for International Happiness Day on March 20. For example, this year The Joy Team had fifty messages in Chicago alone.

Each billboard reaches hundreds of thousands of people, Larsen said. Some who have seen the messages have told Larsen they were life-changing. One told her by email, “Your simple message helped me through the toughest time.”

“People more and more are needing this joy for joy’s sake. We’re not selling products, saying ‘You’re beautiful. Now buy this mascara.’ When people realize we’re just trying to make you smile, it’s so refreshing that they fall in love with it,” Larsen said. “I just want to make people happy.”

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