Life Is Good's Powerfully Optimistic Message
From the original grinning doodle guy (aka Jake) to timely messages about bipartisanship and bees, Life is Good has been bringing positive vibes to T-shirts, hats and more for 25 years.
Today, they’re reaching a diverse community through a variety of channels, like their new "Ping Podcast" and sharing daily doses of positivity with a hashtag (#SomethingGood that pays tribute to the founders’ late mother.
“The number one inspiration for the brand was our mom,” says Life is Good co-founder John Jacobs. A mother of six, including John’s brother and business partner Bert, Joan Jacobs was a “beacon of positive energy” in the face of hardship.
“She didn’t have things easy at all,” says Jacobs. “She was juggling a lot of responsibilities.” Amid the chaos of a big family, her husband’s health issues, and financial uncertainty, Joan taught her children to look for the good in life.
“She had this tradition at the dinner table where she would look around at her kids and say, ‘Tell me something good that happened today,’” he remembers. “That can sound so simple, but it really changed the energy in our house because we might have been complaining. Maybe one of our brothers was in trouble at school, or there was a teacher we didn’t like, or an assignment we were struggling with,” he continues. “Instead, because of Joan, we were riffing on something funny, or absurd, or positive, and we’d kind of build momentum off of that.”
“It was a great early lesson,” says Jacobs. “And she really showed us how optimism is a choice you can make, even in the face of adversity. In fact, it’s most powerful in the face of adversity.”
The optimism and tenacity John and Bert gained from their upbringing certainly came in handy as adults — especially for a couple of guys with little business background selling T-shirts door to door. For nearly five years, the Jacobs brothers had cruised from college to college, slinging tees and sleeping in their van.
“We were lucky to be doing some things that we loved, like traveling and creating and meeting people,” says Jacobs. But the “pathetic” sales and a sense of being left behind while their peers advanced in traditional careers wore on the enterprising brothers.
"Optimism is a choice you can make, even in the face of adversity. In fact, it’s most powerful in the face of adversity.”
Thankfully, having each other to lean on and Mom’s “something good” mentality helped John and Bert keep their heads up through those years of rejection.
“We knew each other so well we could find ways to laugh it off—even the worst nights—and sort of find something to crack a joke about, get back in the van, and move on to the next school,” says Jacobs.
“There’s different lessons in all of those failings, and one of them is just, if you try, you’re either going to succeed or you’re going to learn. You could call it failure, but it’s just really building toward getting more knowledgeable. And we were learning what it would take to create something that emotionally connected with people.”
That emotional connection finally came in 1994. Bert and John were looking for a way to counter the onslaught of negative news, celebrate the good in the world, and sell some T-shirts too.
“In an effort to grab ratings and catch people’s attention, and kind of scare them into watching again, the news often leads with the disasters, murders, fires,” says Jacobs. “So we wondered if we could create something that helped people focus on what’s right in their life and in the world, and maybe create a kind of a rallying cry for optimists.”
With some help from their friends, the Jacobs brothers came up with their first Life is Good T-shirt and the original Jake graphic. They took their initial run of shirts to a street fair, and sold out within the first hour. Customers from all sorts of backgrounds — bikers, school teachers, kids — ended up buying the same graphic tee. Mixed in the racks with all their other products, it was clear that people were responding to the Life is Good message.
“That really opened our eyes, and it confirmed what we had hoped—,” says Jacobs, “That no matter what’s going on in the country or the world, people really want to gravitate to something positive. And that set us on our course.”
That course took them from selling at colleges and street fairs to a national sensation in the 1990s. As the brand grew, their trusty mascot Jake got into all sorts of activities, like cycling, music and yoga. Their success, says Jacobs, wasn’t “based in our brilliance, but just listening to people and what they love to do.” They took suggestions from mom-and-pop boutiques and fans.
As they incorporated customer feedback into their themes, they thought, “Sure, this is making people’s lives better, why not celebrate this?” “And then it became, ‘OK, what else can we celebrate that is a positive thing in people’s lives?’” says Jacobs.
"No matter what’s going on in the country or the world, people really want to gravitate to something positive. And that set us on our course.”
Their line continued to swell with products reflecting what brought their customers joy, like family, pets and the outdoors. In addition to design ideas, Life is Good fans were also sharing meaningful personal messages. Stories of perseverance and optimism were pouring in from customers across the country.
“What we couldn’t predict was the letters we started getting from people facing great adversity,” says Jacobs. “And they would say things like, ‘Your hat helped me stay positive during chemotherapy,’ or ‘We all wore Life is Good to the memorial service of our brother because that’s the spirit with which he lived.’”
“Often the people that go through the hardest things emerge with this elevated sense of gratitude and ability to see more clearly what’s most important in the world. And I think we can all benefit from that,” says Jacobs.
With the permission of their authors, Life is Good began sharing some of these stories of inspiration with their community. “More people felt less alone with their own struggles. Because we all go through these things, whether they’re super dramatic or more day-to-day struggles,” he says.
“While we were learning this lesson from these amazing stories, we were also pretty conscious of the fact that there are kids out there [struggling]. It’s really hard to face the world with open arms, and want to engage and explore, because they’re dealing with violence, poverty, illness,” says Jacobs. With these children in mind, Life is Good started its Kids Foundation.
“Life is Good, the for-profit brand, helps to shine a light and bring more exposure and funding to the Kids Foundation,” he says. And in turn, “The Kids Foundation brings us back to our values constantly. We’re able to see firsthand the impact of the work we’re doing, because 10% of our annual net profits goes to our Kids Foundation.”
By funding training programs for childcare professionals working in schools, hospitals, and social service agencies, Life is Good helps them retain their own playfulness, openness, and optimism. “There can be a lot of burnout in these positions,” Jacobs says of the teachers, counselors, and oncology workers who go through their program.
"It just felt like the message we wanted to get out to the world more than anything. It felt so right. We feel like we’re just getting started.”
Partnering with organizations that reach vulnerable and underserved youth, the Kids Foundation improves the quality of care for over 1 million children every year: not bad for a couple of guys who grew up in a working-class Boston suburb and started a business selling T-shirts from their van. Twenty-five years later, Bert and John Jacobs are still waving the flag of optimism and using their platform for good.
“I don’t think we’d still be hands-on and involved in the business if we weren’t so invested in this message, and the belief in the power of optimism,” Jacobs says. “It just felt like the message we wanted to get out to the world more than anything. It felt so right. And we feel like we’re just getting started.”
For every #SomethingGood post their community shares, Life is Good donates a dollar to the Kids Foundation. Their goal is to reach 1 million #SomethingGood posts this year, and Jacobs says they’re in good shape to meet that target, with around 700,000 shares so far.
Their mission to get a million people to share something positive is a celebration of their 25th anniversary, and a tribute to the woman who started it all. Joan Jacobs taught her children to choose optimism. In her honor, Life is Good spreads her message of positivity—and carries on the Jacobs family’s dinnertime tradition.
What’s #SomethingGood that happened to you today?
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