Worry, Be Happy

Worry, Be Happy

When you think of coffee, do you think of red-eyed jolts powering workday marathons? Cookie-cutter cafes with focus-grouped folksiness? Poor coffee farmers at the mercy of multinational bean counters?

If those are your associations with coffee, Vishal Patel and Onyeka “Ony” Obiocha want to surprise you. This past May Day, Patel and Obiocha opened The Happiness Lab, a coffee shop on lower Chapel that’s cultivating a unique combination of responsibility and relaxation. Located just below The Grove co-working space, whose members get a 10% discount, it’s a haunt for fellow entrepreneurs and Yale graduate students, plus undergrads willing to venture outside of the campus bubble—“the adventurers,” Obiocha calls them.

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Always casual in style and dress, Patel and Obiocha want to make their shop a place for winding down, not just up. A guitar sits in a corner that anyone can pick up and play. A stockpile of board games, from Guess Who? to Settlers of Catan, is always ready for use. “There’s no formality whatsoever,” Patel assures, adding, “It’s not like Starbucks where you grab your drink and go. We will have conversations with you if you want to have a conversation. … We make it a point to get to know people,” which yields lots of high-fiving and joking with customers.

The coffee shop extends back through a hallway, giving it much more room to work with than it first seems. And it’s put to good use. On Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Philip Levine of Mindful Footprint leads free meditations by the light of Edison bulbs. On Thursdays at 7 a.m., Hannah Proch of Maitri Massage leads massage-yoga ($10). Lately, around noon on Thursdays, Andrew Guthrie has been playing a harp he made by hand around the corner at MakeHaven. And every second and fourth Thursday at 6 p.m., the Lab hosts a board game night.

Besides weekly and biweekly events, the Lab also hosts an eclectic variety of one-off occasions. There was a glow-in-the-dark party after the last On9, a Mission Impossible movie marathon and a reiki workshop.

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But it’s not all fun and games and dancing and healing. Patel’s and Obiocha’s experiences as American-born sons of first-generation Indian and Nigerian immigrants, respectively—with each having returned to his parents’ home country to live for a period of time—informs their coffee shop experience. For them, the image of poverty isn’t just a TV image of a malnourished child but a cousin, or an old friend.

In 2011, Patel visited Tanzania and was deeply affected by the living conditions of the coffee farmers he met there. Upon returning to the States, Patel met Obiocha at a business incubator and shared his vision for a socially conscious coffee shop. Inspiring skepticism at first, Patel’s vision eventually won Obiocha over, and they went into business together.

With phrases like “Happiness for everyone!” and “creating a happier world for everyone to live in” dotting the ‘about’ section of the business’s website, you might think it all seems too idealistic. Maybe naïve. And if you’re already thinking that, this is really going to get you: Patel and Obiocha say they plan to dedicate “100% of net profits” to “help farmers break out of the cycles of poverty.” Looking inward, they strive to foster a healthy company culture by ensuring the highest-paid employee can never be paid more than five times as much as the lowest.

“If corporations are people,” says Obiocha, “then we want to make ours one that people would want to hang out with.”

The Happiness Lab
756 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 7am-6:30pm, Sat-Sun 9am-5pm
Website | Facebook

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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