Lots of things are pitched to us as consumers with the promise that buying will make us happy. Products, vacations, social media apps, you name it.

Nancy O'Brien and Linda Saggau are pretty close to selling happiness itself.

One problem in trying to convey how this can be a promising business opportunity is just the term happiness. Can they possibly be serious?

Happily, O'Brien and Saggau have carefully defined what they mean, and they seem about as far from frivolous as two entrepreneurs can get. By digging a bit into their business, it's easy to see how there might be something far bigger here than a successful small business.

Saggau and O'Brien are founders and partners of a Minneapolis firm called Experience Happiness, and in a conversation together they seem to take turns telling one story. Both have varied backgrounds in business consulting. What has become Experience Happiness began as a friendship years ago, after a Best Buy Co. executive they both were pitching for business refused to meet with either of them again until they had first met with each other.

It took some years as friends before they learned from each other that neither of them could be described as happy or even healthy.

"What we didn't know then, what we know now, is that we were each suffering from burnout," O'Brien said. "And we had done all the stress-management classes and training. We were following the rules. So we did not set out to build a business called Experience Happiness; we set out to save our lives."

Burnout is usually defined as a kind of physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from spending far too much time living with far too much stress.

As they described this period last week, they explained how they had realized they didn't know what happiness was. For Saggau it seemed mostly like trying to just stay positive all the time, remaining "up." Or worse, happiness came from something that happened to you, like collecting a bonus or seeing a child come home from school with good grades.

They came to define happiness as an innate ability to remain serene and excited about your life, no matter what was going on around you. Bonus or no bonus, you can remain happy. In this way it's even possible to be happy while also grieving the death of someone close to you.

People need to understand that they can elevate their goal from just getting by, Saggau said, and that they can and deserve to be happy. To get there takes practice.

What they call the Happiness Practice is envisioned as a six-month course covering five principles. The uninitiated do one practice at a time for a month and then move on. While some of this might look familiar to people trained in practices like meditation or what's called mindfulness, mastering them may not be as easy as it looks.

Principle one they simply call "be conscious." The resulting practice starts with taking deep breaths to calm down a few times a day, then carefully noting both what you are doing and what you are feeling.

If you read this and think, "How could someone lose track of what they are actually doing?" well, trust me, it can happen all the time.

Principle three is one that seems most intriguing, and they call it "release control to be empowered." The practice calls for three steps, done three times a day. It's about completely giving up the notion that we can get others to do what we want or that we can demand that circumstances go our way.

As these practices took shape, the project Saggau and O'Brien were working on was a book. Among the good advice they picked up along the way was that people didn't need another book but could really use better tools to improve their lives.

Saggau and O'Brien had already been sharing their practices with groups, sometimes at the invitation of friends, and a friend suggested there might also be a need in work settings. To make happiness practices seem more meaningful to a business manager, they created measurements that might make sense, like employee engagement scores. This thinking is now baked into something they call the return on happiness measure.

They took their program to travel company Carlson and then later into the emergency services unit of Hennepin Healthcare, at a time when Hennepin County's health care system was rolling out a series of well-being programs for employees.

One reason the health system was open to the Happiness Practice was that improvement in patient satisfaction scores had been slower than hoped, explained Sheila Delaney Moroney, Hennepin Healthcare senior director and patient experience officer. In digging into the root cause, she said, managers saw that a big factor was staff burnout.

"This one probably got the most-often raised eyebrows," she said; the Happiness Practice was rolled out to 185 or so employees about the time other well-being programs were. "The word happiness at first blush can sound trite, especially in an environment where the stakes are so high and the work is so serious. But once somebody would participate and dig in just a little bit below the surface, they would realize just the language of happiness wasn't what you need to focus on."

These projects were hands-on and Saggau and O'Brien have trained additional facilitators to lead courses. They have used some third-party online curriculum platforms, but now the company seems about to make the transition from what's basically been a small consulting or training firm into an operating company with a product.

The impetus came from an unsolicited inbound last year from Finland, where some sharp-eyed staffer had spotted the Happiness Practice on Twitter. As it turns out, improving happiness had been a Finnish government objective.

Saggau and O'Brien soon found out that these Finnish officials didn't need to be sold. They had read everything they could on the Happiness Practice and had already made up their minds. Come to Finland, they said, and let's get started.

With the project in Finland underway, the founders have begun exploring raising capital. Among other things, the money would fund the refinement of the Happiness Practice and related tools into online products. That includes eventual availability on a smartphone. But one thing that doesn't seem likely to change is the daily practice of the founders.

"Neither one of us are gurus," Saggau said. "Oh my gosh, we're the opposite of gurus. We're in our practice with people and we just share it, because we're just like everybody else. We've got to do the work. You don't stop brushing your teeth."

lee.schafer@startribune.com 612-673-4302