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Elmo and the biofeedback loop of happiness

Elmo loves you, he just loves you, and everyone can understand that - Sesame Street Puppeteer Kevin Clash, has found the secret to the best biofeedback loop of them all. By making others happy for a living, he’s become one happy guy himself. Clash is the voice, wrist, and hand behind - or rather, inside - one of the most well known Muppets, Elmo.

I know what you are thinking. No, we haven’t spontaneously acquired toddlers. Clash is the subject of the newly released documentary, Being Elmo. Yes I watched it. Yes, I loved it. And, yes, you need to see it too!

Being Elmo chronicles how Clash’s childhood interest in making people smile through puppetry turned into a career of making people happy, which, in turn, makes him happy too. As a young, aspiring puppeteer, Clash honed his skills by preforming for sick children in hospitals. It wasn’t the captive audience which drew him to sick kids. As his parents narriate, it was all about making those kids smile. That’s exactly what Clash has spent the rest of his career working on.

Watching Clash, Elmo, Jim Henson, Kermit (both Love and The Frog), and Frank Oz light up as they bring smiles to others’ faces made me wonder: what are the keys to unlocking the happiness biofeedback loop and can we inspired more happines in the deliver of healthcare services?

Here is what I observed from Being Elmo:

  • Support - Clash’s parents encouraged him to pursue his dream, despite having restricted means. When Clash was a teen, his mom tracked down Jim Henson’s Muppet designer, Kermit Love, and asked him to mentor her son. Love agreed. One of Kevin’s Sesame Street colleagues reflects on the influence of his support system: Elmo is not Kevin, Elmo is Mr. and Mrs. Clash.
  • Focus - Kevin recognized his dream early. According to his brother: Clash stuck with his dream and stayed true to what he had in his heart.
  • Rapid iteration - When Clash made a new puppet, he sat in front of a mirror and tried hundreds of voices to find the one that fit. He glued himself to the TV and watched Henson’s Muppets and kept building new versions to try and figure out how they were built, to get it right. Once Clash took on Elmo, he tried different things with his hand to manipulate Elmo face, from that developed Elmo’s surprised, sad and confused expressions.
  • Be Inspired - Jim Henson, Frank Oz, the Muppet Show and Sesame street… hard to find better inspiration for happiness creators.
  • Have Mentors - Clash identified Kermit Love who coached him on making vowel sounds, puppet motion, manufacture, projection and character development.
  • Seize Opportunity - When Kevin’s senior class went to New York, he used the trip as way to afford to meet Kermit Love for the first time.
  • Go for broke - This seems to be a common theme among passionate, successful people; one which is hard for most of us because we’re tied to lifestyle, objects, locations, etc. For Clash when he was starting out, putting everything he had on the line, each time he auditioned or preformed meant taking risks - financial and personal. By taking those big risks, he also gained big rewards, scoring early roles on local Baltimore TV, with Captain Kangaroo and eventually the Muppets.
  • Curiosity - never stop learning. One of the first things Clash asked Kermit Love about was “the Jim Henson Stitch,” a sowing technique which resulted in a hidden seam between two pieces of material. Learning the stitch evolved Clash’s puppet making abilities.
  • Share your expertise - Clash traveled to France to teach the French cast about preforming Sesame Street. In one scene he shows how opening the puppet’s mouth, even a little bit, creates a subtle smile effect. When Clash does it for the first time, everyone’s face warms into a broad grin, subconsciously and automatically.
  • Stay Humble - When Kevin got his first chance to work directly with Frank Oz and Jim Henson, he was in awe, and so nervous he fumbled his lines. Clash, who had already had a lot of success at that time, says it reminded him to to stay humble.
  • Become Essential - Kevin became a key part of Sesame Street’s production, first as director, then executive producer; Part of sharing expertise
  • Be a mentor - When Elmo grows up, Elmo wants to be a teacher. When Elmo knows he helped somebody thats pretty important because it feels good. - Clash as Elmo to a live audience of Make-A-Wish children.

Towards the end of the documentary, Kevin Clash discusses how he approached creating Elmo’s personality: I knew that Elmo should represent love… And it worked. Almost instantly, after taking over Elmo, the majority of the time Sesame Street preforms for Make-A-Wish or sick kids, they ask for Elmo first.


I strongly believe healthcare, as a vocation, has a unique ability to foster the happiness biofeedback loop. Caring for others can, and should, make us feel good. I am excited to spend some time reflecting on the themes of Being Elmo and thinking about how they can be applied to enhancing the happiness we get out of working in healthcare. I’d also love to hear what thoughts and experiences you have to share.