Happiness and joy during turbulent times

October 4, 2021

Originally published in Authority Magazine – October 4, 2021

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Iliniza (Nisa) Baty, LCSW.

Iliniza (Nisa) Baty, LCSW is the Director of the Behavioral Health Department at Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center that provides care to around 27,000 people at 14 sites across the greater Los Angeles area.

As Director, Nisa is responsible for providing leadership, administrative direction, and clinical supervision to the behavioral health team and works at the patient, staff, and system levels to ensure the organization provides high-quality therapeutic interventions that support improvements in patient functioning, mental health and well-being.

Nisa is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and is also certified in both Family Therapy and EMDR. Her specialties include trauma recovery, PTSD, mood disorders, postpartum depression, adoption and parenting issues and couples therapy. Activism and social justice are key components of her personal and professional life.

She frequently speaks and writes about exploring the topic of mental health and happiness during these turbulent times, including tips to help people to reduce stress, fear and anxiety as they resume broader social interactions and return to the workplace and group outings. She encourages people to identify something that resonates and brings joy whether it is music, journaling, art, having a cup of tea or nature. She also suggests exploring the root of fears in order to lessen anxiety, focusing on what one can control. She says getting outdoors, exercise, connecting with others and recognizing we are not alone are also important components to a sense of well-being.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a family committed to cross-cultural understanding and experiences. My father grew up in Lebanon and was a professor of anthropology and archaeology, and my mother spent time as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Together, they put a strong emphasis on recognizing ourselves as a small part of a larger global community. As a nod to that interconnectedness, my parents named me ‘Iliniza’ after a volcanic mountain in Ecuador.

When I was very young, my family moved to Mexico for my father’s work. That experience of living and going to school in a small, indigenous community outside of the United States was a major influence on my life, prompting ongoing curiosity and openness to learning, my dedication to equity and social justice and of course my career path. By the time I returned to the United States in first grade, I only spoke Spanish and had to relearn English.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

A desire to understand people by listening to their stories and learning from their experiences was deeply embedded in my DNA from an early age. When I was little, my mom took me to see Angela Davis speak. It was my first real exposure to hearing the atrocities of racial discrimination in the United States, and it was very impactful in terms of my career and focus on social justice — especially in the context of access to opportunities and health care. That speech, combined with my experience in Mexico and my parents’ teachings, are important pivot points that influenced my direction early in life.

Later, my own experiences with being in therapy, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and working as a respondent for a mental health crisis line in Seattle helped further shape my dedication to working to promote mental health and equal access to care. After responding to so many calls from people in distress, I realized I wanted to work therapeutically with these people instead of simply transferring calls to someone else. I went back to school, got my degree, worked in a variety of settings and ultimately joined Venice Family Clinic. The rest is history!

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

While this career always felt like a personal calling, there were several people who were instrumental in helping me become who I am today. First and foremost, my parents always gave me encouragement to pursue my academic passions and to be open to and curious about folks from all walks of life.

My peers at Occidental College who were in charge of the campus resident life program had a big influence on me as well: They encouraged students like me to prioritize student mental health and well-being. Eventually I became a Resident Advisor and enjoyed serving as a confidant and support system to students like myself. I remember once, during a big earthquake, when a number of international students who had never experienced earthquakes before ran into my room terrified. A few of them were quite traumatized by the event, and they ended up deciding to sleep in my room so they could feel the reassurance of connection and safety. It meant a lot to me to be able to provide a sense of comfort to them in their time of need.

As a Resident Advisor and then Hall Director the following year, I hosted wellness events, worked on sexual assault prevention, assisted students with stress management and worked on a collaborative to promote racial equality. Like Venice Family Clinic, where I now serve as the Director of the Behavioral Health Department, my college also maintained a strong commitment to promoting equity. As students, we constructed a “shantytown” on campus, successfully encouraging Occidental College to divest from South African investments that supported apartheid. These experiences and people were some who inspired me to pursue the path of helping others. My hope is that we all remember our interconnectedness and use our respective privilege to stand for one another.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I always use this story when working with interns or people new to the field: Before I was a parent, I worked as a therapist and facilitated parenting classes. We frequently discussed tips to establish clear rules for the home, whether that was “clean your room every Friday” or “no TV after 9 p.m.” Whatever those rules were — I would emphasize that parents stick to the rules and that was that.

Then I had kids and parenting became real. I quickly realized we need to have guidelines in the household, but there is no easy way to “stick to the rules”. It is much more about grace and permission to “try our best” knowing that some days we are more successful than others. This is the same philosophy I recommend to all new therapists as well as patients: Give yourself permission to not be perfect. None of us are. We are all learning. As people, all we can do is try our best and recognize that some days are better than others. Our responsibility is to show up as best we can in every single moment given the circumstances and tools that we have in each moment. The freedom from intense self-criticism is vital to growth and to a sense of well-being.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

There are two new exciting projects that we are working on at Venice Family Clinic, in addition to our deep dive into becoming more anti-racist, that I would like to shout out in particular. Through a substantial planning grant from the Tikun Olam Foundation, we discovered a need for early intervention for families with children ages 0–3. We are developing a program that aims to create a robust perinatal wellness program focused on the healthy development of young children and introduces a multi-pronged approach to healthy early childhood development.

Another project that is still in its infancy is the creation of a more robust programming offering safe space for the Trans and larger LGBTQ+ communities. In a world where people within these communities face resistance from many sides, Venice Family Clinic’s goal is to create a safe place where we can provide care and support. We currently have a bit of programming dedicated to this now, and our hope is to significantly expand it in the future. We are working to support folks from the Trans and LGBTQ+ communities not only from the medical perspective, but also from a therapeutic and identity standpoint. Programming is currently mostly focused on transitional-aged youth (teens and young adults) offering support groups, individual therapy and medical services. We recognize the broad spectrum of the community including those identifying as 2-spirited or nonbinary. We love the idea of creating a drop-in center and a more robust menu of services as we continue to grow the project.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • I am collaborative, I have a strong work ethic and I value integrity above all else. I try to lead by example and create space for the people I work with to flourish in their individual areas of strength. I work hard and I ask the same from my staff. How we show up is something we have control over in a world in which we don’t have much control.
  • I also recognize that a healthy work-life balance is vital, especially during this pandemic. I encourage my staff and coworkers to practice self-care in order to create balance and restore themselves, which in turn allows staff to provide services with greater competency. I do my best to model that balance of self-care and work ethic. With understaffing challenges and the departure of colleagues throughout this global pandemic, coupled with an enormous increase in the volume of patients who need support, my staff really stepped up to the plate in creatively developing workarounds to the traditional therapy model. Everyone pitched in and we have been able to meet patient needs by thinking collaboratively and creatively, while working passionately for our patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • I’ve recommended that my staff and coworkers take a vacation and make allowances so their own mental health doesn’t fall by the wayside. To demonstrate the importance of practicing what I preach this past year, I myself have taken a couple days off. I also turn my phone to silent when I practice yoga at night and I restore myself by hiking on weekends. I share the philosophy and my own experiences widely with staff and encourage them to do the same: Hold these boundaries and try to recognize that when you are off work, it is okay for you to be off work!

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

On this topic in particular, I have to give a big shoutout to my Mom, the eternal optimist. I grew up in a home where positivity didn’t need a label — it was just my family’s way of being. Being able to positively reframe situations and find the silver lining in situations, while being able to acknowledge and hold space for the spectrum of emotional states, has always been a strength of mine.

With that being said, I am no stranger to the biochemistry of depression. I experienced severe postpartum depression and know the supportive value of medication to help regain and resume mental health and stability. I tend to be conservative when discussing medication as an intervention and usually recommend it with therapy. That said, psychopharmacology can be very helpful in restoring mental health and well-being.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

Connection is so important, and ​​happiness is not about how much money you have. I think a major reason behind the rates of lower happiness in the U.S. is that we often neglect the value of time spent in connection with others for the sake of material gain. Many of us live to work instead of working to live. There is such an emphasis on productivity and staying busy that we forget the important sense of well-being that comes from spending time with others. Financial demands are real and money certainly helps, but there is no correlation between happiness and how many hours you have worked in a week.

Growing up in Mexico, and when visiting other countries, I felt the palpable sense of community and experience of happiness and well-being that arises from being with other people. That sense of collectivism instead of chronic competition is something I believe we should work to adopt across American culture. Examples of that do exist here: When I was pregnant with my first child, I was stunned by the generosity of communities where relationships are valued — and one local community in particular. At that time, I worked as a school based therapist and would facilitate parent support groups in addition to other duties. I was witness to the joy and levels of happiness within the groups for Spanish-speaking parents, who, although not wealthy, really enjoyed and made the most of their time together as a community. Parents would come in each day, bring food, share the space and spend time with one another. They also supported me throughout my pregnancy, and we regularly performed charitable acts like giving food to the people across the street experiencing homelessness. Sharing parenthood and these experiences with them gave me a true sense of community and family that had nothing to do with work, money or status. It was about being connected.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

I want to dispel the myth that happiness is expensive. It’s not. The idea that happiness can be bought and is not available to us, or that it is tied to some ephemeral goal just out of reach, is nonsense. Moments of joy rooted in gratitude are always available to us if we create the space and carve out moments to appreciate what we have and what is around us. Giving or receiving a hug elevates mood quickly and effectively, as does interacting with pets.

When I feel like I am losing myself in my latest to-do list and that there just isn’t time to take a break, I step back, take a deep breath and say okay — what are three things right now that I am grateful for. I will also carve out time to take five minutes for a quick walk outside and notice simple elements of nature like leaves on a tree branch blowing in the wind or a bird singing. Stretching and meditation are also great options. These are “mental resets” that are free and available to us all, and they are great shortcuts to consistently creating happiness during troubled or stressful times.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

Getting too invested in things we can’t control is a pitfall we all experience sometimes. Especially throughout this pandemic, I have seen people get sucked into the matrix of the news and become incredibly unhappy or afraid related to this chronic exposure to situations they can’t change. Constant exposure to situations out of our control results in feeling flooded, overwhelmed and bombarded with a sense of hopelessness. Instead, focus on what you can control and the positive aspects of life: We can control whether or not we wear a mask, whether or not we speak kindly to ourselves or others and whether or not we engage in a small routine of self care. Stay updated with a few headlines or news articles to stay abreast of current events, but then turn the page and move to an activity that is restorative.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

  1. Start Every Day With Gratitude: Take a moment each morning to be thankful for 2–3 things such as the bed you sleep in, the people you care about, the ability to move your body or the opportunities in front of you. Important tip: Do this before checking your email to establish that baseline gratitude and sense of well-being before the tasks of the day take over.
  2. Look for Silver Linings: Identify the positive wherever possible. Is your drive home from work taking longer than usual? Take the opportunity to listen to your favorite music, or call someone you care about to check in.
  3. Recognize What You Can Control: Your own actions, your effort and your attitude — these are what we can control. You can control whether the things you do and the people you associate with drain you or fill your bucket. I recommend associating with things, experiences and people that do the latter!
  4. Find a Way to Make an Impact: Even if it’s as simple as smiling and saying hello to someone random on the street, doing so may well brighten their day and make you feel better. As a personal example, I frequently create “care packages” including water, granola bars, a bar of soap and some blankets. I carry about five of them around in my car at any given time, and, if I see someone who needs it or is asking for resources, I stop to talk and give them a care package. I am also participating in the upcoming Women’s March on October 2. Finding a way to have a positive impact makes a difference and creates a sense of happiness.
  5. Take a Break From Electronics and Get to Nature: Take a break from your electronics, turn off social media and the news for a little while and get outside. Whether it’s by taking a walk around the block, going into your yard, or via an apartment window, notice nature. Nature is restorative. There is a real phenomenon called nature deficit disorder and we benefit so incredibly when we answer the call to connect with nature. Our bodies have a biochemical response to the soothing, cleansing sound of water, so I like to visit waterfalls or streams or listen to soothing apps with ocean or stream sounds. This instills a sense of calm and well-being.

Finally, a couple of easy daily tips to improve your mood:

  • Drink plenty of water! Your body’s chemical balance is so important in regulating mood.
  • Listen to music! It’s not just you — science has proven that listening to your favorite song helps activate creativity and learning in the brain and can lead to a happier mental state.
  • Identify something that resonates with you; journaling, art, music, walking, a cup of tea or coffee, reading, playing with your kids… When you have an idea of what you enjoy, give yourself permission and time to do it.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

As a society, we don’t do a good job of stopping and truly listening. Ask your friends and family how they are doing, really listen and be there for them. Establish a sense of trust and safety so they can honestly share how they feel. Instead of trying to always solve the problem, try to listen, be connected and be empathic — it does a lot of good! Invite people who may display symptoms of depression to share an activity like a meal or a short walk.

The combination of connection and active movement can really help. Some studies have found that yoga is as effective as medication and therapy in addressing anxiety and depression. Encourage people having a tough time to meditate, exercise and get outside as much as possible. If you notice your friend or family member is struggling more than usual, support them in getting connected to therapy, or at minimum talking to a doctor, about what they have going on. There are crisis lines and warm lines available that you can always call to get support for yourself, friends and family. Most importantly, if someone says they are suicidal, do not dismiss it. Immediately take appropriate action and connect with resources that can help this person. From there, do not leave them alone: Go to the Emergency Room with them, call the suicide hotline and do what you need to do to make sure they remain safe.

As always, Venice Family Clinic is here to help. We offer a full suite of compassionate and sensitive mental health services — from parenting counseling to substance abuse — through one-on-one counseling, group sessions and specialized care.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We need high-quality, comprehensive care made accessible to all, and two opportunities in particular stand out: One is to create more comprehensive housing options that offer on site integration of health services, education and job resources and substance use programming for people experiencing homelessness. The second is to provide universal healthcare across our nation, like Venice Family Clinic does locally.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I very much wish that I could have met Maya Angelou. I remember reading her book (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) as a young person and it had such a visceral impact on me. Her incredible resiliency — persevering through such traumatic experiences, living in a racist society and continuing forward having an incredible impact on others’ well-being — is a testament to the amazing things we as humans can achieve and the adversities we are capable of enduring which then we can use to positively touch others.

In terms of people who are still with us today, I would really like to meet three people in particular: Magic Johnson, Brené Brown and Naomi Osaka. Mr. Johnson is an incredible optimist and has made a huge difference as an advocate for services for people living with HIV. I am also inspired by Ms. Brown’s lessons about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. I admire Ms. Osaka’s bravery in spotlighting the need for athletes to tend to their mental health, as well as her decision to use her public platform to amplify the important message of the Black Lives Matter movement. It would be an honor to spend time with each of them.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!