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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Lisa Honig Buksbaum Of Soaringwords Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Lisa Honig Buksbaum, CEO & Founder of Soaringwords.

Lisa Honig Buksbaum lives in New York City where she is an author, social entrepreneur, and passionary — a visionary driven by great passion and action. As CEO & Founder of Soaringwords, a global non-profit that has already inspired more than 500,000 people to take active roles in self-healing to experience greater physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. (minimize health inequity.) Buksbaum is President-elect of the International Positive Psychology Association Health & Wellbeing Division where she hosts the Sci-Why: Thought-Provoking Conversations with Positive Psychology Thought Leaders show. Lisa is considered a Positive Psychology Thought leader. She’s a well-loved speaker and host of the SOARING into Strength Positive Health Initiative which has been shared with thousands of people in Fortune 50 companies; health & human service agencies; and community organizations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Since I was a child, I wanted to help. Whether it was rescuing a blind duck at a park or defending my younger brother against bullying when he experienced severe asthma attacks, I always found myself in the role of a helper during times of crisis. This experience expanded my awareness and compassion for children and adults who were differently abled or going through hardships. I grew up in a close-knit, loving, Jewish family in Northern New Jersey. My love of learning and creativity led me to be a teen reporter for the town newspaper and also to launch a national greeting card and stationery business featuring the universal hand sign for “I love you,” and other messages for people who are deaf. After graduating from Columbia with an MBA, I dove into the wild world of advertising at leading international advertising agencies. At 30 years old, I launched Boxtree Communications, a boutique marketing and advertising firm which specialized in strategic positioning and new product launches.

You are currently leading an initiative that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit more specifically about what you are trying to address?

Soaringwords’ mission is to inspire children, families, adults, seniors, and health care professionals to take active roles in self-healing to experience greater physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Our goal is impact — the greatest impact possible. To that end, we have developed a number of powerful programs based on the SOARING into Strength Model, which has been presented at 16 international scientific conferences. Since 2000, we have reached more than 500,000 people with our SOARING into Strength Positive Health Initiative workshops through partnerships with health and human service agencies, municipalities, community organizations, not-for-profits, companies, and 196 hospitals around the world. Soaringwords’ accessible, user-friendly platform benefits people at the most vulnerable times in their lives, when they are grappling with a wide range of challenges such as illness, trauma, grief, and the implications of living in a global pandemic.

The SOARING into Strength Positive Health Initiative includes 23 virtual or in-person workshops anchored by empirically valid behavioral exercises with a trauma-informed and person-centered approach to promote dignity, resiliency, and measurably improved well-being. These turn-key initiatives are fueled by the latest scientific findings in Positive Psychology and feature thought leaders who are approachable, likable, credible, and communicate cultural competency and humility. No other organization has amassed such an extensive lineup of internationally recognized positive psychology thought leaders in one comprehensive initiative including Dr. Richard Tedeschi, expert on Post-Traumatic Growth; Dr. Angela Duckworth, expert on resilience; and Dr. Kristin Neff, expert on self-compassion and many others.

It’s not uncommon that people attend a workshop or session and then have trouble retaining the knowledge or implementing what they’ve learned to make new habits. That’s why we created companion workbooks filled with Appreciative Inquiry prompts which encourage participants to internalize key concepts and learnings. We also support continued development with our Positive Dose Effect follow-up system: short, weekly video reminders that will help people experience meaningful and lasting change.

Since the COVID outbreak, long-term mental health issues have been emerging that need to be addressed now. Civic and health professionals are tasked to deliver additional services to existing clients while also responding to the needs of new clients seeking essential social services and mental health support. Soaringwords’ proven tools bolster the resilience and agency of health professionals and the individuals they serve so they’ll be better able to function and even flourish. Soaringwords is a synergistic fit with organizations that are committed to actively improve health equity and seek to promote the health outcomes of populations disproportionately affected by serious disease.

To date, these workshops have impacted communities including Silicon Valley, Tampa Bay, and Jersey City when Soaringwords was selected as the mental health component for the launch of the World Economic Forum’s Healthy Cities Initiative.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

As an adult, a phone call at four o’clock in the morning launched a trifecta of trauma that changed my life forever. Three experiences with death and illness occurred in my family in just 10 months. My beloved brother Gary died suddenly of an asthma-induced heart attack, my father was battling lymphoma, and my son became catastrophically ill. When my family’s world imploded, I felt as if I had become irrevocably damaged. Instead, I discovered my calling during a sunrise walk along the beach at the height of my son’s illness. I heard the word “Soaringwords,” and suddenly knew why I was born. I channeled my passion and resilience into a global movement that would inspire millions of people to never give up. My lifetime of experiences helping others through trauma, grief, illness, and setbacks — combined with my own personal experiences — led me to found Soaringwords the morning after my 40th birthday. Today, I am considered a Positive Psychology thought leader. Wherever people are within their journey, my goal is to provide illumination and inspiration as they seek to become the best version of themselves, even in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

Oftentimes, the most horrible situations in our lives can collide with the most powerful shifts in our lives. In this liminal space between the highs and the lows, we are transformed. The calling on the beach when I heard the word “Soaringwords” was certainly my “aha moment.”

One early morning, during the height of my son Jonathan’s serious illness, I was taking a walk on the beach to find a moment of peace. I started singing to the seagulls, to the sky, and to the heavens, which brought me to a joyous place of gratitude despite the current difficulties. As I sang each stanza, the sky shifted from nothingness to lightness. My steps grew brighter, too. The sky spilled out over the ocean for as far as I could see. It was magnificent. It was rejuvenating. My son’s neurologist had been right to recommend that the family move closer to the sea and I felt fortunate that we had the means to do so. The ocean air and waves were healing. I prayed they would wash their healing powers over our son, just like they were doing for me.

That’s when I suddenly saw the shape of a wave pop into my mind’s eye. I saw and heard the word “Soaringwords” loud and clear. It felt like it sounded and I got chills, stopping suddenly in my tracks. I understood that everything in my life had led me to this moment. I could use these things that my family had endured to help others. As I stood gazing out at the vast ocean, I realized that my true mission in life was to help children and families grappling with serious illness to find the inner strength that could help them endure impossibly difficult situations. I accepted the call that day on the beach and, 22 years later, Soaringwords has helped more than 500,000 people connect with their resilience, agency, and hope.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of the guiding principles of my life is synchronicity, which is defined as the simultaneous occurrence of events, which appear significantly related but have no discernable causal connection. Synchronicity is something that is universally experienced, but rarely talked about. It is coincidence that has a deeper meaning, like an internal GPS that opens us up to possibility and potentiality. I am what is called a high frequency coincidencer, so when I am “open to being open,” that’s when people and opportunities regularly show up at precisely the right moment. Here’s a favorite synchronicity story that resulted in one of the most interesting collaborations at Soaringwords.

People often use the expression “I have your back,” but the fortuitous way that I met the global head of work life at Johnson & Johnson was a time when I literally had her back. While attending the Working Mother Media 100 Best Companies Annual Conference, I had an unusual impromptu “power meeting” while waiting in line in the ladies’ room. The woman in front of me, named Wendy, was wearing a fashionable brown pantsuit and I noticed that she had a wad of chewed gum stuck on the seat of her trousers. I tapped her on the shoulder to inform her, and she was so grateful as she was just about to go onstage to accept an award.

Gum removal complete, I was delighted when Wendy received the inaugural outstanding diversity award named for Ted Childs, considered the father of diversity and inclusion in corporate America. Afterward, I walked over to her table to congratulate her on the honor. I shared with her about Soaringwords, and how we had led employee-engagement programs at Verizon, Cisco, and other leading companies. We exchanged business cards and scheduled a follow-up conversation that next week.

Six weeks later, I found myself presenting a workshop through Wendy’s office of Global Diversity & Inclusion at Johnson & Johnson. The workshop was titled What to Say and Do to Help Parents Grappling with a Seriously Ill Child, and was shared with thousands of J&J employees both in-person and live-streamed throughout multiple North American cities. From that initial impromptu connection with Wendy in the ladies’ room at a conference, I went on to lead hands-on employee engagement programs with thousands of J&J employees for more than ten years. One year, I was the inspirational speaker for 5,000 J&J employees in several countries.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

One of my favorite things to do is to meet new people and connect with them in meaningful ways. Over the years, when I’ve had the privilege of speaking at conferences, I have met many illustrious people who have joined the Soaringwords board and helped shape and grow the organization into a successful, thriving, global cause. Here’s the story of how Patricia David, former Global Head of Diversity at JPMorgan Chase, became an integral part of Soaringwords and enhanced my own life, as well. It demonstrates the power of an authentic personal and professional connection resulting in an exceptional alliance.

I’m a big hugger. So, at the end of the day at a conference, Patricia David and I exchanged a warm hug. She surprised me when she said, “Lisa, it’s great to see you! I think of you every day.” I inquired why that was and she replied that she loved the CNN series where Anderson Cooper finds ordinary people doing extraordinary things and proclaimed that I was her “CNN hero.” At this point, I did what any self-respecting non-profit founder would do: I burst into tears. Pat clasped my hand as I quickly pulled myself together and managed to say, “Guess what: I think about you every day, too. If I had someone with the integrity and stature of Pat David on my board of directors, I would be unstoppable. Pat, if you really meant what you just said, would you join the board?” She did just that, assuming the role of chairperson, which was a position she held until her retirement from banking. Soaringwords went on to be a lead national partner with the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, and we led employee engagement initiatives for several years for thousands of employees throughout North America. When you invest time in becoming the best version of yourself and live your professional life with personal integrity and authenticity, you attract incredible people that can enhance your life and build your organization.

A significant mentor who changed my life is Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the field of modern Positive Psychology. Marty is a best-selling author, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and former president of the American Psychological Association. Marty was my teacher and mentor while I was in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at UPenn. He launched an entire field with his paradigm-shifting insight that scientists ought to be studying what makes humans flourish. This expanded the former, narrower trajectory of traditional psychology that had focused on illness and suffering. My path to studying under Marty happened fortuitously one stormy afternoon in New York City when I literally stumbled upon his book Flourish on the escalator in Barnes & Noble. I looked down to the lower floor while going upward and suddenly saw a book that appeared to be flashing with light. It was one of the strangest things that has ever happened to me, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it since. I spun around and returned to the lower level, following this strange sight to a stand where I picked up Flourish. As I held it in my hands, I smiled and whispered, “I think I’m supposed to read you.” I voraciously completed the book and immediately knew that I wanted to earn my MAPP degree under Marty’s tutelage. As a passionary — a visionary driven by great passion and action — I knew I had to become part of the growing Positive Psychology community in order to embed the latest scientific discoveries into the initiatives at Soaringwords that my team and I had developed.

The MAPP program included a thesis project where I could do my own research to measure the impact of Soaringwords’ programs on the well-being of ill children, their families, and the health care professionals who were devoted to them. I also knew that this opportunity would provide a chance to learn from and meet dozens of leading experts in Positive Psychology who were scholars in residence at the program. I wanted to invite them to donate their life’s work to Soaringwords’ cause by sharing their insights to enhance our programs. In the fall of 2012, 11 years after launching Soaringwords, I returned to my alma mater to study with Marty. At our graduation in 2013, he selected another classmate and me to present at the global MAPP summit. Since then, my SOARING into Strength Positive Health Model and research has been presented at 16 international scientific conferences and was selected as the mental health component for the World Economic Forum’s Healthy Cities Initiative launch in Jersey City.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

The blessing of COVID is that we’re finally talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is mental illness, depression, and anxiety. Still, many people have tremendous shame about admitting that they or someone in their family is suffering. There’s a famous expression, “We are as sick as our secrets.” The pernicious nature of secrets amplifies the sense of isolation and despair that people already carry when they or someone they love has a mental health condition.

Much of the stigma correlates with an individual’s age and how they were socialized. Over the past 15 years, I have noticed that people younger than 30 years old are much more open about discussing their mental health challenges and conditions as part of their experience. At the same time, people who came of age from the 1940s through the 1980s were more likely to be socialized to keep illness, including mental illness, under tight wraps with the mistaken belief that people would judge them and their families harshly or become socially ostracized. Some examples include that people would not want to marry into a family that had someone with mental illness or that you could be denied a job or promotion if your diagnosis was discovered.

Additionally, cultural backgrounds shape one’s receptivity to sharing openly about mental illness. Individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds or cultures may have a history of being taken advantage of or abused by the traditional, Western medical establishment, resulting in hesitancy to trusting mental health professionals. At the same time, other cultures value promoting a sense of strength at all costs — which gets in the way of reaching out when they or a family member needs professional help.

Over the past 22 years, I’ve witnessed thousands of outstanding positive health outcomes from patients in behavioral health units when these people were invited to create a Soaringwords pay-it-forward message and artwork to donate to children in local hospitals. Suddenly, these people realized they have something valuable to share with a vulnerable child or family. The invitation to do something altruistic and kind awakened their creativity, excitement, and pride. This positive shift helped minimize something called reification when the patient starts identifying themself as an extension of the illness, rather than a unique individual. Once someone experiences a micro-moment of positivity in this profound, enjoyable, and meaningful way, it opens up possibilities for further breakthroughs and progress to become more liberated, accepting, and self-loving even in the midst of setbacks and challenges.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individually

At some point in all of our lives, we will experience some sort of trauma, loss, or illness. In our hyper-connected world, we also experience secondary trauma when we continually witness the tremendous suffering of so many others around the world. We have the opportunity to reach in and reach out to get the support from family, friends, and mental health professionals so that we don’t suffer in shame.

Society

As a Positive Psychology thought leader, I believe in a holistic, preventative approach rather than the western medical model of strictly diagnosing and medicating people who experience profound grief, sadness, depression, and anxiety when real life happens. Instead, I advocate for a complimentary approach to include the latest medical advances while also teaching people that they have tremendous resilience and agency to take active roles in their self-healing.

Government

Health care is a right, not a privilege. The government needs to make preventative holistic services accessible to individuals in the most marginalized communities. Accessibility happens when individuals can have healthy food, secure housing, safe communities, the ability to be educated, and the opportunity to be employed in jobs with a living wage. Since 2019, Soaringwords has collaborated with municipalities and health and human service agencies to scale our proven SOARING into Strength Positive Health Initiative. Our goal is to enable everyone, especially those who are experiencing health inequity, to have access to the leading experts in the world who can teach them how to embrace simple-to-use Positive Psychology tools to enhance their physical, emotional, and mental well-being regardless of where they live.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own well-being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Feeding my passion, creativity, and joy.

I am passionary, so zest and vitality are important ways I express myself. Passion, creativity, and joy are like breathing for me and I love to create new workshops, blog posts, videos, healing tools, and collaborations. I love to follow my passion and use all of my creativity, energy, and talent to create initiatives that make a difference. Over the past 22 years, I have secured 37 trademarks for various Soaringwords’ healing initiatives that we’ve created. Writing my debut memoir SOARING into Strength: Love Transcends Pain was healing as I shared stories from my life to help other people who are going through challenges or setbacks. Two years ago, I started weekly voice lessons with a wonderful teacher and together we created the SOARING into Strength Spotify playlist where we selected 50 poignant or nostalgic songs to coincide with the fifty chapters. Currently, I am collaborating with Broadway directors, producers, and A-list actors to transform the book into a one-night benefit performance to raise money for SOARING into Strength Positive Health initiatives throughout North America. It’s so exciting to be surrounded by brilliant, creative people who want to bring health equity to the most marginalized individuals. Passion, creativity, and joy are essential to nourishing my well-being and mental health and also a generative way to strengthen my connection to others

2. Working out: Bring on the endorphins for physical and mental health.

Swimming is my personal joy. I always feel focused and energized by the end of the first lap — no matter what is going on outside of the pool. Even as I’m walking to the gym, I start feeling excited just knowing that my mind and body will soon be fully immersed in gratitude and movement. I follow-up my swim routine six days a week with 45 minutes on the elliptical machine and the floor mats. Plus, New York City is a great place to walk, so I usually walk about two to four miles a day instead of taking the subway or taxis.

Movement has many scientifically proven benefits including boosting positive emotions, lessening fatigue, improving motivation and attention, helping mood and anxiety regulation, lessening feelings of depression, improving feelings of self-worth, and giving a sense of agency and control. Many people have the mistaken belief that the mind and body are separate and distinct from one another. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. As we move through life, our emotions, bodies, and thoughts travel together in an integrated, holistic way. In fact, Albert Einstein once said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Here’s a fun fact: Einstein said he actually thought of his Theory of Relativity while riding his bicycle!

3. Prioritizing alone time: Self-care connects me to my center.

It’s easy to be a human-doing instead of a human-being. So, at the end of an action-packed day filled with too many Zoom meetings to count, I love to be alone and far away from my trusty computers. My favorite go-to activities are to take a 30-minute walk in Central Park and then slide into a warm candle-lit bath. These small actions make me happy and calm. When we learn to appreciate ourselves in a loving, authentic, generous way, we start to enjoy the company we keep when we are by ourselves. And that’s something worth celebrating.

4. Spirituality: Celebrating a 25-hour shabbat, restorative time with family and community.

Each week, my family and I usher in the Jewish Sabbath by lighting candles on Friday night and enjoying dinner and songs together. On Saturday mornings, we go to synagogue where we sing, pray, and hear an inspiring talk linking the centuries-old sacred text of the Torah to relevant global events with opportunities to make the world a better, more peaceful place. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said when he marched with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We are praying with our feet.” Each week, when I celebrate the Sabbath through song, prayer, meditation, reading, and napping, I am rejuvenated and re-energized.

5. The healing power of Paying-it-forward.

When challenges, illness, and setbacks occur, altruistic acts often can reduce isolation and despair. I developed the SOARING into Strength Positive Health model as the foundation of my capstone thesis at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of Positive Psychology. The “A” in the SOARING model stands for Altruism. When I launched Soaringwords in 2000 and began leading weekly programs in pediatric hospitals, inner-city schools, and community centers, many people thought it was counterintuitive to ask hospitalized children or adults going through catastrophic illness or loss to pay-it-forward and do something altruistic. They argued that we should be giving these people gifts, sending them on vacations, or distracting them with movies, games, or videos. There are hundreds of wonderful organizations that provide these services. My vision was that the best way to mitigate isolation and despair and elevate well-being was to remind people who are grappling with challenges and setbacks that they have a sense of agency, creativity, and empathy which lessens the impact of them feeling that they have lost themselves to illness or crisis. There’s something called reification when a person starts to identify themselves as their disease. When children and adults are invited to do something altruistic, fun, and meaningful to bring cheer to another person, it reminds both people of their core identity, self worth, and their strength.

Of course, foregoing my career in the corporate world to build a global nonprofit movement was a massive personal pay-it-forward decision that has enhanced my life, as well. Leading SOARING into Strength workshops and interacting with thousands of people whose lives have been elevated is the way I have also received the healing benefits of altruism.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

My favorite books show the invisible lines between well-being and mental health fissures that we experience along the journey. When I connect to a person’s vulnerability, authenticity, and lived life experiences my heart and mind are transformed. Memorable books include, but are not limited to, The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo; One Thousand Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; Flourish by Dr. Martin Seligman; and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I am also continually inspired by The Torah. We read a different chapter each week, year after year, and although the text is the same, I grow and evolve as I interact with the stories at a different place and time. This allows me to discover and uncover new answers and epiphanies.

Podcasts I enjoy listening to are The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks and Krista Tippett’s On Being. I also have been a guest on many podcasts which inspire me, including Psych Central’s Inside Mental Health with Gabe Howard and Passion Struck with John Miles. I currently host a show for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) called Sci-Why: Thought Provoking Conversations with Positive Psychology Thought Leaders, which allows me to share the latest developments from people at the front lines of mental health. In 2023, I’ll be launching a weekly SOARING into Strength podcast to reach a wider global audience.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

In these turbulent times, I am reminded of the great Ukrainian sage Rabbi Nachum of Breslov, who lived from 1772–1811. He said, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” When we open our hearts and minds to share the best within ourselves,we can and will enhance the world. Individually and together, each one of us has an obligation to share our stories, privilege, and experience to help others.

How can our readers follow you online?

Linked in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisabuksbaum/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Soaringwords

Twitter: https://twitter.com/soaringwords

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/soaringwords/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/Soaringwords

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@soaringwords.org

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

About the Interviewer: Inspired by the father of PR, Edward Bernays (who was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew), Michelle Tennant Nicholson researches marketing, mental injury, and what it takes for optimal human development. An award-winning writer and publicist, she’s seen PR transition from typewriters to Twitter. Michelle co-founded WasabiPublicity.com.

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