Hello! Who are you?
Hi! I’m Nika Kabiri and I’m a decision scientist. I also work as Senior Director of Decision Science at Clio.
When I’m not working, I’m reading, writing, and watching films. Geeking out on whatever catches my interest. I live in the middle of nowhere, Colorado, so there’s tons of hiking and skiing around here, which I also get into.
Life is simple, which to me is a prerequisite for happiness. I spend more of my time doing what I want than what I don’t, which also makes it easier to be happy.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
In my early 20s, I suffered from depression and anxiety. I was suicidal and I was self-harming. I sought professional help, and over the course of several months, I was diagnosed with so many things, none of which really made total sense to me.
I was undiagnosed too (“We thought you were X but really you might be Y.”) At one point, my psychiatrist wondered if I was schizophrenic, which I’m not. Honestly, I still don’t have a clear name for my struggle. It was just… struggle.
I have some ideas about what led me to feel the way I did, but honestly, the search for answers in my past all felt like speculation and storytelling to me.
What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that memory isn’t what most of us think it is, according to scientific research anyway. In a nutshell, our memory sucks, not because we’re not smart or because we’re flawed in some way, but because the human brain is too limited to catch everything, process it correctly, and store it perfectly.
Studies have shown that a lot of our memories are really a result of our filling empty spaces of recollection with our own conclusions. And on some level, going through therapy and trying to sort out my past seemed like a futile effort. I knew I couldn’t remember it all. I wasn’t about to make parts of it up just to feel at ease. I wasn’t comfortable crafting a narrative about my personal history that may have sounded right but wasn’t based on evidence.
Now, because I’ve done decision science for so many years, I know that our efforts and piecing together our personal histories are clouded by cognitive biases. So, I decided to put more of my focus on the future than I had been doing.
I shifted my focus toward what to do next, and on what decisions I needed to make to live a better life. That mindset shift is what saved me. Before that, I was spinning my wheels, going nowhere.
Over the years, as I made better choices, my life became better and better. When I studied decision-making as an academic, my own choice-making leveled up. The more I learned about the science behind how decisions go wrong, I could improve my decisions. And sure enough, my life totally turned around.
Today, I don’t struggle. I don’t believe “happiness” is a goal as much as it is a temporary experience, but I can say that more of my life is filled with either neutral or positive feelings than with negative ones. And that's about as good as it gets.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
In my worst moments, my struggle made me feel like a failure. Which I later realized was such an exacerbation of the problem. I was so caught up in what it all meant - about who I was, whether or not I’d make it in life, whether or not I would ever fit in anywhere. All that focus on the meaning of it all… and I could never arrive at a solid answer.
Because I wasn’t using solid evidence to understand my situation; I was just using my own thoughts and feelings, which were terribly limited. I mean, one person cannot possibly know all there is to know in order to make sense of themselves or the world. Life is simply too complex for that.
Anyway, because I felt like a failure… because I decided that my struggles meant I was a failure, I did hide my struggles from other people. When I let my pain show, it frightened them anyway, so it was a sort of lose-lose situation, as far as I could see.
Feeling as distraught as I did, believing I was deeply flawed because of it, and going through it alone… all of those things together are a recipe for serious unhappiness. To put it very mildly. In reality, these things together were why I often felt suicide was the only way out.
But boy was I wrong. And I’m glad I was.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
I remember that moment vividly. I had been in therapy for about a year, maybe more. Had been on all sorts of meds. None of it improved my circumstances. None of it made me happier.
Therapy and medication have helped a lot of people, and I would never minimize that, nor would I advise anyone to quit. I learned a lot through treatment. But I still felt incredibly stuck and hopeless. I just knew I needed to take another route.
I had gotten an internship to work in another city for the summer, which was remarkable given how hard it was to keep it together. The first morning I woke up in this new city, far from my doctors, my family, and all my problems, I was able to see things with a fresh perspective.
I thought, “This is my chance.” That was the first time I realized that all I had was the ability to make my own choices. I was struggling and was deeply unhappy, but I could make decisions that might turn it around.
I believed that better decisions could get me where I wanted to go.
So, I stopped taking my meds and spent that summer doing things that were… healthy. When I returned home, I quit therapy and continued to make those healthy decisions. I cleaned up my diet, stopped drinking and smoking, and started eating healthy foods. I exercised. I spent time studying rather than going to bars.
And though those choices didn’t completely solve my problems, they elevated my circumstances to a place where I could clearly start thinking about what to do next. Sometimes, a few good decisions are all you really need.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
First, I cared deeply about making healthy life choices. Research consistently connects good sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise with better mental health.
However, it’s worth mentioning that depression makes these choices harder to swallow.
When I was depressed, I found it hard to move at all, much less go for a run. Research also tells us that depression makes us more likely to see all decision outcomes as being negative. In other words, when depressed, we tend to believe that no matter what we do, it won’t be worth it. If we can remember that this is a bias, that it’s our brain tricking us, we can override that urge to do nothing.
I also found it really helpful to write down a list of things I needed to do each day to stay healthy. This could be simple, like “no candy bars today” and “walk down to the end of the street and back.” Not only were these small goals more manageable, but when we achieve them, our brains release a chemical that makes us feel good.
So, the accomplishment alone was enough to lift my mood a bit.
Second, I found a goal. This really helped, because if you go through life just “rolling with it,” then you’re at the mercy of chance, and as I like to say, chance doesn’t care about you.
At first, my goal was simple: to survive, to make it through another day without contemplating suicide.
That’s not a bad objective to strive for. Eventually, my goal was to finish school. Then, get a job. And so on. Simple. Basic. I didn’t have huge dreams at first. Those came later when I was in a better place. At first, just have something to shoot for, and make sure that thing is a thing of goodness and positivity. A thing that will improve your life.
Third, I decided to work backward from my goal.
I asked myself, what do I need to make happen in order for that goal to be achieved? Then I worked to make those things happen.
When my goal was to finish school, the conditions for that were simple to understand: I had to stop all socializing and I had to study. But also, I had to spend less time with people who weren’t academic and more time with people who were. I had to have a better sleep schedule. I hate to eat well so my brain could focus. It all kind of comes together.
The decisions orient you and function as guides or guardrails. All you have to do is follow through.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
My personal story is a huge part of my professional mission, so I share it openly. It’s of course easier to talk about hardship when it’s all behind you. You can see the entire journey, from where you started to how you got here.
But I do have to mention that my struggle is not my identity. It’s what I went through but not who I am. In the same way, anyone who’s struggling is more than their struggle. We have so many sides to us, so many dimensions, but when we’re going through a hard time, it’s hard to see all those other sides. But we must.
I knew a woman once when I was going through psych treatment, that was also struggling very hard, trying to overcome very serious trauma. Her entire life was about coping with that trauma. But she was so incredibly funny. I mean… she was one of the funniest people I ever met. She was also shy, the last person to insist on being the center of attention, the last person who’d demand more from you than was fair. And she was a writer, really good with words.
I remember these about her as vividly as I remember her tragic personal story. She was a complete person. We’re all complete people. So, when we share our struggles, it’s important to remember that we are so much more than that and that we should just as openly share all those other parts of us too. We all have gifts to give.
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
One good decision can turn it all around. And if you make bad decisions, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. You are simply human, and humans aren’t great at decision-making. Our brains are too limited, and our social environments too influential. Making good choices isn’t easy but it’s far from impossible.
Choose to live a healthy lifestyle.
Choose connections with people that lift you up.
Choose goals that improve your circumstances, then make choices to get there.
Don’t wait for permission. Don’t fall for the myth that you have to be well first before you can do the right things. Doing the right things can make you well. You deserve it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
I love books about decision-making, books that are more about the science behind what makes us tick rather than self-help books. Here’s a list:
How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett really blows the lid off of how we commonly think emotions work. This book crystallized for me the notion that making decisions to feel better can make you spin in circles.
The Brain: The History of You by David Eagleman breaks down how the brain works in a way that’s fascinating and easy to understand. It also offers hope: the brain is wired at birth, but not hard-wired. We can change. We can adapt. We can be better.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman covers everything you need to know about how biases and mental shortcuts lead us in the wrong direction, often to places that aren’t great.
Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler is an interesting look at how the people around you influence your choices. Change your friends and you can change your life.
Where can we go to learn more about you?
I run the website YourNextDecision.com, which offers tips on how to improve your life or business through better decision-making. Feel free to subscribe, to get new tips every other week on making decisions better.
I’m actually working on a book about everything I've learned by overcoming my struggles. Subscribe to my website so you’ll be sure to know when the book is out.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
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