Dr. Mimi Winsberg is a Stanford-trained psychiatrist with twenty-five years of clinical experience. She’s a cofounder of the tele-health startup Brightside and has been the on-site psychiatrist at the Facebook Wellness Center.
Her first book, Speaking in Thumbs (Amazon, Bookshop), hit shelves this week.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Mimi about happiness, habits, and relationships.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Mimi: Exercise. My go-to workouts are swimming, biking and running. After 10 minutes of having my HR up, my mood and outlook noticeably change. After 20 minutes my thoughts start to flow in more creative patterns. After 30 minutes, the rest of my day is all but guaranteed to be more productive. If I’m pressed for time, a cold open water swim recharges my brain faster than anything else.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
It’s inversely correlated with expectation. This is as true in romantic relationships—the subject I examine in my book Speaking in Thumbs—as it is in work or family. I’ve found that happiness is best stumbled upon as a byproduct of doing something challenging, rather than as a goal itself. It occurs most often when I’m communing with nature, collaborating with a friend or colleague, competing, or being creative.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
That the way we express ourselves in our romantic relationships, even through a medium as brief and concise as text messages, reveals much about our personalities, tendencies, and even the way we love.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Yes. Behavior change is one of the hardest things, but the greatest success I have seen, both individually and among my patients, is when we are able to assume a new identity. Think of yourself as a giving partner, and you will be generous. Think of yourself as an athlete, and you will exercise. Think of yourself as a writer, and you will write.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am a Questioner, but I question the validity of the quiz. [Gretchen: Very Questioner! Love it.]
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I have a hard time saying no to new opportunities, challenges, or requests for help.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Yes. When both my parents died rather suddenly within a short span well before I expected them to, it forced me to look at my life in a new way, as having limited time, and not wanting to linger in situations that were not satisfying.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“There comes a time in every life when the past recedes and the future opens. It’s that moment when you turn to face the unknown. Some will turn back to what they already know. Some will walk straight ahead into uncertainty.” – Phil Knight
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Amazon, Bookshop). I read this book while in medical school. It was a time in my life when I was trying to find the same kind of intensity and satisfaction in my personal life that is naturally provided by the structure and challenge of being a perpetual student and medical training. Flow offered a helpful construct that resonated for me, and since then I have always tried to live in the zone that exists between stress and boredom. It’s a concept that I revisit with patients often.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Mental health exists on a spectrum, and fluctuates over time. While we have diagnostic categories for communication and treatment selection purposes, struggling—whether in love, work, or beyond—is also a normal part of life.