Dr. Samantha Boardman is a New-York-based positive psychiatrist, who is committed to fixing what’s wrong and building what’s strong.
I’ve known Samantha for several years—we’re interested in so many of the same things. Now she’s written a new book: Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength (Amazon, Bookshop). She offers science-backed, research-driven, actionable strategies for countering stress and building resilience—and building vitality!
I couldn’t wait to talk to Samantha about happiness, habits, and health.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Samantha: My default is to worry about what went wrong or was left undone so these days I make a point of cultivating or noticing at least two ordinary moments each day that are uplifting. If I’m not deliberate about seeking delight, I might miss it. Intentionally bringing the unseen and the underappreciated into view leaves an imprint of grace and goodness. This morning, I saw a magnificent red cardinal outside my window. It was pure delight.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 years old I believed that happiness was an inside job and up to the individual. Over the years I have learned that the most reliable wellsprings of happiness lie beyond the self. Everyday wellbeing resides not just in the head, but in the actions we take, the connections we make, and how we participate.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
That people can and do change. We often have fixed ideas about ourselves. We have trouble imagining ourselves any other way than the way we currently are. But research and life experience tell a different story. Looking back, it is obvious to see how much we have changed. Frankly, it’s a relief I am not the same person I was when I was twenty-one (and I’m not just talking about my fashion choices). Looking forward, it’s a lot harder to fathom the possibility of change or reinvention. Individuals who are open to the idea of growth are the people who tend to grow the most. Plus, just as it’s important to recognize your own potential to change and grow, it’s also important to allow for change in others.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I have a simple rule: whenever I’m with friends or family, I put my phone away. To minimize temptation, I keep it out of arm’s reach and out of sight. When I’m at home, I leave it in another room. When I’m out, I leave it in my handbag. I do my best to minimize my interaction with that little vampire of vitality so I can make the most of the time I spend with others. Being present and bearing witness are the essence of connection. Every moment spent staring at a screen in the presence of another is a moment un-shared.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I am an Upholder through and through. As you have written about, I tend to experience “tightening” over time, becoming even more attached to habits and routines. Sometimes this is helpful but it can also work against me. It took me a while to make peace with the fact that there will be days I won’t take 10,000 steps. I plan to come back as a Rebel in my next life.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Fatigue. When I was young, I prided myself on not needing much sleep, underestimating how significantly lack of sleep impacted every aspect of wellbeing—from my interactions to my mood to my motivation. I naively believed the circles under my eyes were a badge of honor, an emblem of a strong work ethic and symbol of stamina. How wrong I was. These days I make sleep a priority—being well-rested is not only good for me, it is good for the people around me.
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.?
I got fired. One day a patient I’d been seeing for a few months came in and said to me, “Dr. Boardman, I hate coming to our weekly sessions. All we do is talk about the bad stuff going on in my life. I’m done.” And she was. That was our last session. It was also a turning point in my life. Her words stung but she was right. Admittedly, I had not focused on much else. I was trained in pathogenesis—the study of disease—not salutogenesis—the creation of health. I was well versed in dialing down misery but knew little about factors that promote well-being or enable a good day. I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in positive psychology—the study of positive human functioning. In the program, I studied resilience, optimism, and post-traumatic growth. I learned about lifestyle and psychosocial factors that improve overall wellbeing. It was essentially the opposite of what I had learned in medical school. Studying positive psychology enabled me to think more expansively about what it means to feel mentally strong and healthy.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Know the difference between what is urgent versus what is important.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Books are constantly changing my life. There is so much to learn about oneself by plunging into someone else’s life and immersing oneself in a story that is different from one’s own. Whether it’s a biography, a memoir, or a work of fiction, I love the way books lift me out of myself and remind me that there are other ways to be. As I write about in Everyday Vitality, the mandate, “be yourself,” is not always the best advice, especially if it limits perspective, constraints potential, or provides an excuse for avoidance. Reading about the lives and choices of others—fictionalized or real—is an exercise in expansion and a window into alternative responses and reactions. It teaches me about the possibility of acting out of character and being “un-me” which ultimately helps me get closer to the version of myself I would like to be. Right now I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race (Amazon, Bookshop) about pioneering biochemist Jennifer Doudna who led the discovery of gene editing tool, Crispr. It’s un-put-downable.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
While self-care is important, it’s important not to forget about ‘other-care’ as a powerful source of vitality and resilience. Everyday opportunities and activities that foster growth and build positive resources are not “icing on the cake” but the active ingredients of wellbeing.