Dr. Samantha Boardman, EVERYDAY VITALITY

Dr. Samantha Boardman, EVERYDAY VITALITY

“The most vital things we do —the best antidote to stress— are actually doing things for someone else.” Psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, MD, joins Zibby to talk about the patient who inspired her to pursue positive psychology and the lessons she learned on that journey, which culminated in her new book, Everyday Vitality. Samantha shares the easiest ways we can all start reviving our own vitality (hint: we can’t do it alone) and tells Zibby about the ways she has applied her practice in her own life, proving positive growth and change are possible for everyone.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Samantha. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Samantha Boardman: Thank you so much for having me. I’m just thrilled to be here. Thank you.

Zibby: I really enjoyed your book. I think it is so useful, the combination of your own personal experience, the tips you give. I feel like you were speaking to me, a very busy mom, woman. You’re speaking to everybody who needs a little bit of help just making their lives a little bit better. It was great. It’s actionable advice and all the rest. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book’s about and what inspired you to write this?

Samantha: Thank you again for having me on. I think you make everyone’s life a little bit better, who listens to your podcast. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, thank you.

Samantha: I was inspired to write the book — it’s taken me a while to do it. The quarantine helped me finish it. It’s been in the works for about four and half years. I really wanted to write about vitality. This all started a long time ago when I was fired by a patient I had been seeing for a couple of weeks. I thought we were making great progress. We were talking about all of her problems and trying to minimize and dial down what was going wrong with her and in her life. One day, she came into my office and said to me, “You know what? I hate coming to see you. All we do is talk about the stuff that’s going — it’s all going wrong. We never talk about anything else. That’s it. I’m done.” I never saw her again. She’d been overwhelmed with her husband. She had three kids under the age of eight. There was a lot going on, many balls in the air. I think many people can relate to that. She said, “I dread coming here. Even sometimes if I’m having a good day, I’m like, what can I complain about there?”

It really made me rethink everything I thought I knew about medicine and psychiatry. In medical school, you’re taught to — you percuss lungs. You auscultate abdomens. You palpate prostates. You’re looking, what could be going wrong here? Then in psychiatry residency, you’re basically doing the same thing. You’re looking at a set of symptoms thinking, what’s wrong now in this person’s brain? What can I do to minimize their misery, to treat their symptoms, and bring them back to baseline? What I was realized was I was just so focused on pathology and disease. I wasn’t really focusing at all on health. I think the practice of psychiatry actually really is the focus on disease. I thought I needed to expand my horizons. I ended up going back to school at the age of forty, getting a degree in positive psychology, studying resilience, post-traumatic growth, optimism, the opposite of everything I had learned in medical school, and then incorporating it into my practice. I think of myself as a positive psychiatrist. Long way to answer, that’s how this book was born, out of that.

Zibby: Wow. I know, I couldn’t believe that you went back to school with kids and everything. You’re already a doctor. That’s just amazing to even make that life choice. It dovetails with all the suggestions you make for other people of how to live a happy life. By doing that, you were finding the skills to put those things in action for yourself, which is great.

Samantha: It was definitely embodied. I really felt like I had to embody all of this. I really do try to practice what I preach. Sometimes I really can be a bit of a grump. I can let things get in the way. I really tried to bring that, and even my own vulnerability, into the practice of it.

Zibby: You talk in the beginning, you say there are three main wellsprings of everyday vitality: meaningfully connecting with others, engaging in experiences that challenge you, and contributing to something beyond yourself. People talk about, what’s the secret of life? How do you achieve happiness? There are so many different theories. This makes so much sense to me. Then later, you said, “Almost half of the people surveyed said they frequently experience daily stress, and more than forty percent said they feel as if they don’t have enough time. Their lives are nonstop with a to-do list that seems bottomless. Often, a lack of vitality only amplifies their stress. Patients often just give up and sigh, I guess that’s life.” Then you say, “Ironically, how people respond to daily stress is often the opposite of what would give them strength. Choices like canceling plans with friends, eating comfort food, staying up late watching television, and skipping the gym offer temporary relief but further deplete vitality.”

One more little thing. You said, “I believe that vitality is cultivated and enhanced through productive and meaningful actions: having a good conversation, doing a favor for someone, going for a walk, reading an interesting article and then calling a friend to discuss it. These commonplace experiences and micro-moments are the building blocks of everyday resilience. They are other-oriented. They are outward-oriented. They are action-oriented. They are not internal, nor individual, nor do they require sustained self-immersion. On the contrary, they require engagement and interaction.” I love that. That is just so awesome. I was sort of putting your lens on happiness and vitality onto what I do, for instance. I changed my entire life. Now this is what I do. I try to explain to people, every day, I have these amazing conversations. It’s unbelievable. Everybody should have a podcast. I get so much out of it. People say, aren’t you exhausted doing four podcasts a day? I’m like, no, it’s this dose of energy I get from each one. You even have a whole thing on communication. I’m rambling. Anyway, talk to me about all of that.

Samantha: No, I love that. I do think what you do every day is truly vitalizing. I think it is in those connections. We often talk about mental health and health in general. It’s the eating well and moving and sleeping well and all that. Those are all critically important. Also, the lifeblood of well-being is our connections with others. It’s sort of neglected. I have many people who tell me — I do this too unless I’m deliberate about it. If I’ve got a to-do list, the personal connections will probably be the thing that drops to the bottom of it. By the end of the day, I just don’t really have the energy. So really being deliberate about expanding yourself in some way. I think there’s so much pressure even in therapy in today’s world to feel like, okay, I have to dig into myself. I have to self-immerse. I have to wallow in my emotions. I’ve got to Eat Pray Love my way into well-being. Maybe I need to go away for a month. I need to do something that’s super self-absorbed.

Actually, that can steal vitality. When we become so self-immersed and so self-focused that we lose those connections and we prioritize oneself — people always say you have to always put on your lifejacket, life preserver before you put on someone else’s. Yes, at thirty thousand feet, but actually, you can do both/and. I think we’ve got this either/or mindset. I wanted to shift back to that because the most vitalizing things we do, the best antidote to stress is actually doing something for someone else. It’s really empowering. I love this study. It was for, I think it was sixth and seventh graders. They asked the seventh graders to give advice to sixth graders about their best study habits. Then other sixth graders were given advice from teachers, other ones from parents. You’d think, obviously, the teacher, the parents have better advice. I always think I’ve got great advice to give to my kids. The amazing thing was, the kids, the seventh graders who were giving the advice to the younger kids, their study habits improved as well as the sixth graders’ study habits improved. Sixth graders were actually more receptive to a peer, a student telling them what to do. Also, the act of giving of advice and using your experience to help somebody else is so motivating. That’s where motivation comes from, is when we feel like we’re effective in this world. There’s studies looking at that with weight loss, with saving money. Motivation is something that we often tap out of. Actually, others are a wellspring of motivation too, and when we’re doing something for someone else.

Zibby: It’s so true. I feel like you give such specific suggestions that make it like, okay, this isn’t so hard. I can do this. For instance, with exercise, you say when you’re exploring exercise options for yourself, invite a friend who’s had a recent loss to go for a walk. Send a teenager off to college with a yoga mat. Offer to be a gym buddy to a friend going through a divorce. Watch a friend’s baby so she can do an online workout. It’s this whole theory of being of service to somebody else. It just doubles down on your own — the more selfless you are, it actually benefits you more, right?

Samantha: Totally. Other-help is self-help. I think self-help can become so narrow. I think of this book, in a way, as an other-help book too. Really, it helps you in every way. When we’re overwhelmed at the end of the day, it’s the last thing you feel like doing. Sometimes the only way to get yourself to do that is — I write about it like, you can’t be a flake. I go for a walk every Friday with a friend of mine in Central Park. We always do it. Every Friday morning, I’ll be like, I don’t really want to do it. If I call Kiki up and I bail on her, will she be upset? I’m sort of guilted to do it. Then I’m so happy I went. You never regret those actions that you take. We have a great time. We have fun in the park. We walk around for an hour. Then I look forward to it right afterwards. Then Thursday night, I’m like, how can I get out of this?

Zibby: What do you think that is? I do that all the time. I feel like I want to cancel every plan I make. I’m always like, ugh, why are we doing this? Why did I accept this? We don’t have to stay long. My husband is always like, “Why don’t you ever go to a party without saying, we don’t have to stay that long?” I feel all this anxiety about it. Then I always have the best time. I don’t know.

Samantha: I totally agree with you. It is like Groundhog Day. You’re back to that place again. Why are we doing this? I do think, though, maybe emerging — maybe it’s too soon to say emerging from the pandemic. At least, as we reenter our social lives, we have this opportunity to socialize better and be, maybe, a little pickier about who we connect with and how we connect. Research shows that the two main social connections that really boost us are having meaningful conversations — six people is the limit for that. Dinner with six friends, absolutely. A huge cocktail party, maybe not. The second thing in addition to meaningful conversations is the experience of feeling loved and supported and understood in some way. That’s this experience of felt love. When you have a conversation with your spouse or your kids, it’s just saying, tell me more, I’d like to hear more about that, and giving them your full attention, not having your phone with you, or even doing things beyond their awareness like when you know they’ve got to drive somewhere the next day and you fill the car up with gas, those little things that provide these little gestures of support. You don’t need to be sending chocolates or flowers. There’s these little things in our everyday that we’re not really paying attention to and we’re not deliberate about just because life gets in the way. When we do pay attention, it’s so easy. It feels really good.

Zibby: My husband Kyle, when I first got together with him, everyone we would meet or he would see or whatever, a waitress or someone in the elevator, just anyone, he’d be like, “Great shirt,” or whatever. “I love this. I love this.” I’m like, “Why are you always talking to all these strangers?” He’s like, “What do you mean? That might have made their day. That might have been the only time someone said something nice to them all day long. Why not?” At first, I was like, is he really this nice? Come on. People aren’t nice like this in New York City. He was totally genuine. Now I find myself doing the same thing all the time, not in any sort of calculating way. First of all, it’s just noticing the good things about other people. I feel like before, I was so in my own head. I wouldn’t necessarily be like, oh, wow, amazing shoes. I wouldn’t say, amazing shoes. Now that’s the first thing out of my mouth. When you’re in such a down place, it’s so hard to do any of that or to see any of that and to claw your way out. I feel like once you get the ball rolling, it’s easier to keep it going, obviously, physics and all that.

Samantha: It’s amazing, though, how you talk about your husband doing that. The contagion effect, you caught that noticing. Really, our bandwidth of attention, I think our brains are just primed to look for bad stuff or to focus on ourselves and turn inward in tunnel vision and be little turtles. When you are around somebody who’s a little bit more expansive and looks around, it kind of forces you to. Then you’re probably much more like that around your kids now and around other people. There’s a lot of research — maybe he’s a psychologist. I don’t know. There’s so much research around incidental interactions with those strangers. One of the things about COVID, too, I remember missing so much was the guy who walks his dog on the street. I don’t know his last name. I wasn’t doing Zoom cocktails with him, but those interactions that are really meaningful and really important with people. Even when you’re picking up your coffee in the morning, to look up from your phone. How are you? Thank you. People who do that actually do go on to have a better day. I think there are a lot of opportunities that we might miss if we’re just stuck in our own heads.

Zibby: It’s so true. I had this one experience. I don’t even know why I’m bringing this up. I went into the Tasti D-Lite on 3rd Avenue. The woman behind the counter was being just so rude to everybody. My first instinct was to get annoyed and just put my hackles up in response to her being rude. As I watched her serve the people in front of me, I was like, I wonder what’s going on with her. Maybe something’s wrong. Why would she be doing this? When it was my turn, I said something like, “I’m sorry, it looks like you’re having a really bad day,” or something like that. She burst into tears. She was like, “Yes, I’m having the worst day. Oh, my gosh.” I was like, “It’s okay.” All to say, it’s very easy to help people out with just a comment, just one thing, just to pay attention. Then it improves your vitality so much. I’m so on board with your whole concept and spreading the joy that you can find, especially because you just so nailed it with the people being so tired and all of that, and comfort eating. Not to say I don’t do that. I do all of that stuff.

Samantha: Don’t we all? Yes.

Zibby: Tell me a little about writing this book. I know you said it was a long process. That story had happened before you — you even had this meeting with Angela Duckworth in the middle of it talking about her book and all of that, oh, my gosh. Tell me about turning this into a story and what that was like for you.

Samantha: It was torture, honestly. Now looking back, I’m like, oh, my gosh, how did I do that? It took me a really long time. I was so broken down by it. There’s that old saying. Everyone has a book in them, and for most of them, that’s where it should stay. I was like, if I am going to do this, I have to do it well. I want it to be fun. I can be a little nerdy. I was including maybe too many studies at moments and being a little bit — I’ve written some textbook stuff, and realizing that maybe people didn’t want to read that. A friend of mine, Nell Scovell, I was working with her. She was editing things piece by piece and being like, “You know what? Why don’t you put a story in here?” It was really fun, actually, the collaboration, being able to work with Nell. She’s funny. It actually ended up being a fun process. When you do something with someone else and you get that immediate feedback as well — you were just talking about junk food too. There are all these studies looking at when you eat a piece of chocolate, if you are going to eat junk food or chocolate, do it with someone else because it tastes better then. I think that that is true. If one person’s distracted, food just doesn’t taste as good. Whatever you do that’s a shared experience is really valuable. Every time we are distracted or struck in our own heads, we’re actively un-sharing a potentially uplifting experience too.

Zibby: Interesting. What about your patients? Do any of them see themselves in here? Are you concerned about that? Do you open up in treatment with them the way you do in the book? Is this a whole new side of you they’re going to hear about? How do you feel about that?

Samantha: What I really learned at Penn when I did the positive psychology program was, also, I think there had been this weird wall in psychiatry between anything your patient knows about you. They’re just projecting whatever they are into you. I think there is some value in that. Also, I think there’s value in being a human being as well. One of the most interesting observations, too, was when I was pregnant. Do you tell your patient? Do you not tell your patient? There’s all these different theories about one should say. You could be nine months pregnant, and your patient doesn’t even notice. There’s some denial thing there. There are certain things that they are going to know about in some way. I had permission for the stories that I told about them. I would never in any way — we’ve got HIPAA rules and things like that that could violate anyone’s privacy. I actually felt that even telling those stories was a way to — their experiences could help others too. I think that that was a way for them to share what had gone on in their own lives, and changing many, many, many details. I think there’s an act of generosity in what they were doing as well.

Zibby: It’s so true. How do you make sure, aside from writing this book and using your work to help inform the people on your blog and your patients and all of that, how do you get your vitality kick? What are some of your things?

Samantha: Truly, I have to be really deliberate about it. Otherwise, I feel like a tumbleweed in the daytime. I do have my turtle pathology. I will just retreat in some way and fold into myself. I have to be deliberate. I have to be in nature at some point, being in the park or even the concrete nature, just walking on the streets in the city. I have to sit down properly to eat something and not eat on the go. My husband is German. He would be like, “When’s breakfast? When’s lunch? When’s dinner?” I come from a WASP-ier background. I’m like, we drink. We need some cheese and crackers with vodka. He’s really into proper meals. I’ve never missed a meal since I’ve met him because he’s so deliberate. I think Europeans have a certain different joy in eating. They grow up differently. There’s not that on-the-go mindset. He doesn’t understand the to-go cup. It just is so unfathomable to him. He’s come around to it now. I do try to be deliberate about food. I try to be super deliberate about how I sleep and more and more, though, really about connections, reaching out to friends, having a phone call.

Sometimes, even I’ve found with patients too, Zoom is a bit much. People don’t like looking at themselves. Actually, the old-fashioned phone call can be so good. I think that’s a deeper way to connect. Sometimes there’s people not seeing you. They don’t have to reveal their space wherever they are. That’s helpful too. Those are wellsprings of vitality, and learning something and reading books. I love to read. There’s been nothing better than reading during this period. I talk a lot in the book about when you’re in a weird moment and you’re having a hard time and you feel like you’re going to tumble down into that spiral. We’re told all the time these days to be yourself. I sometimes think that’s not the best advice. I would advise my patients — also, I take this personally too. Be un-you. What would be the un-you thing to do in this moment? To make that concrete, who’s somebody you admire? What would they do in this moment? Sometimes even there are characters in literature that we have so much to learn from. We learn so much by immersing yourself in a life of another in a good book. There is distance you can take from whatever the heat of your own emotions are and be like, huh, what would this person do in that moment? I think that fiction is a wonderful wellspring of vitality.

Zibby: I love that you brought that up. I meant to say something about that. My mom’s advice to me — not to throw her under the bus here. When I was growing up and I was so shy and all this, she would always tell me before I went to an event, “Just be yourself.” First of all, it’s impossible. Second of all, who even am I? What does that even mean? Then I just would have that in my head. You have this Chekhov quote when you said — this is sort of social comparison. Maybe I’ll read that later. Sorry, that quote comes later. You said, “Pretending to be someone else can promote flexibility in the midst of anxiety,” when you suggest being Barbara Walters or Oprah or whoever it is that you pick. That’s the thing that can get you through as long as they have some skill that you’re trying to emulate. I loved that. That’s in my mind, that advice from my mom, all the time. I’m always like, will I ever be able to just be me?

Samantha: That assumes that there is some kernel of truth, some true you. I think that’s also denying the fact that we’re all constantly changing. We’re works in progress, hopefully bending in the direction of goodness and being intentional about it. The idea that there is some true you is just such a flawed way of thinking about it. This fixed self is not allowing us to evolve. Even in our relationships, to allow the other people to evolve as well and know that they’re going to be changing — people sometimes say, if you’re having a hard time in a relationship, don’t worry, she or he is going to be a little different three months from now. We’re all changing, hopefully in the best direction. I think that’s where we need to be a little bit intentional about it.

Zibby: That’s like with kids. They can be completely different people one year to the next with different age spans and times of development. It’s really nuts. You have to be always ready to adapt in everything.

Samantha: This idea of, you’ve got to be authentic, what does that really mean? I think the idea that you’re being authentic and just being yourself or expressing your emotions, which is, to a point, maybe helpful, but what are those moments you can get closer to the better version of yourself by channeling somebody you really admire?

Zibby: Then the final piece of advice that I took away — I’ve always had this interest in social comparison theory. You wrote from Chekhov’s quote, “We see those who go to the market to buy food, who eat in the daytime and sleep at night, who prattle away, marry, grow old, but we neither hear nor see those who suffer, and the terrible things in life are played out behind the scenes.” I know you apply this to Instagram life and thinking everybody is living this perfect life except for you. That just is totally depressing. How can we use social comparison for good?

Samantha: That quote was in this wonderful study called “People are more miserable than you think.” Not particularly uplifting. Actually, social comparison can optimize us in some way too. You feel like, wow, that kid runs a mile faster than I do. I can boost that. Even having somebody to compete against rather than in a vacuum can be really helpful and bring out the best in you and help you really shine. I think with social media, it’s a lot harder when you’re really seeing — it’s not just you against that other kid in your class. It’s you against the world. It takes, apparently, seventeen seconds for a young woman to feel badly about herself after leafing through Instagram. As long as she knows as she’s looking at it that this is not real life, this is a highlight reel of something really good — you almost have to go in knowing that it’s choreographed, that it’s manufactured to remind yourself that their Little Miss Perfect lives maybe aren’t so perfect. They call it duck syndrome from Stanford. We always see other people cruising along looking like they’re having no trouble at all. We never see their legs beneath the surface paddling like crazy like a duck would. When we let other people be human, and I think Angela Duckworth was really human with me, and even our heroes be more human, like Simone Biles, somebody who’s held to such a high standard of perfection — people are obsessed with being perfect today, perfect in their social lives and perfect in the worlds they present and perfect in their achievement. I think it’s an act of generosity when you see people sort of pull back the curtain and show you, warts and all, that, hey, it’s really hard.

Zibby: It’s true. Are you reading anything amazing? Have you read anything great this summer?

Samantha: I’m reading The Midnight Library right now that I’m really enjoying. That’s been fantastic. I just finished Wild Game that was un-put-down-able.

Zibby: So good.

Samantha: Oh, my goodness. I’m not a good cook. It made me want to cook after that. That was also an extraordinary book. Also, she talks so much about how books changed her life and gave her this boost and outlet and an exit from a life, to rewrite the narrative. I really believe that change. It’s not something that I really learned in medical school or in residency. Even you were saying you were shy when you were younger. You’re clearly not so shy now. People do change. That book was a wonderful message of that.

Zibby: I love Adrienne Brodeur, I was just actually emailing with her this morning, who wrote Wild Game. That’s so funny.

Samantha: Wow. Oh, my god, I love that book.

Zibby: She’s awesome. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Samantha: Oh, my goodness. You can do it. It’s going to be really, really, really hard. If you can, carve out at least an hour to work on some part of it just to fire something out so you feel like you are making a little dent in some progress. I think it’s really, really hard, but you can do it. I had a really lovely friend, Angela Duckworth, who sent me her — I assumed she had this seamless process because it fired out this amazing book. It turned out it was really, really hard for her too. It was really nice to have a friend, role model share her experience. It made it seem a little bit less painful and actually a little more fun.

Zibby: Excellent. If you’re going to learn about grit, you might as well learn from her, oh, my gosh, wow. Amazing. Samantha, thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for giving everybody your dose of Everyday Vitality. I know that this book will really benefit a lot of people. That’s amazing. I just hope everybody grabs a copy and starts changing their lives.

Samantha: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Samantha: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Dr. Samantha Boardman, EVERYDAY VITALITY

EVERYDAY VITALITY by Dr. Samantha Boardman

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts