Samantha Boardman, M.D.Positive Psychiatrist
Samantha Boardman, M.D., is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. She received her B.A. from Harvard University, her M.D. from Cornell University Medical College, and an M.A. in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Boardman is the founder of the website Positive Prescription, where she shares scientifically backed insights that are life-enhancing and resilience-building.
Connect with Samantha Boardman, M.D.
What is your wellness philosophy?
I think of well-being as a verb and wellness as an active commitment to doing one’s best so one can be the best version of oneself for others.
What brought you into wellness?
In medical school and psychiatry residency, I spent most of my time focusing on what was wrong with a patient. The goal was to problem solve—to figure out what was wrong in their body or mind and reduce their suffering. A few years ago a patient, let’s call her Claire, made me question this approach. I had been seeing her for several weeks when she abruptly terminated treatment. “All we do is talk about all the bad stuff in my life—what I worry about, what’s upsetting me. I sit in your office and complain for 45 minutes straight. Even if I am having a good day, coming here makes me think about all the negative things.” I never saw her again but her words stayed with me. They stung. She was right. All we did was talk about what was wrong. I had spent years studying damage, deficit, and dysfunction in the human mind. It never occurred to me to focus on what was right. It was a wake-up call.
Today, instead of exclusively troubleshooting with my patients, I also look for bright spots. I inquire about what they are like at their best. I recommend they write down what went well at the end of each day. We explore their strengths and I ask them to use them in new ways. I ask them to consider how they might creatively use that strength to help them navigate their way through a challenging situation. I suggest they look for strengths in others. Thinking about what they admire in someone provides a shift in perspective. Rather than focusing on what they don’t like about that person or their negative qualities, they are reminded of what they appreciate. We can all benefit from a similar shift in perspective. Catch your child doing something right today. Give a compliment to a friend. Congratulate a co-worker for a job well done. Thank a loved one for a gesture you take for granted. Focusing on what’s right in yourself and others lies at the core of wellness.
What does You. We. All. mean to you?
“Happiness comes from within.” We hear this phrase all the time. It is predicated on the belief that if you dig deep enough into yourself, you will figure out who you are and everything else will fall into place. While I agree with the overall message in that you are responsible for your choices, it has become increasingly apparent to me that happiness comes from “with” as much as it comes from “within.”
The problem with the relentless quest for self-knowledge and inward focus is that it can become an excuse for self-interest and even narcissism. Don’t get me wrong—it is important to take care of ourselves. Eating well, getting enough rest, being mindful and exercise are valuable pursuits. Mastering a breathing technique to help us relax and taking a hot bath are good stress relievers, and can certainly help us stay strong within your daily stress, but too much emphasis on the self can lead us astray.
When the focus is exclusively on me, myself, and I, we risk missing out on what is most valuable about being a member of the human race—that which lies beyond us.
New York Times columnist, David Brooks, laments how today we live in a culture of “the Big Me” that glorifies personal happiness at the expense of community and relationships. The irony is that studies show that focusing on the “Big Me” actually undermines happiness and wellbeing.
Research shows that the happiest people have close ties to friends and family. Social interaction beyond one’s immediate circle is important too. Studies show that people who connect with other human beings, even strangers on a train or in the checkout line, report brighter moods. Behavioral scientists call this “social snacking.” It may be the healthiest snack in the world.
Happiness is not a solo enterprise, and well-being doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We are social creatures and our wellbeing—both physical and mental—depends on our social relationships.
It is well known that having a shoulder to lean on can help us navigate our way through a difficult time. Less well known is the research that shows how doing things for others helps buffer against stress. In a research article entitled “Prosocial Behavior Helps Mitigate the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life,” participants who engaged in “other-focused” behavior, such as holding a door, asking someone if they needed help, and lending a hand, reported better moods and lower daily stress levels than those who didn’t engage in helping behavior.
The key is to actively seek pathways that will help us transcend ourselves and escape the echo-chamber of our minds. As tempting as it is to dive inward, make it a priority to connect, to interact, and to add value.
What empowers you?
Getting out of my own head.
What gets you up in the morning?
Literally—dogs, coffee, and kids. In that order. I believe that each day holds the promise of a meaningful interaction, the possibility of learning something new, the opportunity to make a difference, albeit a tiny one, in the direction of goodness. The potential for goodness abounds and I don’t want to miss a moment. We weren’t born to press snooze and hide under the covers. We were born to engage and add value.