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Can Doctors Be Happy? Part 2

11/06/2014



In Part 1, Can Doctors be Happy?, I discussed the various challenges facing doctors nowadays, and explored some of the possible reasons for physicians’ unhappiness in life.

In this article, we’ll discuss three specific skills to practice to raise your happiness level: reducing unnecessary misery by learning mindfulness, experiencing more joy, and finding greater life satisfaction through strategic goal setting.

Learn to be More Mindful

Much unnecessary misery comes from mindlessness: the frantic, hypervigilant frame of mind that has us always rushing to cross to-dos off our lists, in a hurry, not listening, not concentrating, distracted, not fully present. Greater mindfulness will reduce that misery. There are two components to mindfulness. First of all, there is mindful living, which means deliberately cultivating a new attitude toward your thoughts, feelings, and experience — an attitude of openness, compassion, and objectivity; a deliberate effort not to be guided by old habits of thinking and behaving but to see each experience in its uniqueness. Then there is mindfulness meditation, which is a specific kind of meditation practice, used both as a means of achieving mindful living and for other benefits.

Mindful living helps you see that all the thoughts and feelings in your mind are to some extent just a passing parade, which you can observe from a little distance, without getting caught up in. You develop a part of your mind that doesn’t get swept away by the urgency, that hangs back and keeps the larger picture of yourself, your goals and values, in mind. As you grow more and more mindful, you’ll find that the burden of unnecessary misery in your life is greatly reduced. You will have an easier time not acting on impulse or being tricked by your brain, so you don’t get as angry, hurt, or depressed as you used to. Your analytical skills will be much more effective because you’re no longer judging automatically and seeing the world as only a series of stereotypes. You get better at looking underneath the surface and seeing things as they truly are. You start to make decisions that are based on your rational thinking and your intuition. These are wiser decisions, that will help you stay out of trouble and lead to greater self-esteem, better relationships, and more happiness.

Mindfulness is developed through practice. When you feel yourself rushed, slow down; when you feel anxious, take a minute to calm down; when you’re about to say or do something impulsively, just stop, take a few deep breaths, and do something else. It sounds like inane advice — it sounds so easy to say, but it’s difficult to do. That’s why you have to practice, because each time you practice, you’re breaking an old link between nerve cells in your brain and building a new one. You will get discouraged, you will feel like you’re not getting anywhere. But I guarantee that if you give this an honest effort every day for three months, just like the jugglers you will change your brain so that staying mindful will be easier.

For those who can take mindfulness a step further and practice regular meditation, the news about mindfulness potentially goes far beyond the obvious benefits of clear thinking, wise decision-making, and emotional centeredness. New research is showing that mindfulness meditation practice actually rewires our brains and builds new neural pathways. It promises to heal the damage of stress so that we are able to experience a greater degree of pleasure. Mindful meditation practice affects how the brain deals with emotions, leading to an increase in activity in the area where the brain processes positive feelings and controls negative feelings, an increase that lasts even when we’re not meditating. It seems that the more we practice this effect, the easier it gets; we learn to control disturbing emotions like we learn to ride a bike; after a while we don’t have to think about it, it just happens.

Pay Attention to Joy

Joy, the immediate and spontaneous experience of pleasure, requires special attention because there is so much going on in today’s world that interferes with our ability to be attentive to how we feel right now — and if you can’t do that, you miss a lot of happiness.

The simplest, but most important, message about happiness is this: WAKE UP! There is spectacular beauty all around you. Miracles are happening right under your nose. Compared to our ancestors and most of the people in the world today, we live a very comfortable, pleasant existence with great freedom and many opportunities. Don’t let it all slip by unnoticed.

One reason why we miss out on so much possible joy is that we rely too much on short-cut thinking, an inevitable result of today’s hurry-up world, especially for doctors who are trained to make quick decisions. Whenever we see a familiar object, like a flower, there are actually two processes going on in the mind at the same time. Our eyes perceive an object of a certain color, size, and shape, and transmit that information to the brain, where the higher cortical layers get busy trying to identify the object. We know what a flower looks like from all of our previous experiences with flowers. The higher layers send a message down to the senses saying essentially I got it. This is a flower. You don’t have to pay attention any more.

That’s fine if we’re weeding the garden; our minds can skip over all the details of the flowers because our purpose is to find weeds. But if you want to experience more joy, you have to break that habit and pay attention to the glorious detail of our experience. The problem is that 21st century life has us so busy that we’re always in weeding mode. Got to rush through the garden like every other task we have. We have to slow down and pay some attention to the sensory part of the brain—Look at that flower! What colors! What beautiful complexity inside! Smell it, touch it, taste it!

When we’re stuck in an overstressed state, all we’re likely to see of life are those shortcuts — including those of our children, our lovers, our bosses. Instead of seeing complex individuals with all their own feelings, we see only our stereotypes of them. Instead of appreciating the senses, we dismiss them as nuisances. Wonderful things in life zip by like cars on the Interstate. We have to learn to relax and slow down so that we are able to see beyond categories into the true novelty of our child on this day, at this age, with this expression on his face, with this concern.

We dismiss things as small or everyday when, if we focused, we might find ourselves in a state of intense pleasure. One good friend of mine puts sitting in the sun with her dog in her top ten pleasures in life. Another likes a really good grilled cheese sandwich. Why don’t you make a list of the top ten things that make you feel really good?, and then spend more time at them, savoring the experience.

Set Realistic, Achievable Goals

Having realistic, concrete, and achievable goals that still challenge us to do our best may be the single best avenue toward greater life satisfaction. Research shows us that the mere act of setting reasonable and concrete goals seems to improve both our experience and our performance.

For instance, if you have a major project to do, you’ll do much better if you can break it down into pieces and organize a timetable. You’ll feel much better as you attain those little goals than if you just work on this piece or that when you feel like it. Making a commitment focuses our attention on the target and helps us think more intently about how to get there. There is a lot of research to suggest that we feel happier as we are progressing toward our goals; we have a sense of purposeful involvement, we give ourselves mental pats on the back for being so good and industrious, our self-esteem is enhanced. And being such adaptable creatures as humans are, we can even fail to meet a goal and still benefit greatly from having pursued it, and get over our disappointment rather quickly.

Having goals frees us to enjoy the here and now. If we set out on a journey without purpose or direction, every fork in the road becomes another decision to make, another point where our ambivalence and anxiety can overtake us. Will the scenery be better this way, or that way? Have we gone too far? What if there are no motel rooms? Should we stop at this battlefield, or that old cavern, or the antique center? But if we know where we’re going, our minds are saved all this hassle and we sit back and enjoy the ride. Same thing if you have a major project at work, or are writing or creating, or are learning something. Many of your daily decisions are taken care of because you know what your priorities are.

People who make realistic plans, who save for the future, who pursue tangible and concrete goals, who use practical methods for attaining their goals, who build productive and supportive relationships, are obviously at an advantage compared to those who are pursuing impossible dreams or following the whims of the moment. Their lives will turn out better, and they’ll be happier. They’ll also grow in feelings of autonomy and mastery. You’ll be more successful, on your own terms, and you’ll keep growing in competence and self-esteem.

Richard O’Connor, MSW, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Connecticut and Manhattan and is the author of four books, the latest just published. Entitled Happy at Last: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Finding Joy(St. Martin’s), the book reviews why it is so difficult to find happiness despite material wealth, and guides the reader with a clear roadmap toward solutions for these problems, grounded in the latest scientific research.

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