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Up Front | Feb 2015

The Pursuit of Happiness and Learning to be Grateful

Happiness is an interesting state of mind. We all strive for happiness, yet it is not entirely clear how to best go about achieving it. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the population does not succeed in this endeavor.

Popular belief suggests that we should strive to become successful in order to experience happiness. Real life does not always reflect this, however. For instance, the greatest fortune that can befall an academic is that he or she is given tenure. Many academics describe getting tenure as the best day of their lives and failing to get it as the worst. At the time they get the good or bad news, it does seem like the best or worst day of their lives, depending on the news that they received. Three months later, however, both the successful and unsuccessful candidates are back at the same levels of happiness they had before the event. The happiness from a pay raise, or even from winning the lottery, is short-lived; within months, happiness is at the same level it was before the happy event.

Perhaps it works the other way around: If you are happy, you are more likely to achieve success. There are certainly a number of people—academics and gurus among them—who believe this is true. Professor Tal Ben-Shahar presented the most popular course in the history of Harvard University for many years and is someone who understands happiness more than most. His course on positive psychology and happiness attracted thousands of students over the years. It appears that happiness does precede success and, in fact, cultures good leadership attributes.

Are we not exceptionally fortunate, then, that we spend the greatest part of our lives in a profession filled with opportunities to create happiness?—happiness for our patients, for our families, and for ourselves.

Few professions provide the level of success and feedback that ours does. We change people’s lives for the better on a daily basis, and they are grateful for that. Our patients tell us this so regularly that we may, at times, forget to acknowledge it.

Ophthalmologists are typically great family people, too. We work better hours than many of our medical colleagues, and, even if we do work very long hours, there are few emergencies that ruin family events. Being content at work makes one more content at home. On a personal level, ophthalmology as a medical speciality is on the cutting edge in technical, surgical, medical, neurologic, cosmetic, and immunologic fields—there are few areas of medicine that do not involve the eye. Ophthalmic surgeons in the modern era learn and share information readily with one another, and the camaraderie that exists among ophthalmologists worldwide is envied by those in other specialities. We really have a lot to be grateful for.

Let us be realistic for a moment, too. We have our fair share of problems and challenges. Burnout is a word that is cropping up more. According to a recent article in Medscape, 41% of ophthalmologists report experiencing burnout.1 We are on the low end of the scale, however, with other disciplines reporting more. It is also important to remember that overcoming challenges is one of the most rewarding experiences of the human condition. It makes us feel good when we successfully get through a challenge.

And that is where I would like to end this piece: Gratitude. Happiness starts with being grateful—for our jobs, our families, our health, and, in fact, any and everything.

What happens if you wake up tomorrow with only those things that you expressed gratitude for today? Makes you think, doesn’t it? It certainly did me. n

Arthur B. Cummings, MB ChB, FCS (SA), MMed(Ophth), FRCS(Edin)
Associate Chief Medical Editor

Peckham C. Physician burnout: It just keeps getting worse. Medscape website. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/838437. Accessed February 3, 2015.