Physicians: Never Give Up on Joy

Never Give up on JoyAt the end of a long day seeing patients, taking care of consults, running an office, working the EMR, it might seem facetious to ask yourself “ How much joy did I experience today?” However, if the answer is none, and if the answer is the same for the next day and the day after, and so forth, the question takes on a more serious tone. Is it possible to stay engaged and thrive in a daily practice where joy is absent? The answer is unequivocally no. Without wading into all the reasons, however legitimate, that currently make life difficult, I suggest that even in the midst of challenge, we can take small steps that can help maintain and even boost our mental well-being.

I have vivid memories of a patient I once took care of. His blood pressure was through the roof, he had unstable angina and uncontrolled diabetes. This was not his first admission to hospital. Sitting in his hospital bed, he was a larger than life character, whose smile and laughter transformed the steel cold dullness of his hospital room. He may have been cavalier about his health, but he was serious about joy. He saw every day as a new day. Being in hospital had not dimmed his capacity to turn every encounter into an experience of infectious enthusiasm. After checking in with him on morning rounds, the role of patient and physician seemed to have been reversed. I would leave the room rejuvenated, inspired and reminded of the power of joy in the face of adversity.

I could not identify the “cause” of his joy. Could his “set point of happiness” just have been higher? Perhaps. Was he in denial about the seriousness of his illness? Probably. Yet, the sense that I had then and currently being confirmed by ongoing research into the power of positive psychology (see Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage )was that his ability to see and embrace the good that he saw in his life, kept him resilient in the face of adversity and also benefitted those around him.

In stressful times, slipping into negativity can happen insidiously. If allowed to take hold, the capacity to see joy, even when present, can diminish. In his book, Joy on Demand, Chade-Meng Tan, an early engineer at Google and the originator of Google’s Search Inside Yourself program, discusses ways to build this capacity for finding “Joy on Demand” in his book of the same name. The three skills that he identifies are:

  1. “Easing into Joy”– If we can create a mind that is at ease, it makes accessing joy easier, whatever the situation. Developing a meditation practice is one way to create focus, clarity and equanimity, all of which create a mind that is more calm and composed and open to the possibility of joy.
  2. “Inclining the Mind Toward Joy”- If we can train ourselves to be aware when joy is present, including in those moments that we had previously ignored, we can discover that it is possible to find joy in even simple activities or commonplace situations. One way to do this is to pause and create mindful moments, where we have the space to notice what moment of joy might be available to us. It might be as simple as noticing the experience of taking a slow, deep breath or seeing a patient’s smile. By regularly engaging in this practice we can create a mind that more readily tilts towards the recognition and appreciation of joy.
  3. “Uplifting the Mind” – By cultivating thoughts and creating small acts that reflect conscious generosity, loving-kindness and compassion we nourish our mental well-being and further enhance our capacity to experience and build joy.

 Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan Buddhist monk, who is often known as “the happiest man in the world”, describes happiness as” a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being”. By cultivating joy we create the building blocks for happiness. As Chade-Meng Tan states in his book, “…there is no such thing as joyless happiness.”

Why not consider giving yourself a two week trial of  practicing “ Joy on Demand”. Write yourself a personal prescription for: ___minutes of meditation, ___mindful moments of joy, and ___ thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion. See what transpires. You might just find some of the best free medicine that is available!

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