I’m shocked to announce that Nola has run out of wisdom to teach me. I know it’s surprising. I never thought a butt-sniffing, poo-eating creature as amazingly clever as she is, could ever run out of wisdom, but Nola is out of ideas. Luckily our walks together have led me to another source of wisdom… the podcast. After walking in silence every day for months, I’ll admit I kind of got tired of hearing my own thoughts over and over. I got bored with myself, so I decided to multi-task and learn something new during that hour. Of course I sometimes get sucked into a juicy episode of Serial or Finding Richard Simmons, but I often appreciate a nice dose of inspiration.
This is my favorite podcast because it speaks the Truth. The title is Plug Into Your Hard-Wired Happiness. Wait, what?!? This title alone suggests that we are hard-wired to be happy. How can it be true that we are actually designed to be happy when it seems as if we are really good at finding ways not to be happy?
Happiness Teacher, Mr. Rao, explains that while we are indeed hard-wired for happiness, we spend our whole lives learning how to be unhappy. We are taught to believe that when we acquire something, then we will be happy. I see how I used this mindset in many of my life experiences, but my attitude about being in dental school stands out. When I was in school, I always said, “When I graduate and get into the real world, everything will be amazing! I will love dentistry so much more, and I will be happy.” At first, this was true. I was really happy. Even though it was terrifying to be on my own, I was happy to get my evenings back to myself, happy not to study every night, happy not to have to get every stupid detail “checked off” by my instructor before I could move on to the next step, happy to get paid, happy to get to work with an assistant… and the list goes on. But as with everything that we acquire, the sparkle dulls, and eventually we want more. The happiness was only temporary, birthed out of the acquisition of the things I thought would make me happy. We see this with everything we acquire… the dream house, the dream life partner, the dream car. We feel happy until it wears off, and then we start searching for the next thing to acquire.
This whole model is based on the idea that when I get something, then I will be happy. The model never works, and we believe that something is wrong with us when it doesn’t work. The problem isn’t us and our inability to find happiness, but the problem is that we are following the wrong model to find happiness.
Mr. Rao goes on to ask us to remember a time when we felt true joy experiencing the beauty in nature. We’ve all experienced that at some point– a pure and simple and genuine joy when everything feels so perfect. Even the imperfection of the moment is perfect. We accept and love what we see without trying to change what is. We don’t say, “oh, if only that tree were straight, or over to the left a little more…” I think about how frustrated I used to get with the multitude of imperfect experiences I faced in a day at the office. Dentistry is nature. It’s scientific and orderly, but unpredictable and messy at the same time. If we can let go of wanting to change the things we can’t control; if we can let go of wishing the decay didn’t get so close to the pulp or that the patient didn’t have so much saliva, maybe we can find less to bemoan and worry about, and more to enjoy throughout the day.
The last point that struck me is that we tend to base our happiness on the outcome instead of the process. I’ll be really transparent here about how this practice fit in to my dental model. It didn’t. Even now it’s hard for me to imagine enjoying the process of having to tell a patient that the tooth I did a root canal on needed to be extracted because it turned out the root was fractured. It’s hard to see the beauty in the process of disappointing people and yourself when you feel like the outcome of your hard work has been a failure. But maybe we can find the value in these challenges. Maybe we can appreciate how these challenges make us better at what we do. Maybe that spin can bring us a greater sense of happiness.
While I struggle with this concept in my attitude towards dentistry, I have spent the last few years post-dentistry working on enjoying the process without worrying about the outcome. It’s still really challenging, but I’ve been practicing. As I watch myself move into my role as career coach, I am experiencing the rewards of all the work I’ve done trying to focus on the journey, not the outcome. It’s working. I feel happy. I feel content. I feel fulfilled. I feel these things because I’ve practiced them for so long that my paradigm is changing. For years, I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know someone new, hearing their story, and seeing how I can help them. Now that it’s an official business for me, I still enjoy it the same as I did before… without worrying if they will become my client or not.
That is total freedom.
So what is the right model to access the happiness for which we are hard-wired? We always hear how happiness must come from within, and I’m starting to believe it’s true. Doing the work to change our mindset, practicing positivity and gratitude, and enjoying the process regardless of the outcome seem like a really good way to start. It doesn’t happen all at once. If you can enjoy helping your next patient feel comfortable while you are doing your best work prepping that MO composite on #20 without worrying about anything other than your efforts, or if you can present the next treatment plan without worrying whether the patient will accept it or not, maybe you’ll start to feel a shift too. Maybe you’ll start to feel a little more free.
And if you give it a fair try, and you can’t make it work, maybe it’s time for a bigger change.