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Can Doctors Be Happy? Part 1

I don’t think I know any doctors who are happy in their work.

Time magazine tells us that 44 percent of physicians say they are “very happy,” a significant difference from the 67 percent of clergy who say they are happy. Doctors are right down there with lawyers, accountants, and dentists. But I have a hard time believing that 44 percent anyway. I’m a psychologist, and I know a lot of doctors, many of whom are making plans to leave the profession ASAP.

Some of this is a reflection of world-wide trends. Though physicians generally make a decent income, in the last few years there’s been an increasing recognition — and good research evidence — that advances in personal prosperity may actually lead to unhappiness. In fact, in the United States and Europe, over the fifty years since scientists started measuring personal happiness reliably, people report that they are less and less happy every year, although personal wealth continues to increase. As other nations become more Westernized, and prosperity spreads around the globe, happiness declines as well. At the same time, psychology has for the first time begun to look into what really does make us happy. Unfortunately for physicians, the news is not all good. There’s a lot that accompanies the medical profession that science can now prove will add unnecessary misery; but now we’re beginning to understand what we can do about that.

You have to start with the recognition that happiness isn’t normal — humans aren’t naturally wired for it. We can get happy when good things happen, but it’s very difficult to maintain that feeling. Humans are wired to be able to feel good when good things happen, but the feeling never lasts. That process is in our brains where our genetic heritage put it. The cavemen who liked to linger contentedly around the fire were more likely to get eaten by the bears, and thus were not available to be our ancestors. Instead, those who survived to be our ancestors were alert, competitive, never satisfied, always on the move — and we’ve got their genes.

Bottom line: Your brain really doesn’t care whether you’re happy or not, as long as you survive. Doctors tend to have a surfeit of those competitive, hard-driving, perfectionistic genes, and that places them at a special disadvantage.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Then there’s what some call the Hedonic Treadmill. The greatest myth of human life is the belief that I’ll be happy if I just get what I want. All the research shows that as soon as we get what we want, we’ll just want something else — but we seem doomed to keep forgetting this. This is another evolutionary gotcha; our brains trick us into doing what’s good for species survival by making us believe it will make us happy. The things we crave — money, power, success, beauty — in the old days would have put us in a better position to pass on our genes; in fact, they still do a little. They don’t make us any happier, but we have real trouble learning that, because our genetic heritage, expressed in the unconscious, is so powerful. How do you manage to stay happy with a brain like this?

Staying happy is also more of a problem these days because our society has broken up our most of our means of security — meaningful work, close-knit families, a supportive community, a sense of religious belonging. It’s replaced them with more of the same fruitless values we just discussed (money, power, etc.) but at the same time made those things harder to reach. Despite the growth in overall wealth, most Americans today are working 25 percent more hours than they were 25 years ago simply to stay in place economically. Hard to be happy if you’re only treading water with no land in sight.

Can Doctors Be Happy? Part 1

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Richard O'Connor, MSW, Ph.D.

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APA Reference
O'Connor, R. (2018). Can Doctors Be Happy? Part 1. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Nov 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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