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Are you happy practicing dentistry?

I have a question for you: Are you happy practicing dentistry? If not, what would you be willing to do to change that situation?

Take more courses? Learn more skills and integrate more techniques? Upgrade your facility? Make some staffing changes? Move?

And what would you be willing to give up to make those changes possible? Time with your children and family? Your savings? Your health?

Would you be willing to take up a rather monastic life, with dentistry at the epicenter? How would you feel if it lead to a divorce? Loss of regular contact with your local friends? Less involved with your church or other community commitments?

And how can you know in advance if any of this will make you a more happy person? Feel more fulfilled? Cause you to feel inspired every morning?

Every single day of the year we’re being sold happiness by our culture – inside and outside of dentistry. And It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the form of a pill, a book, an exotic vacation, or a new piece of high-tech equipment.

But the problem is that happiness is a perspective, not a feeling. Hence, it can’t be bought, learned, or experienced through planning. In fact, no one really knows exactly what happiness is, because it represents something different for every person. It’s intangible. Its illusive. And it seems that the more we pursue it, the harder it is to find. Edith Wharton described this paradox when she said, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.”

A number of years ago, I made a pledge to myself to stop trying to be happy with being a dentist. Instead, I decided to pursue meaningfulness. Instead, I decided to focus on how I could help others more effectively.

That decision led me down a long and winding road, a road which has influenced the content of this post today, and a road which led me into the world of Avrom King, Bob Barkley, Pete Dawson, Carl Rogers, L.D. Pankey, Carl Jung, Frank Spear, Bob Winter, Gabor Mate’, and many, many others.

In other words, my new purpose, driven by my new philosophy – to help others to become more healthy, and to feel better about themselves – become my new compass. And that compass then led me to a series of associated decisions.

Those decisions led me to design a facility which best supported my “vision.” And then to staff that facility with people who could best support that vision.

And then the happiness came. Slowly at first, then  in pulses, and finally almost every day.

It was a process.

Based on an idea.

Founded on my principles and values.

Executed daily.

And perpetually reviewed and revised.

So, instead of saying to myself, “This year I need to be happy practicing dentistry,” I said, “This year I’m going to focus on what really matters to me. This year, I’m going to focus on meeting new people who are living and practicing in a fashion that I admire. This year, I’m going to go to change my perspective. This year, I’m going to push myself out of my comfort zone. And if I’m not happy at the end of the day, I will at least have pursued what I know in my heart are the most important things to me. And I will -at the very least- have met some interesting people, and had some pretty interesting experiences along the way.

Happiness is something which happens along our journey through life.  And it comes to us a lot more easily when we stop trying to focus on it, because pursing happiness is too egocentric, and not enough other-centric.

A large part of unhappiness is related to our habits related to what we pay the most attention to. In the same way that the attention of an extrovert naturally gravitates toward social connection, the attention of a purpose-centered dentist, is drawn toward personal growth opportunities which help them to connect with others -and help them – more effectively.

And then, one begets the other -the pursuit begets the happiness.

Here are some practices which might help you to stop focusing too much on the idea of being happy in dentistry today, and instead embrace thought patterns which will lead you toward decisions which are much more likely to make you happy in the long-run.

1. Remove the word “happy” from your vocabulary. Instead, replace it with these words and feelings:
Contentment, Enjoyment, Laughter, Appreciation, Peace of mind, Cheerfulness, Playfulness, and Hopefulness.

2. Practice mindfulness- the ability to be fully here and now, with yourself and others.
Let the past be the past. Learn from it what you can, and move on to appreciate what you have now. Stop worrying about the future, because your mindset today is what largely forms your future – not the other way around.

3. Decide what you really want to do with your time in dentistry, and how you want to do it.
Become crystal clear about these things, write them down, and install them into your subconscious mind. If you do this, they will become like an internal  compass which guide your future decisions.

A lot of people who are searching for happiness suffer from “shiny object syndrome.” This happens when a person bounces from one goal to the next goal because they have adopted their goals from how somebody else is living or practicing. Instead, create your own goals, based on your own principles and values. And that may or may not lead you to purchase the next greatest thing which comes down the pike.

Knowing yourself, and what you truly want to achieve, will help you to clarify your  purpose and therefore where to focus—so much so, that you won’t even have time to waste on pondering whether or not you are happy.

You may even realize that happiness is not what you really need right now, that you’re willing to put up with some unhappiness (previously known as sacrifice) for some time, if it means that you will be able to achieve something much more important than being happy today.

4. Let go of unrealistic expectations about how happy you’re supposed to be every day.
For most of human history people lived very simple and limiting lives, with almost no opportunities to advance themselves unless they were born into the right family within the right social class. The idea that you’re supposed to be happy all of the time is a new age conception. Appreciate the fact that you have more resources and ability to advance yourself today than at any other time in history.

Though you should strive to live the fullest life possible, it’s perfectly fine to live an average life, interspersed with brief periods of joy, as you serve others. Learn to love the life you live, and then to live the life you love.

5. Be patient. Stay focused. Take small daily steps in the right direction.
If you are crystal clear about you want, and you’re determined that it will make you feel more fulfilled, focus on taking the small daily steps necessary to get you there.

Setting unrealistic goals that you rarely achieve is far less fulfilling, than setting smaller goals you can achieve and appreciate—goals which let you know you’re on the right track.

6. Be true to yourself, and serve yourself through serving others.
One common habit of unhappy people is that they are inherently too self-oriented. This doesn’t mean that they are bad people or narcissistic. It just means their minds spend too much time focused on how they feel, instead of how others feel, and how they can improve it.

Serving others is one way to break this pattern of “How am I feeling?” and switch it to “How are you feeling?” Many studies today show that giving to others is more rewarding than receiving.

7. Separate your happiness from your achievements.
It’s okay to feel content about your life simply because you have a deep sense of self-worth and are grateful for what you have already received. Reaching principle-centered goals can obviously bolster this feeling, as well as give you a deeper sense of satisfaction, but the absence of bigger achievements today shouldn’t mean that you should feel unhappy about you life today. Life is a journey, the key is to make sure you are on the right roads which will lead you to where we want to go – and I’ll bet you’ll feel pretty happy about it along the way.

Paul A. Henny, DDS

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