Shelly M. Reese


March 22, 2012

In This Article


Like medicine, happiness takes practice. But when it comes to happiness, some say the deck is stacked against doctors.

While physicians can legitimately point to any number of concrete problems putting the kibosh on their joy, some of their problems may lay a whole lot closer to home.

"Nobody is saying there aren't happy doctors out there," says psychotherapist Richard O'Connor, author of Happy at Last: The Thinking Person's Guide to Finding Joy. "Of course there are." But doctors may be more vulnerable to unhappiness than people in other fields, he says. That's because the qualities it takes to earn a medical degree are the very ones that can impede happiness. Combine these characteristics with intense training, isolation, and a stressful work environment and the resulting day at the office can be anything but sunny.

The Physician Personality

First, let's be clear. Doctors aren't the only ones struggling to find happiness. In fact, when it comes to workplace frustration, they're in good company these days. Thanks to corporate downsizing, workloads are heavier and morale lower in offices and plants around the country. Still, with the national unemployment rate hovering around 8.6%, "in most fields just having a job makes you happy with your job," says Tommy Bohannon, a divisional vice president at Merritt Hawkins.

But medicine isn't most fields. Left unchecked, physician unhappiness can lead to major problems, including disruptive behavior, burnout, medical errors, health problems, addiction, depression, and failed relationships. It can also induce doctors to leave the clinical arena: 40% of physicians responding to a 2010 Merritt Hawkins survey sponsored by the Physicians Foundation say they plan to drop out of patient care in the next 1-3 years.

Second, it's important to note that human beings are not hardwired for happiness. As O'Connor notes, "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."

That's especially true of doctors, and other high-achieving professionals. It takes ambition, perfectionism and drive to make it into -- and out of -- medical school and while those qualities may be very useful for achieving goals, they don't tend to foster happiness and satisfaction.

Being a doctor also calls for critical thinking and a degree of pessimism, O'Connor says: doctors aren't trained to look at the sunny side of life. They look for what's wrong with a patient, not what's right.

While the people who choose to become doctors may have an abundance of these qualities, "Medical training sharpens them to a needle point," he says. The result: physicians often graduate from medical school with a degree, a tendency to be brutally hard on themselves, and a profound inability to relax.


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