Profiles in Happiness: Which Physicians Enjoy Life Most?

Carol Peckham


March 22, 2012

In This Article


How happy are physicians with their lives outside of work? And are some specialists happier than others? What are physicians' political leanings, and are they religious? Are physicians fat and do they exercise as often as they advise their patients to? These are some of the questions asked in Medscape's Physician Lifestyle Report: 2012, which is based on a member survey that garnered responses from nearly 30,000 US physicians representing 25 specialties.

The medical literature includes hundreds of studies on work satisfaction, but almost none involve physician life outside the hospital or the office. Currently many physicians express unhappiness with their life in practice. According to a 2010 Merritt Hawkins survey sponsored by the Physicians Foundation, 40% of physicians said that they planned to drop out of patient care in the next 1-3 years. This Medscape report attempts to discover how physicians view their lives outside of practice and whether they are any different from the rest of America and from each other in the way they live, love, and play.

The Happiest Physician: Who Is It?

According to a 2006 Pew Report, 34% of Americans say that they are "very happy," 50% "pretty happy," and 15% "not too happy."[1] Medscape asked US physicians how happy they were with their lives outside of medicine and to rate their level of happiness on a scale of 1 to 5, with1 being the least happy and 5 being the most. Approximately one third of physicians -- both men and women -- rated themselves a 5 (approximating the "very happy" in the Pew report) and 40% rated themselves a 4 (suggesting "pretty happy"). The average happiness score for physicians who responded was 3.96, which is on the cheerful side but not overwhelmingly happy.

It should be noted that there was no significant difference in this score between men and women, who rated themselves 3.96 and 3.95, respectively. Also, the physician state of happiness does not appear to rely on political leaning. The ratings ranged only from 3.95 to 3.97 among the 4 combinations of fiscal or social conservatives or liberals.

After all of the various answers to the Medscape survey were assessed using this rating system, profiles emerged of the happiest and least happy physicians.

The Happiest Physician

Looking more deeply into other responses, it is no surprise to find that the happiest physician lives the American dream. With a rating of 4.09, the most cheerful physician of all, whether male or female, is a rheumatologist. She was born in the United States and is of normal weight and excellent health. He exercises 4 or more times a week, has 1 or 2 drinks a day, and doesn't smoke. She is in great financial shape, with more than adequate savings and no debt. He is married, actively practices his faith, and volunteers for his religious organization. One of the more interesting findings was that happiness was greatest in physicians over 60 years of age. This coincides with a U-shaped trend discussed in a study by Arthur Stone and colleagues[2] showing increased psychological well-being after the age of 50 years. In that study, as in the Medscape survey, men and women had very similar age profiles of well-being.

The Unhappiest Physician

The least happy physicians are internists, gastroenterologists, and neurologists (all tied at 3.88). Our unhappy physician is in poor health, exercises less than once a week, and is obese. He is in his mid-50s and came to the United States as an adult. Her finances are in terrible shape; she has no savings and unmanageable debt. He is separated and doesn't volunteer. She has a spiritual belief but doesn't attend any services. These miserable doctors still manage not to drink alcohol.

A special note on generalists: Family physicians, internists, general surgeons, pediatricians, and emergency medicine physicians tended to take fewer vacation days, have less money, and report poorer health than most other physician groups. Nevertheless, pediatricians and family and emergency medicine doctors rated themselves in the top 10 of the happiness scores. Internists and general surgeons were scored as 2 of the 10 least happy physicians, suggesting that factors other than money and health might play a role in a physician's emotional state.


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