Happiness from a surgeon`s perspective by Dr. Iraniha.
It was 2 am and I was driving towards the emergency room, extremely exhausted and run-down. The day before I worked more than sixteen hours straight and went to bed at almost midnight, when an hour later I had to wake up with a phone call from the emergency room physician, asking me to see an extremely sick patient with perforated stomach ulcer. It was a matter of life and death and the time was an essence. He needed an emergency operation and there was no other choice, I had to go. That night was pitch-dark, extremely cold and windy. I was worn out, tired and cold, so cold that even with the heather on the max I still was sensing my freezing bones. There was barley any car on the road and even the homeless people who were usually sleeping on the sidewalk on my way to the hospital, were not present and in all likelihood found a warmer place to settle on that cold and gloomy night. While driving in my car, loneliness kicked in and then it followed by sadness and disappointment. I asked myself “what am I doing?, Is this what I really signed up for?, Is this the life I had imagined for myself?, Am I really happy?
Then I started remembering the past, the day I received my acceptance letter to the medical school at age eighteen. I never forget that day and how happy I was. After one and half year of working extremely hard, being frightened for the future and the immense uncertainty, finally my dream came through. I remembered that I felt so liberated, rejuvenated, proud and vibrant. I was flying in the sky with joy and sense of pride and contentment. I knew my life would change forever and someday I would be a happy, successful and respected doctor. Of course it took many years of hard work with considerable sacrifices to become a physician and later a surgeon but I finally accomplished my goal. I could really visualize and sense what I was dreaming about for such a long time. Becoming a surgeon was a dream come true and it made me a successful, accomplished, well-respected and financially comfortable man. But I asked myself, “did that really make me happy?”. Was that really my dream to sacrifice my life with this magnitude, to endure the unimaginable stress and pressure, to carry the immense responsibilities, and fulfill the tremendous expectations on a daily basis. I needed some time to reflect on my life and question what really happiness meant to me. If happiness is just having pleasant positive emotions and physical pleasures, then for sure I am in a wrong profession. But happiness should mean much more. When Thomas Jefferson wrote “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, I am sure he did not just mean pursuit of pleasant positive emotions and physical pleasures. The pursuit of happiness was included in the founding principal of this country to emphasize the importance of its value for humanity and democracy, the opportunity for all human being to prosper and flourish. But what does happiness really mean?
What does happiness really mean?
Regardless of how it is defined, one fact remains consistent that happiness is subjective and depends on our own perception and overall judgment of our lives. Good living conditions and personal physical pleasures are essential for how we feel about our lives but they are short lived, unsustainable and really not enough for overall life contentment. Happiness requires fulfillment of a broader range of conditions including physical, mental, social and spiritual domains. Unfortunately, industry and media are advertising a different version of the happiness. They are constantly encouraging us to find happiness by earning physical pleasure and avoiding pain. But it is evident that as a human being our needs and wants are never fully satisfied. In fact pursuit of this type of happiness is the foundation for more anxiety in our society and has not made people particularly happy. It has created a sense of inadequacy when we fall short of a fake happiness and generated a sense of fear to face the painful and negative emotions and experiences. Pain has been advertised as the worst enemy of humanity that needs to be stopped at any cost. The notion of pain free society was so strong that the pharmaceutical companies and some of the medical societies impelled the physicians to pay an extremely close attention to control the pain without considering the potential consequences. In 90s there was a shift in medicine, a change in policy to consider pain as fifth vital sign! The regulatory organizations urged that state boards punish physicians and hospitals for not treating pain adequately. Now, two decades after initiation of those policies, rules and regulations we are facing an epidemic of misuse and addiction of the pain medication in our country. Pain and difficult experiences are part of our life that need to be dealt with in a daily basis. We should not ignore them or medicate ourselves to bypass them. Our goal should be to face our pain, struggles, defeats, negative emotions and experiences and enhance our ability to cope with them. Accepting the fact that the beauty of this life is inseparable from its frailty, allows us to be more grateful, appreciate the gift of life and enhance our ability to experience and savor the positive emotions even more, grow as a human being and flourish.
How a surgeon can be happy?
Happiness or subjective well-being encompasses many interconnected dimensions including physical, psychological and social domains which involves personal decisions, preparation and cultivation, engaging in meaningful activities using our skill and mastery to achieve a personal goal or an aspiration beyond and above ourselves, creating a meaningful or purposeful existence, achieving authentic connections and supportive relationships, enhancing our inner resources to cope with negative emotions and circumstances and making contributions to life. It is a dynamic process called flourishing, full of choices and activities aim towards achieving physical vitality, psychological liveliness, social contentment and personal growth and fulfillment.
It was almost 8 am, when I finally finished the operation robotic surgery on that extremely sick patient and left the hospital to start the whole new day packed with more surgeries, office appointments and other daily responsibilities. That night, the operating room crew and I were able to save someone’s life, a father, a son, a brother, a husband, a friend, a citizen. At the end I was physically exhausted and worn out but I felt liberated, alive, rejuvenated, proud and content and I am sure the rest of the operating room crew felt the same way. At that time I realized what happiness really means to me and after all, the enormous sacrifices, enduring massive stresses, carrying substantial responsibilities and fulfilling the immense expectations are worthwhile. Now I know as a surgeon, I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to savor these precious and invaluable experiences in my life.