A Doctor's 'Happy Habits'

The life of a physician can be frustrating at times. However, leadership coaches suggest that certain habits can help cultivate happiness, even in a difficult profession.

“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

—Aristotle

Part of my extended journalist’s journey with physicians has been to try and understand their nature—on and off duty. Through observing my physician-father’s career, I knew that he had habits—mostly good ones. And it was the worthwhile habits that made him a better person and a better doctor.

In pondering the whole issue of professional unhappiness among today’s physicians. I offer that my father didn’t have much unhappiness during his medical practice years. Frustration, fatigue, and fear, yes. But not a whole lot of unhappiness for him.

Appearing recently on the website Inc. (which is a worthwhile visit for doctors) is a post about proven “happy habits” by a seasoned leadership coach, Lolly Daskal. “If you want to be happier—and really, who doesn't want to be happier?—measure yourself against these habits, pick a starting place, and get to work,” she said. “The payoff is tremendous.”

When I looked at them I saw a lot of my dad’s own happy habits. Here are a few habits of happy people:

They smell the roses. In my mind this is perhaps the key to my father’s long life of satisfaction. He could separate things—work from play. It was a beneficial difference and it was plain on his face. I’m not much good at it, but my daughter is proving to be so gifted. Hope springs eternal.

They don't sweat the small stuff. Dad knew that many things were beyond his control—that’s important for happiness in most people; it’s critical for doctors. He thought a “you save lives every day” attitude could sadly descend into thinking all other things are “small stuff.” And good training, a little skill, and swift action usually prevented the “sweat.”

They persist in challenging times. Dad fell from a mountain—he was in his early 50s with a successful medical practice and a happy healthy family. Over the next decade or so he would lose two daughters to auto accidents, a wife to cancer, and a medical partner to another business. Yet still, I believe he was a happy man.

They commit to their goals and visions. My father took great pride in the medical profession and his role in its on-going glory. To him, being a doctor was the ultimate trust. It was his life and he honestly felt that few outside the trade could understand the hard work and pressure that went into being an able physician. He loved his job too.

They take care of their bodies. As part of a big move recently, I went through some old family photographs. I came across a picture of my dad when he was 85 years old. He was retired, living happily on North Carolina’s Outer Banks with his third wife. The guy looked amazing. It took a lot of bumpy years to get there and he still looked great.

They give more than they take. While maybe the foremost habit of all fine doctors, I know my father behaved so, not because he told me, but it’s what I heard from his patients and our community members. Why forget patient bills, make house calls at odd hours, or use his reputation to vouch for others? Because he knew the doctor’s life was to care for others. I’ll never really know the true measure of his giving.