[Editor's Note: Today's guest post was submitted by Dr. Monroe Laborde, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Orthopaedics at LSUHC. In his medical practice and research, Dr. Laborde has found a documentable intersection between the physical and psychological components of happiness and how it relates to financial success. We have no financial relationship.]
Happiness: Life's Most Important Skill
Chronic pain, depression, burnout, and suicide are problems for both patients and caregivers. The risk of surgeons getting HIV from needle sticks, cancer from X-ray exposure, and risk of malpractice suits causes psychological stress. Also, as an orthopaedic surgeon doing back surgery, I became very frustrated with post-operative chronic spinal pain patients. The lack of success of any treatment including surgery and narcotics, and dealing with lawyers, caused psychological stress for me and the patients I was treating.
Some of my patients complained of severe disabling chronic pain they attributed to minor auto accidents. Most had no objective evidence of injury or a physical cause for their pain. This pain seemed to be caused by psychological factors. Much of the suffering from pain seems to results from the negative thoughts associated with the pain.
My experiences pushed me in the direction of the medical literature which concluded that psychosocial factors were important determinants of pain intensity and disability. The main psychological factors are depression, anxiety, secondary gain, maladaptive beliefs, and thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy was found to be more effective than other standard medical treatments. Acceptance of the pain, less worrying, and thinking seem to decrease suffering.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Used to Increase Happiness
I decided to learn about cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to help me and my patients to be happier. I spent years reading and going to courses before starting a cognitive behavioral therapy group for my patients. I found this approach to be successful and published the results.
I used The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook in the group setting. I found the chapter on identifying and changing dysfunctional and irrational thoughts particularly effective.3
Cognitive therapy is based on the theory that changing our beliefs alters how we react to the events in our life which transforms what we experience. Behavioral therapy is based on the theory that we can change our feelings by modifying our behavior.
Skills to Increase Happiness
Of the helpful books I read, my favorite title was Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard. He described how meditation allows us to learn to discipline our minds to think and worry less, which makes us happier. He also felt that action directed toward the well-being of others generates happiness.
The most helpful book for me was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. He gave the best explanation of how and why accepting what is allows us to be happy under any circumstances. If we can’t accept what is, if we can accept that we can’t accept what is, that also works. He explained the serenity prayer as meaning for God to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (others and the world), the courage to change the things I can (my beliefs and my thoughts) and the wisdom to know the difference.
As I read and learned about cognitive behavioral therapy, I found it very helpful. It improved my ability to cope with the stress of surgery practice and increased my enjoyment of life. I learned that changing my behavior, thoughts and beliefs changed my feelings and increased my happiness.
Financial Success and Happiness
In his book, The Happiness Advantage Shawn Achor found that financial success does not cause happiness. He found that happiness makes us less likely to burnout, more productive and more financially successful.
Sonja Lyubomirsky summarized the scientific literature in her book The How of Happiness. She found happiness results from acceptance, gratitude, exercise, laughter, relationships, and engaging activity.
I learned that how I interpreted events determined my feelings, not the events themselves. I learned that, by accepting what is, I could be happy no matter what was happening. I found that when I was happy, I was more likely to do the things which caused more happiness.
I learned that activity meaningful to me, play, and laughter improved my enjoyment of life. As I decreased the sugar in my diet and increased my exercise, I lost as much weight as I wanted to. I stopped taking night call and started working part-time at the local university medical center, teaching residents and treating uninsured patients. By accepting what is, I now feel happy almost all of the time. These changes have made my life more fulfilling and enjoyable.
As demonstrated by the daily news, financial success can occur without happiness. Happiness can occur without financial success but makes us more likely to be financially successful.
Some people try to attain happiness directly by trying to be financially successful, getting the right possessions or spouse. If any of these work, the happiness is short-lived. Long-lasting happiness is only attained indirectly while we are trying to make others happier and trying to make the world a better place.
What do you think? Has financial success brought you happiness? Or did you find that you were more financially successful because you were happy?