If you think that physicians, as a group, are unhappy and stressed-out, you’re right. But according to Amit Sood, MD, a Mayo Clinic doc who’s spent his professional career studying the science of stress and happiness, so are lawyers, policemen, businessmen. . . . even stay-at-home parents.
“I think doctors are mentally busy; their brains get much more load than some people’s,” says Dr. Sood. “But these days people in every single industry—teachers, lawyers, clergy, corporate executives--are struggling with an overloaded brain. This situation has come upon us as an unintended consequence of our technological and financial success. It’s made life busier for all of us.”
Dr. Sood is Director of Research and Practice in the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, and Associate Professor, Chair of the Mayo Mind-Body Initiative, in Rochester, Minnesota. He first became interested in this topic after coming to the United States for a two-year residency at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.
In Bhopal, India, he hadn’t been surprised that many people were unhappy, since levels of poverty and illness were high. But when Dr. Sood encountered the same levels of unhappiness among his patients in New York, despite the fact that these patients tended to be wealthier and healthier, he suspected that far more than life situations determined happiness. He began researching the topic to find out what’s responsible for people’s feelings of wellbeing.
The good news is that Dr. Sood’s research has not only located the source of much of our unhappiness, but points to a remedy, too.
He explains that there are three factors that affect an individual’s happiness. Genetics can be responsible for as much as half. Life situation only accounts for about 10 percent. But the third factor is the variable one: the choices we make, “which make up 40-50 percent of the variance in your happiness,” he says. “People have a menu of emotions to choose every single day, Nature has on the menu more negative emotions than positive ones, so if we don’t do anything, by default we’ll pick the negative emotions. But we can make our intentions stronger and intentionally choose positive emotions, the resilient choice.”
Why is technology a factor in our unhappiness and stress? According to Dr. Sood, it’s because of the choices we make when engaging with it. “We are by nature foragers. We used to forage for food; now we forage for information,” he explains. “We’re drawn to what is novel and interesting. When you give more attention to technology, you take attention away from things that give you the greatest joy, like interaction with your family. The whole [area of] technological innovation lacks conscience. Every tech company is competing for your attention. You can bet the next generation of Facebook will be even more interactive than today’s. The result,” says Dr. Sood, “is that people “are not living deeply; they’re living superficially.”
And then, of course, there’s work. “Physicians are extremely busy at work, and have less control at work than they did during their residencies or when they were straight out of fellowship. So they’re perceiving a lack of control. Plus there’s a demand-resource imbalance—more patients for less money, meaning that physicians may not find meaning in what they’re doing, or feel directly connected to patients. Then they may go home and not find their home life as fulfilling and nurturing as they’d like it to be. Eventually those people will burn out.”
But rather than just continuing to complain about the problem, Dr. Sood says we should be focusing on the solution. “And the solution is to cultivate intentionality—choose how you’re going to use technology, and how you’re going to connect with patients and loved ones. For instance, you don’t have to keep looking at email in the elevator, or at traffic lights.
“The two main forces that can reorient us towards the journey we really started on are compassion and gratitude,” he continues. “Compssion and gratitude are critical to undo the toxicity that comes at us from work and from home.”
Dr. Sood has devised exercises to help people keep their attention more focused and to foster compassion and gratitude. In fact, the first exercise he recommends each day is done before getting out of bed. It’s called Morning Gratitude, and involves thinking in specific ways of five people who make you happy. “What you do in those 90 seconds equals a good half hour to 45 minutes of meditation practice—that’s how great the benefit is,” he says. “People enjoy doing this, and it changes your entire morning. The positive effects can last for six hours.”
Another exercise is called Just Notice, and involves looking at the world like a four-year-old for at least 30 seconds during the day.
“We give people these exercises, ways to sprinkle these moments of deep presence throughout the day, and they help you to withstand more challenges, become more resilient, become a stronger person. The total time each day spent doing the program’s short exercises is five minutes.” And the benefits, say Dr. Sood, include a savings of two hours every day thanks to better focus and less mind wandering.
Dr. Sood’s program, called S.M.A.R.T.—Stress Management and Resiliency Training--has reached about half a million people so far, most at the Mayo Clinic campus in Rochester, where physicians, students and staff all go through the program to bolster their resilience.
But even those not in Rochester can take advantage of Dr. Sood’s research. On his website, www.stressfree.org
, there are a variety of tools to help anyone become happier and less stressed. Besides previews of Dr. Sood’s two books (and a link for ordering them), there are also videos posted on the website (including one on Holiday Stress), and a free mini-course called “Happiness: A One-Week Journey.”
Dr. Sood’s research involves neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and spirituality. A partial list of his work is available on his website
. Those who are interested can go to PubMed and search “Stress Management and Resiliency Training” to see more.