Finding Your "Happiness"

student laying head down behind books

The pre-clinical years of medical education leave students unfulfilled. It's a relentless obstacle course full of memorization, stress, and student loans; ignoring our higher calling to treat and connect with patients. The things that light us up and made us want to become physicians in the first place are traded for limited patient interaction, multiple choice exams, and spending hours sitting, reading and repeating until we all have upper-cross syndrome. We learn scores of physiology, pathology and clinical pearls, unsure of clinical correlations due to a lack of experience. In the meantime the things we love about medicine are put on pause and we are told to wait for it, all while the student loan interest accrues. It’s easy to see how students have become bogged down and frustrated before their careers even begin.

I’ve discussed ways to enhance fulfillment in the preclinical years with osteopathic medical students across the country and the perfect solution remains to be found. I’ve decided finding fulfillment in our current system is the most practical route. To learn more, I turned to strategist, Tony Robbins, who reminded me, "Success without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” Our students work extremely hard to be accepted to medical school and work even harder during the four years. The thing is, students can ace every exam and score well on COMLEX, but if they're not happy, what's the point?

It's also more than just being happy. It's deciding to and figuring out how to live life in a magnificent state, and it is not easy. I had the opportunity to see Robbins's Netflix film, I'm Not Your Guru, in New York City at the IFC Center when it was originally released. Afterwards, he came out and spoke to the crowd about the importance of living a fulfilled life. One of the many things he said that stuck with me was, "Life is the dance between what you desire most and what you fear most." He discussed how our 2-million-year-old brain wasn't designed to keep us fulfilled but instead to keep us alive and identify potential threats. In today’s world, instead of protecting us from lions and tigers, it protects us from rejection and insignificance. Our predator has become our own thoughts, wondering if we're good enough.

He explained the importance of retraining our brains. We have to recognize suffering rising, whether its overwhelming stress, anger, or frustration, and we have to have a way of turning it off and finding the good. Imagine if this was taught in medical school, or in primary school for that matter. Med students are constantly stressed, allowing thoughts such as, "If don't pass this course I'll never become a doctor" or "if I fail this exam everyone will be disappointed in me, and if I disappoint everyone I won't be loved" occupy space in our minds.

Tony gave us this strategy to dealing with stress as it begins to arise: "The human mind needs to be disciplined. If you don't discipline it, it will control you and how you feel. So when something comes up, okay 90 seconds, recognize that thought and laugh and what you used to believe. And let go. Step into your body, change your breathing and shift into: what can I appreciate? What can I love? What can I enjoy in this moment? Because what's wrong is always available, but so is what's right. Decide life is too short to suffer. That I'm not going allow that to dominate me."

As medical students, we may not be able to change medical education, but we can change how we feel as we move through it. We can decide to not suffer, to find what's right, and to not give away our happiness cheaply.

Richard A. Tumminello, OMS-II
Member, POMA Mental Health Task Force

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