#100 Eight tips for everyday positive psychology
4 Septemeber 2019
Disease. It wasn’t until recently that it was pointed out to me that the actual Middle English root of this word is ‘lack of ease’. We spend the vast majority of our time as medical students and doctors learning about what can go wrong with the human body and mind. How to fix something that is broken, or near-broken. How to look for problems. We imagine worst-case scenarios and can reel off lists of differential diagnoses (all problems) for a set of symptoms. We are trained over years to look for and diagnose what is wrong in a person and how to bring that state of ‘disease’ back to normality.
I didn’t realise until recently that there is a completely different way of looking at things. It is, in a sense, the ‘flip side’ of the way we learn how to be doctors. And it can be incorporated into our everyday lives, both within our medical work and personal lives (which, at the very least, is just as important!).
I’m talking about the field of positive psychology. It is, in essence, identifying what makes people flourish and prosper and developing strategies to cultivate this in our own and others’ lives. For me, it feels like the polar opposite of the way I was taught to be a doctor. Instead of bringing people from a ‘diseased’ to a ‘normal’ state, positive psychology works by identifying the best qualities in flourishing, successful, happy individuals and then developing strategies about how to actually work towards this. You may see this as a significant shifting of the goal posts, but in my opinion, the two perspectives can actually be synergistic.
Elements of positive psychology have, of course, been around for a long time. Meditation, one of the key elements, is centuries-old. The formal science of positive psychology, as a researched discipline, is only a few decades old. I had not heard of it until searching around on the internet for some kind of course to help me navigate my way through some tough times – both work-wise and also personal – and decided to enroll in a diploma of positive psychology. I also felt that this would complement my work in oncology and in medical education; to bring a sense of positive momentum to my patients and students as well as myself.
A diploma does not make me an expert and many of you reading this will know more about positive psychology than me. These days in many medical schools, elements of positive psychology are covered, but I graduated nearly 20 years ago now and do not have any personal recollection of being taught these kinds of concepts and skills, ever. I had to discover this world myself. I also think some aspects of positive psychology sometimes risk being ‘overprescribed’ and, in doing so, lose their appeal, significance and worth. I sincerely hope this does not belittle their potential effectiveness.
We also need to be aware (and proud) that, as doctors, we are a unique and special breed; we work hard and we are often very hard on ourselves. I am also fully aware that many (most) of the challenges in medicine lay well beyond the individual and within the system itself. I, too, have felt broken by it at times throughout my career. Despite now having a diploma in positive psychology, I don’t walk around feeling enlightened and ethereal! I don’t meditate. I simply can’t do yoga without my mind ruminating over whether I’ve checked all the blood tests I need to. I still get anxious and worried about the same old things and I still set near-impossibly high standards for myself. However, I did come away feeling enthusiastic that there were ways I could actually train myself to turn a bad day into a better one and with respect for a relatively new science that is fascinating to me.
So, for those of you in a similar boat to me, here are my eight simple take-away tips related to positive psychology – specifically in the context of being a busy doctor. I still need to remind myself about these regularly, but it helps to know they are there.
You have permission to look after yourself.
This is perhaps one of the hardest things for us to do, in the context of medical work, where arguably working 24 hours a day would still not get through everything there is to do. For me, a sense of ‘permission’ to think about myself and my own health is really important. I do often need to hear this from someone else though, as my mind is rarely this kind to itself! So, if you’re similar to me, ask someone you care about to reassure you that it’s absolutely essential to look after yourself.
Don’t put conditions on your happiness.
I often find myself thinking that when I have finished writing the next paper, passed the next exam, completed the next course, or even got through the next clinic, then I’ll be happy. This is flawed thinking, as there will only be the next hurdle, the next exam, the next thing to do. It is an endless pursuit. There should never be conditions placed on happiness. We have the right to feel fine right now! It shouldn’t be an elusive goal of the future. What is stopping positive emotion from happening right now?
Don’t put all of your sense of personal self-worth and self-value in your work.
If you do, a bad day at work (which is inevitable for every single one of us) will mean that it feels like your whole world is crashing down. There needs to be other things in life to feel a sense of achievement from, that are not solely related to work.
Know and leverage your strengths.
Strengths are things that you do well and which give you energy. We all have a different set of key strengths; you may know some of your own, otherwise there are several validated strengths questionnaires that can give you (and explain) a list of your ‘signature’ strengths. It actually helps to get insight from a validated tool about where you are likely to derive energy from and to then use those skills and strengths knowing these are helping you in life.
‘I get to...’ versus ‘I have to…’
Try it out. It’s amazing the difference it makes to frame your activities differently. ‘I get to…’ is way more powerful in how it helps you to feel about what you’re talking and thinking about and it usually reminds me that what I do most days is a privilege.
You can be mindful even when you’re too busy for mindfulness.
I will never be one to meditate for hours; it’s just not me. However, mindfulness – being in the present moment – is so precious. And you don’t need to meditate for hours to be mindful! It can be as simple as putting the phone down when ordering a takeaway coffee; taking in the smells, sights and sounds while you wait. Instead of checking your emails, I suggest you try this next time you order a drink. This simple act of mindfulness is a wonderful little ‘refresh’ button in your everyday that does not take any extra time whatsoever!
Make a do-able ‘to-do’ list.
I am a list-writer like many of us are and often feel compelled to look at my ever-growing to-do list in despair. I was given great advice once: while it is ok to have a big master list, each day you should write down two things you HAVE to do and one thing you WANT to do. Crossing out those three things gives the psychological sense of achievement and additionally prioritises something you actually want to do. It’s a great strategy. Now, if I could only remember to practice what I preach each day….
Bad days happen to us all. Gratitude, though, is easy to find. For me, it can switch my mindset very quickly from one spiraling into negativity, back to being positive. All of us can think of three things we are grateful for. It might be our children, our families, our health, or more simple things like good coffee, a holiday we’ve had, or the blue of the sky. It sounds simple but it really works for me to remind my mind there are really good things in life that can (usually, at least temporarily) override the less good times.
Maybe one of these will resonate with you. If so, think about it today, and the next day. If it makes even a little difference in your day, hold onto it!
Dr Kathryn Field
AMA Victoria Women in Medicine Committee