I have been involved in dentistry for more than 40 years, as a dental student, a military dentist, a dentist in private practice, an instructor, a speaker, and, most recently, for 19 years as a transition specialist working with dentists preparing for the next stage of their lives. I have seen a lot of changes in those decades, from using silver points in treating endodontics, mixing amalgam pellets and mercury for restorations, dentists smoking cigarettes in their offices while treating patients and wearing neither gloves nor masks, to seeing dentists with full-face shields, gowns, and gloves, and wearing magnifying optics, using CEREC technology, and shaking their heads at the requirements of OSHA. Even though a lot has changed in dentistry in the last 50 years, one fact has remained consistent: True success in dentistry is a result of internal happiness.
On Being a Dentist
I have seen many surveys over that last 40 years stating patients have a closer, more intimate relationship with their dentists than they do their physicians. Why would that be? In the “olden days” (prior to the 1960s), it was not uncommon for a patient to be feeling a lot better when he or she went in to see the dentist than when coming out after seeing him (not many female dentists in those days). On the flip side, a patient usually went to his or her physician when they weren’t feeling well and knew they would probably be feeling better after seeing “Doc”.
It is my opinion that this phenomenon has been driven by the patient. Dental schools, practice management/treatment consultants, and seminar presenters began stressing the importance of “painless dentistry” and how to make sure the patient had a “wow experience”. Also, because of the Baby Boomer generation and its ability to facilitate change, people became more vocal to their neighbors about their experience at the dentist. Today, patients will seek out a new physician before they will even think about going to a new dentist. For years, in my own seminars for dental students, I have shared the “Secret Dentistry 101 Formula”: (1) Learn to treat people as you want to be treated, (2) Learn to give a shot that doesn’t hurt, and (3) Be on time. It was my opinion that no one would leave a practice if they were treated well, no one hurt them, and their time was respected. Of course, the disclaimer was the practice “had to have a fair fee schedule”. Many patients realized the “Dentistry 101 Formula” was just the opposite of the way they were treated at the physician’s office, especially after the emergence of the HMO patient care experience.
On Being a Retired Dentist
As a practice transition specialist, I have been hearing the following statistic for almost ten years: “Due to the average age of dentists practicing in the United States, in the next five years more than 50% of them will retire.” Well, my friends, that is not happening. We know one of the major reasons is the economy. Dentists’ incomes had allowed them to fund their qualified retirement plans, and the profits their practices generated enabled them to diversify their portfolios by investing in limited partnerships, professional buildings, IPOs, and other risky ventures. We had all heard about “risk and reward”, but it seemed nothing was risky. Almost every investment was yielding double-digit returns, and many dentists, whether they were handling their own investments or utilizing investment brokers, thought, “Warren Buffett has nothing on me! There’s nothing to this investing.” They could see retirement coming sooner than they had planned!
As the Lone Ranger said to Silver, “Whoa, steady, easy now, big fella” – along came September 11, 2001. Many of the dentists who had focused their investments in high-risk securities and speculative ventures realized losses in the 40% to 60% range (or more) over the following five to eight years. In some cases, all of the double-digit profits were lost, and for some the losses were greater than the gains they had realized over decades. The early retirement visualized, and even “normal” retirement, was not going to happen as planned.
Common by-products of financial problems are suicide, divorce, and substance abuse. It is published that dentists have the highest suicide, divorce, and substance abuse rates of any professionals, and I have seen these numbers go up in the last 10 years. I have had three clients/friends commit suicide in the last five years, and while I do not know the exact number who have gone through divorces or have sought out 12-Step programs, I do know that number is in the double digits.
On Being a Happy Dentist
I have worked with dentists across the country in different stages of their careers, and they have ranged in age from 48 to 71. My contact with these individuals was either assisting them in a practice transition or acting in the role as their personal coach while they were going through a life transition. The only common denominator has been that they were all dentists and all of them, at some time in their careers, had asked themselves the question, “Is it time?” This question is asked more often than you might imagine, and it is not always related to literal “retirement”. I had come to know these individuals well, first as clients and subsequently as friends. Some of the following eight observations I made will not surprise you, but some may:
1. The group was very polarized; either they were truly happy individuals, or they were internally unhappy. There were very few individuals who were “beige”, neither happy nor unhappy.
2. The happy dentists had passions outside of dentistry and genuinely enjoyed their choice of profession. They knew they wanted to be dentists early in their college years, or before.
3. The reasons the unhappy individuals went into dentistry were varied. Some of these reasons were (direct quotes): (a) ‘”the income I would make”, (b) “I wanted to go into medicine, but dental school was easier to get into”, (c) “My father was a dentist, so I thought I should be one, too”, (d) “Medical school was too much schooling, and I would have to be on call”, (e) “Dental students were draft exempt”, (f) “I was good in science, and my high school counselor recommended it”. Etc.
4. All of them, both the happy dentists and the unhappy dentists, experienced some form of "burn out” at some time in their careers.
5. There was a higher incidence of divorce in the histories of the unhappy individuals. Some of the happy individuals also went through the divorce process, but seemed to have weathered the experience better.
6. The amount of money put aside for retirement did not seem to be a dramatic concern to any of the happy dentists, even those who had experienced divorce or those who had realized heavy losses in the market.
7. The concern of inadequate retirement funds by the unhappy individuals coincided with histories of divorce, high losses from investments, or, in a number of cases, both experiences.
8. The happier dentists were more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative, and better liked by others.
Happiness Can Be …
I reviewed the notes of interviews I had with dentists in different periods of their careers and the quotes and observations of clients made during my services to them. I was surprised by what came to light from the notes, and I decided to learn as much as I could about "happiness”, (of course, without going off the deep end). My sources of education were synopsizing the results of downloaded internet searches and purchasing books on happiness from Amazon.com (The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and The Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness by E. Diener, E. Sandvik, and W. Pavot, to name but two).
What did I learn? First, a personal statement I have made hundreds of times over the years was validated; I’ve said many times in conversation, “I don’t know of anyone happier than I am.” It was not until my education on “happiness” that I realized how fortunate a person I am. The education also enabled me to recognize the catalysts or factors that were causing unhappiness. I learned that even though happiness is internal, it can be learned.
Some of my observations, as well as those of noted researchers, about the thinking and behavior patterns of the happiest individuals are:
1. They were comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
2. They made physical exercise a weekly and, in some cases, a daily habit.
3. They were often the first to offer a helping hand to individuals in their offices or to friends.
4. They devoted a great amount of time to their family and friends.
5. They had interests or passions outside of the office.
6. The happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they showed in coping in the face of challenge.
7. Last but not least, compared with their less happy colleagues, happier dentists are more sociable and energetic, more charitable and cooperative, and better liked by others.
The Genetics of Happiness
I was very surprised to find out that certain individuals have a very strong genetic predisposition for happiness. There have been a number of studies on twins, both identical and fraternal. One of the most famous twin studies, the Happiness Twins Study, was carried out by behavior geneticists at the University of Minnesota. Twins share specifically known portions of their genetic material; identical twins share 100 percent, and fraternal twins (like regular siblings) share 50 percent. The study followed a large number of mostly Caucasian twins over their lifetime. One of the study’s findings was, “The average happiness of your identical twin (even if assessed ten years earlier) is a much more powerful clue to your happiness today than all the facts and events of your life!”
It appears each of us is born with a happiness set point, a characteristic potential for happiness throughout our lives, and, as far as anyone knows, this set point cannot be changed. It is fixed, immune to influence or control. But just because one’s happiness set point cannot be changed does not mean their happiness level cannot be changed. Among other findings, the Happiness Twins Study dispelled the myth that the cause of unhappiness is “because I was born that way”.
Yours to Choose
In conclusion, no matter what stage of your dental career you are in currently, you can be happy much of the time. Close your eyes, relax, center yourself, and recall an incident or event that made you feel truly happy inside (e.g., the birth of your child, hitting a beautiful golf shot, picking up your finished painting from the framer, the hug of a child you taught to read, putting the final coat of varnish on the chair you just built, selling the little fixer-upper house you recently remodeled – it’s yours to name). The feeling you just experienced from that recollection is repeatable. Life is too short not to be happy as often as you can, and a happy individual is a wonderful catalyst to everyone around him or her. Your genuine smile or hello might be the only nice thing that happens to someone with whom you come into contact. And please remember … happiness can be learned.