I’m often asked by students contemplating a career in medicine if I feel that it’s the right choice. I love being a doctor and am confident that it was the right choice for me anyway, but in order to help you through the thought process of seeing if it’s right for you, let’s first talk about happiness.
Can we first agree on a simple and obvious observation? We all choose our actions to maximize our happiness. Sometimes, we sacrifice short-term happiness for the expectation of greater long-term happiness. Right? If so, then our choice of career should take into consideration how likely it is to improve our long-term happiness. Before we can decide that, we need to define what will make us happy. Correct?
So, everyone has their own subtle preferences as to what they need to be happy, but I’ll volunteer some ideas and see if you agree.
– MEANING AND FULFILLMENT: Few people realize how important this is. You can be mega-rich and powerful, but without meaning and fulfillment, you run the risk of being a Mr. Burns. How would I define meaning and fulfillment? One way is to ask, “Do your actions make a positive difference in the happiness of others?”. The more strongly you answer YES, the more likely your life is meaningful and fulfilled. This is where I think the career choice of medicine hits a grand slam (in many cases). In my own example, the happy feedback I get from my past patients when they come back and visit with their baby reassures my staff and me that our hard work makes a difference in their lives. In my opinion, this is why some rich and powerful people are not happy when they get rich by stealing, suing or otherwise inflicting misery on others. They are still rich and powerful, but they are not happy.
– FINANCIAL FREEDOM: The second thing that contributes to happiness is financial power, which I loosely define as the ability to pursue options and to downplay bad fortune. It’s nice if you can pursue your dream of traveling through Europe without enduring extreme hardship. The part about downplaying bad fortune is very important also. Imagine what would happen if you car breaks down. Your happiness would be seriously hampered. However, if you have the means to get a temporary rental and if you can afford to get your car fixed, or even buy a new one, then more of the inevitable bad fortunes that come into all our lives are going to be solvable than if we are super poor. How does medicine fulfill this criterion? It all depends. For the most part, medicine still has more financial reward than the average job, BUT it’s not as nice as it used to be before so much power was seized into the hands of insurance companies and politicians.
– PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH: A third factor necessary for happiness is being energetic and healthy. This depends heavily on the ability to exercise and to pursue fun. As a physician, your career is going to require many hours of commitment and can seriously hinder your pursuit of leisure and your ability to take good care of your health. However, it is within our own power to find ways to balance. This is definitely a challenge, but it is certainly feasible.
– QUALITY RELATIONSHIPS: Another factor for happiness is the development and nurturing of good relationships. This refers to romantic relationships as well as to friendships and bonding with our families, and maybe even with our animal families. Medicine consumes a lot of time and attention. It can create a challenge for finding time for relationships. Again, individual cases will differ.
So in summary, when comparing two different career choices, it might help to analyze these four areas that contribute to happiness and see how each career choice rates in each of these areas. Good luck!