This summer, I celebrate my 20 years as a hygienist. If I have never regretted my career choice, have I always been happy?
First the good
There are many things that I love about this job. I am a dental nerd and find our field fascinating. The fact that there is always something new to learn has kept my passion for this profession alive. I also appreciate the satisfaction that comes from the work itself. It is rewarding to educate and empower patients to take better control of their health, and I enjoy connecting and developing relationships with patients. I enjoy providing the skills and detective work needed to help patients overcome their obstacles and commit to optimal treatment and outcomes. It’s an incredible feeling when a most difficult patient takes this turn!
Now the bad and the ugly
Some challenges present us with a little less to enjoy. Patients arrive with beliefs, behaviors and barriers that create obstacles and frustration. We face physical demands as we go through our days twisting, bending, and maintaining static positions. We often experience not only physical but also emotional pain. We work with people (humans are a very unpredictable science) to perform procedures that are often uncomfortable, expensive, misunderstood and undervalued. We face time and resource constraints to do our best. Additionally, we may work in practices where our philosophies don’t match those of the boss, or where we don’t feel appreciated and respected.
So what’s the verdict?
Returning to my question, “Have I always been happy?” The answer is no. Happiness is often linked to external circumstances. Many of the challenges I describe are beyond our control, and these external sources can certainly present obstacles to our happiness. However, this does not mean that we are doomed to be miserable!
If you ask me if my career has been filled with more joy than sadness, without a doubt I can answer yes! Joy is related to feelings such as harmony and contentment. Joy differs from happiness in that it is a self-motivated emotion that comes from within.
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Are you struggling to find joy? Here’s what to do
- Think about what attracted you to dental hygiene. Do you remember the determination you had to achieve this goal and what you looked forward to? You have wished and worked so incredibly hard for what you have now. Focus on what attracted you. Now you can do it!
- Comparison can steal your joy. Do what works for you and be satisfied without having to change or compare everything and everyone around you. I call it the “keep your eyes on your own paper” theory. For example, you may not like how a colleague practices, but if you’re in a position where it’s out of your control and unlikely to change, focus on what and how YOU do things. There is also a silent strength and influence in leading by example.
- Keep your work in perspective. You can’t bear the weight of being the most concerned person in the room or you’ll grow resentful, frustrated, and exhausted. Balance compassion and coaching with the ability to let go – which is not the same as giving up or providing less than the standard of care – when a patient is unresponsive. Remember that people have a right to own their disease and may not be ready for the same oral health outcomes you are. It doesn’t have to consume you or reflect on you; it goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Show yourself a little grace when things don’t go your way. These moments can be some of your best learning experiences.
- On a related note, don’t take obstacles to a patient’s care personally. Behaviors, decisions, and outcomes are so person-specific and tied to complex emotions and experiences, such as beliefs, trauma, fear, finances, dental knowledge, past bad experiences, trust, phobias and much more. How a patient presents has nothing to do with their opinion of you. Taking things personally steals your joy and won’t change the outcome for your patient. On the contrary, it could make a positive outcome less achievable as you carry the negative feelings into your next interaction with the patient.
- It’s impossible to find joy when you’re in pain, so take care of your body. Practice good ergonomics, such as stretching, exercising regularly, drinking plenty of water, and taking breaks. Know your limits in terms of the number of days and hours worked.
- In the same way, take care of your mental health. Balance your work life and other responsibilities with self-care and time for enjoyable activities. I have found it helpful to frame my mindset at the start of each day. In one role, it was to arrive early and spend about 10 minutes in my car facing a peaceful path near the office. I relaxed, enjoyed my coffee, listened to music that made me happy, and imagined how I wanted my day to go. It automatically put me in a good mood and I imagined myself in a “bubble of joy” – point out a visual of Glenda the Good Witch. I did my best not to let factors beyond my control permeate my bubble. I also tried very hard to leave work at work.
- Negative people and environments are contagious and block the road to joy and opportunity. Remove yourself from these situations as much as possible.
- Be a fountain, not a stagnant puddle. Your days can be a repeating Groundhog Day loop, or you can devote time and energy to growth and learning. Invest in yourself, your interests, and your future, and bring as much as you can into your day. This will not only act as a refresher, but is a basic need for psychological well-being. Lifelong learning is linked to higher levels of job satisfaction and success.1
- Practice recognition. This can take the form of thank you notes, journaling, or mental notes of a few positive thoughts to wrap up your day. People who do this are more optimistic and satisfied with their lives and are generally healthier than those who focus on the sources of aggravation.2
- Change what you can. We have more control over our circumstances than we realize. Do your research and learn about your rights, responsibilities, the latest evidence-based care, and how to advocate for yourself. Set boundaries and walk away from situations that no longer serve you when the negative outweighs the positive or when you feel your ethics are compromised.
As someone who has experienced different careers, I can tell you that none come without challenges. I’ll also tell you that I wouldn’t trade my 20 years as an HDR for another career – I know that’s where I belong!
It may sound cliché, but joy is a choice. Finding it is a bit like “Finding Waldo”: the more you train your eye to spot it, the easier it becomes. In fact, I think back to when I watched Waldo puzzles with my son. We found that by looking at the photos from different angles, it was easier to find Waldo. Work is a big part of how you spend your time. You have the power to choose a cheerful attitude, so do it!
- Drewery DW, Sproule R. Pretti TJ. Lifelong Learning Mindset and Career Success: Evidence from the Field of Accounting and Finance. Emerald Insight. 2020;10(3):567-580. doi:org/10.1108/HESWBL-03-2019-0041
- Emmons RA, McCullough ME. Counting Blessings Against Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Everyday Life. J Personality Soc Psych. 2003;84(2):377-389. doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.527