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The 10 Commandments of Happiness for Dentists – Part 1

Dr Depen Patel speaks on the 10 key things that can improve both your professional and personal life.

22 April, 2024

Be honest.  You have down moments.  More than you’d like.

You accept it as part of the profession, it comes with the territory everyone goes through it, right?  “Dentists have the highest suicide rate of all professions!” will be thrust upon you more times than you can care to recall as relative strangers try to decipher why you’ve decided to spend your life peering into peoples’ mouths.

In the modern age of litigation, high patient expectation and an increased demand on the overwhelmed dental practitioner it’s easy to let things get on top of you.  It’s even easier to ignore your problems and sweep things under the carpet.  Stress, burnout, anxiety, depression are all things you read about but naturally you don’t want to associate any of them with yourself and even worse these are sensitive areas that aren’t easy to open up about and discuss.

Ignore them though and eventually the negative cycle of thoughts snowball and inevitably it’s time for the ‘I want to quit dentistry’ conversation with your nearest and dearest.   A less than ideal position for someone in a profession that so many think is a dream.  Worse still ignoring these thoughts are proven to have long term impacts on your mental health and quality of life.

Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success

But before you decide to retire your drill and bake cakes for a living…wait, it doesn’t have to be this way!

One or all of these suggestions could be the spark that reignites your passion for teeth. After all you’ve studied for years and invested thousands of hours and pounds in furthering your knowledge so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that dentistry can actually make you happy.

1. Sleep your way to success

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’ll explain this one further! Daily burn out is an occupational hazard and I’m sure every one reading this has had that feeling of their brain feeling ‘fried’ after a particularly tough day. Your receptionist is trying to squeeze an emergency into your already overflowing book, a patient has turned up late, you’re already 20 minutes behind and the icing on the cake Mrs Jones’ crown hasn’t turned up and you’re dreading having to tell her as she’s a miserable so and so. You get to lunch and you’re exhausted. You’ve still got an afternoon to go and your mind starts to wonder ‘why am i putting myself through this?’. 

Here’s where you can use the secret method of survival of many world and business leaders.  Science has shown that a short nap of no more than 20 minutes, enough to take you into the REM phase of  sleep can leave you feeling refreshed and energised as to your body it’s the equivalent of 3 to 4 hours sleep.  Your surroundings are key though. Shut your surgery door to isolate yourself from the rest of the practice, recline your chair and lie down (it’s perfect for naps).

Use an eye mask (I use thisone) or close the blinds but most importantly bring some headphones as it might not be easy to simply fall asleep but some calming sounds will help you to focus on drifting off.

My favourite is a 15 minute video of gong sounds.  And the best bit of all is if you use the same sounds daily eventually your brain knows as soon as it hears those sounds that you’re preparing to nap and it’ll get more efficient at dozing off.

And speaking of sleep we can’t ignore the main session you get at night.  It’s well documented that the quality of sleep is actually more important than the quantity and that sleep is essential for your body to repair itself from the stresses and strains of the day.

The flow of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) increases dramatically during sleep to wash away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, so can you imagine how much of this builds up during a stressful day in surgery!  If you struggle to nod off easily or get quality sleep there are hacks to help that are backed up by a host of scientific studies.

  1. Have the same bedtime daily.
  2. No caffeine after 2-5pm, basically your afternoon coffee should be the last one (or switch to decaff).
  3. Have an alarm 30 minutes before bed at which point you go device-free (the light from phone screens have been shown to keep your brain waves active so not the best place to start if you’re trying to wind down). iPhones have a night mode that you can activate where your screen automatically dims at a set time.  You can dim all your house lights or light candles for an extra calming effect.
  4. Charge your phone away from your bed so you’re not tempted to use it before bed.
  5. Lavender or scented oils on your pillow along with calming music.
  6. Having the same bedtime daily will eventually program your brain and body to prep for sleep so your sleep quality and ability to nod off will increase. It’s tough at the start but just like we tell our patients when it comes to flossing, its something you have to do to stay healthy!

TOP SLEEP HACK: An amazing app called Sleep Cycle monitors your sleeping pattern and is designed to wake you only in the lightest phase of sleep. Being awoken during the lightest cycle of sleep is the key to waking feeling refreshed.  If you get up during a deep sleep cycle this is when you get that groggy almost drunk feeling when you wake and that’s definitely not the best way to start the day!

2. Get up early

Following on from getting quality sleep being an early riser is another life hack to happiness. It’s not a coincidence that the top 1% of the worlds population the successful business men and women and entrepreneurs get up at 5am or earlier. A life changing book into the science behind this is The 5am Club. 

Your brain is at its most efficient and at its peak performance level first thing in the morning compared to at night when it’s winding down for the day. You’ve got quiet time with no-one to disturb you to get your best work done. Getting to read or watch the news in peace, prepping your lunch, getting to work on time etc all adds up to a happier, calmer start to your day and avoids the frenetic, panicked feeling when you miss your alarm or run late and get to the surgery already feeling stressed.  Definitely not a good start when you’re in a job where you have to be on the ball from your first patient.  Unfortunately there’s no hiding behind desks with a mugful of coffee to ease ourselves into the day for us!

3. Be Grateful
Go back to your teens when you were looking at university courses and deciding what you wanted to do with your life.  What made you choose dental school?  Most likely it was knowing that you would have a career for life, job security and the opportunity to help people and be paid well for it.

It’s easy to forget all of this when you encounter stress in practice, when you’re drowning in treatment plans or when Karen starts complaining about how long she has to wait for an appointment!  An easy way to make the good far outweigh the bad is a daily gratitude journal.

Backed by science and used by the Dalai Lama daily gratitude is proven to improve positivity and make you happier.  You can also use it to reflect on the tough times you’ve gotten through which can provide a great pick me-up when you’re feeling down.  All it takes is a few minutes either just before sleep or first thing in the morning, start with a couple and change them daily.

The difference you’ll feel once you acknowledge how lucky we really are to have our health and family and careers can’t be described.

4. Give more than you receive 

“I’ll be happy when I just…”, just what? Have that new car, the new Chanel handbag, that big house with the swimming pool?  Sound familiar?  What the brain experiences when you attain these material goals is a hit of Dopamine which is the feel good hormone.  Just remember the phenomenal feeling we’ve all experienced when we unwrap a new smartphone or get a new TV, that’s the Dopamine.  A couple of months down the line however it’s a different story, as the once shiny awe inspiring purchase has just blended in to every day life and it no longer gives you that warm fuzzy feeling.  So what do you do?

Unfortunately as Dopamine is hugely addictive the usual answer to this question is to focus on the next material object to get that hit again.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that that’s no way to live yet we all do it.  Material objects can’t make up for a lack of contentment in life.  Tyler Durden from the iconic film Fight Club said it best, “you work your life to own things and in the in the end they end up owning you.”

Having a deferred life plan (or The Rat Race as it’s more commonly known) where your happiness is aligned with your material life goals of having a Ferrari or a big house can’t work because that could take years or worse still never happen.  And then what you’re left with is being miserable up until that point and even more distraught if it doesn’t happen and that’s no way to live.  You can choose to change this.  Above everything remember you can choose to be happy now. 

Happiness is in your head it comes from within.  There’s no better feeling than being in the present moment, not thinking about the past or the future, and just being happy within yourself and appreciating where you are in life. When you help others that act of kindness and the feel good factor that comes with it is a bigger and more sustained Dopamine hit.  More importantly it comes from your heart, from a place of love, and is the behaviour that most aligns with the idea of living in the moment and being happy right now and it’s your first step out of The Rat Race mentality. If you do something for someone else and they show gratitude, that experience and that feeling of contentment lasts a lifetime.

There are so many great dental charities that have been set up that offer volunteering dental aid in underprivileged countries and the feeling you get from participating in these is so much better than anything Apple’s next shiny new release can offer. Here’s some options. 

5. Have goals 

It’s the old adage ‘if you fail to plan, plan to fail’.  I’ll take this one step further and say if you don’t have goals that you’re trying to meet then you’re not growing, you’re stagnant and have a one way ticket to living a Groundhog Day everyday (for you younger readers out there it’s a great movie with the legend that is Bill Murray look it up!).  There is an emphasis in our profession on continual development and the reason is that personal growth will keep pushing you to greater professional success but the underlying motivation has to be happiness.

You could have the best ship in the ocean but if the captain has no destination you’ll just float around aimlessly.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Don’t just learn for learnings sake understand what you’re passionate about and focus on that field. Want to work a three day week? Start looking at your appointments diary to see if this can happen. Want to become a Specialist in Endondontics? Start looking at MSc’s. Want to be a dental social media influencer? Start building content!  But you have to plan to work towards those goals.

Write down where you want to get to in your career and life, what you want to achieve, and reverse engineer the steps required to get there. Have daily, weekly and yearly goals and add them to your life planner but importantly don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t meet them consistently, as long as you’re moving the needle forward every day that’s the main thing.

In the words of Pablo Picasso, “our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”

Also bear in mind that your goals have to be realistic.  There is a huge tendency nowadays to have social media envy and be upset or down when you don’t have as many followers as fellow dentists or aren’t doing the type of cosmetic cases that they are.

Social media anxiety has contributed to the highest rate of depression in young people in history –  and the reason behind it is simple. Seeing other people’s lives through a filtered lens enhances feelings of inadequacy in our own lives. It doesn’t tell the story of the hard work and failures it took to get there.

Success takes time it’s never instant and if you can drown out the noise and focus on yourself and what you love and what value you can offer patients and just start pushing to improve yourself day by day you’ll be happier as you start to create a life you’re in love with.  As long as you’re moving forward every day that’s the most important thing.



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