Don’t Just Cope and Coast: Reach for More, Radiologist

In my last RBJ column, we discussed the new field of positive psychology and a model of happiness on a continuum spanning from the pleasant life to the good life and on to the meaningful life (“Beyond Busting Burnout,” August/September 2018). 

To recap, the pleasant life involves hedonistic pursuits in which we chase money, sex and possessions. Most of society is stuck in this stage. The good life is where we use our unique strengths to develop our best self. This is the stage of personal character development and virtue that Aristotle and others preached as the path to happiness. Finally, when we use our fully realized potential and best self in the service of a cause larger than ourselves, we have entered the meaningful life.

As radiologists, are we working hard to improve our accuracy and service each day to help our patients and referring colleagues—or are we coasting on autopilot until our next vacation or retirement? 

Are we grateful for the ability to render diagnoses simply by looking at pictures—or have we taken for granted our unique skills in the midst of reading 100 cases per day?

If we understand the need to progress from the pleasant life to the good life, we can begin to recognize the source of stress and anxiety that many of us often feel, myself included. The reason for our discontent is a growing sense of a deep and unrealized potential. As we are stuck in the pleasant life, we are not fully developing our best self. We are not living in harmony with our unique strengths and virtues each day. In short, we can only enter the good life by focusing on our own development—our personal growth. 

How do we realize our full potential and satisfy the discontent that many of us feel? The doorway to the good life begins with a focus on character. The Stoics believed that the only thing required to achieving happiness (flourishing) was to live a life of virtue (excellence in character). 

There are several aspects of good character that can be developed with the right amount of focus and practice. Gratitude, resilience, optimism, integrity, compassion and service have all been correlated with improved wellbeing. These can be exercised on a daily basis to grow the muscles of our character. 

We often must make difficult choices over how to spend our time. As part of this, many of us question ourselves on whether we are taking the best approach to raising our children. The correct path is usually the one that leads to the practice of virtue and improvement of character. There may be nothing wrong with pushing our kids to succeed in academics or sports if it’s done for the right reason. But are we making them enroll in honors and advanced-placement classes so they can challenge themselves to be their own best selves—or are we trying to move from being parents of gifted children to gifted parents? 

Are we joining a more competitive team so our child can improve her or his skills and learn the link between effort and results? Or are we joining so that we can tell others that our child made the A-team? 

In future columns we’ll explore strategies to enter the good life and, more importantly, consider ways to move into the meaningful life. I hope you’ll stay with me. 

Dr. Katyal is a radiologist, founder of PositivePsychologyforPhysicians.com and author of Positive Philosophy: Ancient and Modern Wisdom to Create a Flourishing Life (Lioncrest Publishing, 2018).