Reflections on 2020, Aspirations for 2021 – With a Science of Well Being Lens

Posted on Dec 1, 2021 in Wellness Committee | 0 comments

Reflections on 2020, Aspirations for 2021 – With a Science of Well Being Lens

I was feeling the weight of 2020 last week when I went to Ms. K, a patient who has had a particularly rough year.  “This is the year I lost my leg in the spring, and now, I am losing this battle with lung cancer all on top of Covid-19,” she said, “but I learned something this year, too.  I learned we all need each other, and we all need love”.  As she said this her eyes brightened and the heaviness that pervaded the room lifted and I felt a warmth in my chest.

“Yes, you are right, Ms. K,” I said, “We have learned some important things this year.”

“2020 = a dumpster fire” “2020 = world turned upside down”.  Taking my cue from Ms. K, I have been trying to see it rather as a world revealed. A world where we have a newfound appreciation for relationships and community.  A world much more fragile then we had understood it to be.  A world that needs our tender attention.

We may understand these things, but how do we move forward when so much tough stuff is still weighing us down?  Leaning on the research in social and cognitive sciences, I try to remain optimistic. It is in our DNA to care about the person in front of us and our community.   What we need now are cognitive nudges first to foster our own wellbeing and then our relationships with others.

Here are some ideas that people have embraced in 2020 that we can all explore moving forward in 2021.

Humility: We were humbled by the virus scientifically and socially by our threatened institutions.  And as it turns out, being humbled can be a good thing. There is a rich body of research to suggest that humility first makes us question our assumptions; then often this leads to listening to other people’s ideas and a less “self-focused” outlook.  Gratitude and a greater sense of connection with others follow. Humility is a good first step in self-compassion which can be very helpful in dealing with personal setbacks. 

Research has demonstrated that humility can be cultivated.  As clinicians to whom people look for answers, humility typically is not something we spend time developing. Given that we have all had a good taste of it in 2020, now is a good time to truly work at incorporating humility into our way of being.  And it starts with quieting our inner voices, deeply listening and letting go of some of our assumptions.

Compassion: Across the world Covid-19 wrought tremendous suffering and everyone felt the pull of compassion which is defined as sensing suffering and moving to address it.  Witnessing the compassion on social media moved us all weather this was images of people visiting isolated neighbors or the cheering of health care workers.  Those of us lucky enough be providing health care, we were inspired by our colleagues moving toward danger to express their compassion.

As providers, compassion is foundational in how we move through our world and should be our greatest source of inspiration and energy.  But what I call “the healthcare compassion paradox” can easily get in the way of the natural flow of compassion.  In order to feel compassion, one must witness the suffering of another.  All too often, we rush to the diagnosis and the treatment and miss this crucial step in generating compassion. Take a moment to open your heart and quiet your mind when you first see your patient; their story will inevitably provoke compassion that will sustain you through the encounter and give you energy going into the next.

Awe: Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast or beautiful that challenges our understanding of the world. It is something we depend on the keep life fresh and in 2020, those vacations to “awesome” places like New York or the Grand Canyon didn’t happen, and this contributed the flat feeling we all experienced. Awe makes us feel more alive, but importantly, it also makes us more humble, generous and less self-centered.

This year researchers from UC Berkeley and UCSF demonstrated that awe can be cultivated, and we don’t need to travel the world to find it. A group of seniors were randomized to go on a brisk exercise walk or a walk where they were told to move more slowly but look carefully at their surroundings with a wonderous, aesthetic eye. Those on the “awe walk” reported a greater increase in wellbeing than the exercise group.   So, if we are looking for awe, we can find it nearby if we take the time to look for it.   People can be a great source of awe, too. With some attention, we can find awe in the beauty of our patients’ struggles; this can be another way our work can energize and inspire us.

Here is the link on how to do the awe walk yourself.

Purpose: A decade of research confirms that a meaningful life or life well lived has plenty of joy, but more important is living with purpose.  While we are all a little joy deficient now, 2020 certainly made up for it with opportunities to live with purpose.  Purpose is an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world. Wearing a mask, staying home in the spring and over the holidays, seeing our patients despite the risks: this is living with purpose. We are leaders who daily work to promote the health of our patients and community. Never has the importance of this work been clearer.

But living with purpose requires stating our purpose.  As with compassion, purpose is so built in our work that we can easily fail to appreciate it.   I have made friends with a former patient and every week he texts me, “Have a beautiful day on purpose!” After each text, I feel energized and approach my work with a more open heart.  We all need reminders like this.

Love:  As we know now, about the only bright side of2020 is our greater sense of our shared humanity and with that, a greater sense of concern for others and need for connection.  This is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss to build upon.  To promote the health of patients and communities, we need to take the next step to make sure we all learn from this insight. We must use our platform in our communities and exam rooms to promote what people now intuit – that an open-hearted, connected world is a healthier one. We need to talk about love.

I am not talking about romantic love but love as defined by Barbara Fredrickson: a moment-to-moment experience of warm, mutual caring that we feel with any person – even strangers – in everyday interactions.  What she also calls more dully “shared positivity” creates a mutual sense of wellbeing. According to her research, our brains are wired to look for this love and if we have this mindset, we can see the world as a source of expanding connectedness and wellbeing.  As healthcare providers, by talking about the health benefits of love and encouraging them to “spread the love” we can promote the health our patients and communities.

Each day I saw Ms. K in the hospital, we had amazing, pithy little conversation.  When she was feeling stronger and ready to go home, she said. “Thank you, Dr. Hass for all you have done, and I’m glad you are almost through your 2020.”

“Well, we have all suffered, but we have become a little wiser as a result” I replied. Then I took her hand, gently rubbed her back and looked into her eyes for a moment.  We both teared up as I said, “Along with medical care, I will try to make sure everyone leaves our med center with a little love, too!”

Leif Hass, MD
Wellness Chair – Summit Campus