Practice Economics

Does Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness Apply to Hospital Medicine?


Every American knows this well-known phrase from the Declaration of Independence, which describes the three “unalienable rights” ordained on humans by their Creator and which governments are bound to dutifully protect. But I wonder if the last unalienable right has implications for career happiness in the healthcare industry, particularly for hospitalists. With the phrase now being 240 years old, it has understandably permeated every inch of American society and affected every crevice of the American psyche. Despite having this decreed inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction and unhappiness within our profession.

Speaking of happiness, I was listening to a 60 Minutes podcast entitled “Heroin in the Heartland.” It described a widespread affliction of heroin among mainstream middle- and upper-class suburban youths.1 During the piece, they interviewed several addicted youngsters and their parents. I was struck by the story of a young woman named Hannah; she described how and why she became addicted to heroin in her upper-middle-class high school in Columbus, Ohio. She described how heroin made her feel. On a scale of 1–10 in happiness, she said it made her feel like a “26.” She and many of her friends became addicted to the feeling of happiness that was infused into them, a feeling that could not be replicated without the use of the drug. She and her friends started their road to addiction in a quest for their unalienable right of the pursuit of happiness.

Contrast that story with the “unhappiness factor” that plagues U.S. physicians. A 2014 survey found that 54% of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout.2 That figure was up from 46% in a 2011 survey. From 2011 to 2014, satisfaction with work-life balance dropped to 41% from 49%. Within that same time frame, burnout and dissatisfaction showed very little change in other U.S. working adults, widening the gap in dissatisfaction between physicians and non-physicians. Even after adjusting for age, sex, relationship status, and hours worked, physicians still were almost twice as likely to experience burnout than other working U.S. adults, and they only had an odds ratio of satisfaction of 0.68 (95% CI, 0.62–0.75) compared with non-physicians. In another recent (and sobering) meta-analysis, researchers found that about a third of all resident physicians report depression or depressive symptoms during their training (ranging from 21% to 43%, depending on the instrument used).3

Could it be that physicians in the U.S., in their quest for the pursuit of happiness, are looking for happiness in all the wrong ways? I read an article recently on DailyGood entitled “Does Trying to Be Happy Make Us Unhappy?”4 It describes several studies that purport that the more value people place on trying to become happy, the less happy they actually become. It turns out that in order for us to figure out if we are happy, we are forced to evaluate our current level of happiness and set that against some benchmark (usually from our own past) to analyze where we are. The mere act of doing this moves us from an experiential mode to an evaluation mode, which puts us out of touch with those things in life that can bring us joy and contentment.

Social scientists have found that when we are immersed in the present, we don’t report being happy in that moment, but we do report happiness later when reflecting on those moments. Ruminating about whether we are unhappy, depressed, burned out, or unsatisfied makes us inwardly focused and makes us lose the ability to become immersed in the present.

Scientists also have found that we tend to overestimate how external influences, such as getting a promotion or moving into a new job, will inflate our happiness and that we all adapt to new experiences and quickly return to our baseline happiness (as if the change never occurred). They’ve also found that when we pursue happiness as an individual state, we become inwardly focused and less likely to actually achieve happiness. People who are more outwardly focused on how others feel (and not how they themselves feel) are much more likely to achieve a state of sustained happiness.

Finally, researchers have found that happiness is more likely achieved by pursuing frequent positive emotions rather than intense positive emotions. Many of us search for single intense emotional experiences (the winning of a gold medal) in the pursuit of happiness, but researchers found that the frequency of positive emotions are much more important than the intensity of positive emotions.

So maybe, as physicians in pursuit of happiness, we are going about this pursuit all wrong, with resultant depression, dissatisfaction, and burnout. We can’t change the Declaration of Independence or the American psyche, but we can change how we perceive that pursuit.

Happiness is not a goal to be achieved but a state of mind to be savored. Immersing ourselves in our daily life, we should be outwardly focused on our colleagues and our patients. If we take this approach, there is no other profession better suited to actually achieving sustained happiness. TH


1. Preview: heroin in the heartland. CBS News website. Available at: Accessed Feb. 1, 2016.

2. Shanafelt TD, Hasan O, Dyrbye LN, et al. Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general US working population between 2011 and 2014. Mayo Clin Proc. 2015;90(12):1600-1613. doi:10.1016/j.maocop.2015.08.023.

3. Mata DA, Ramos MA, Bansal N. Prevalence of depression and depressive symptoms among resident physicians: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2015;314(22):2373-2383. doi:10.1001/jama.2015.15845.

4. Grant A. Does trying to be happy make us unhappy? DailyGood website. Available at: Accessed Feb. 1, 2016.

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at

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