This summer I celebrate my 20th anniversary as a hygienist. While I’ve never regretted my career choice, have I always been happy?
First, the good
There is a lot I love about this profession. I’m a dental nerd and I find our field fascinating. The fact that there’s always something new to learn has kept my passion for this profession alive. I also enjoy the satisfaction that comes from the work itself. It’s rewarding to educate and empower patients to take better control of their health, and I enjoy connecting with and developing relationships with patients. I like to provide the skills and detective work necessary to help patients overcome their barriers and commit to optimal treatment and results. It’s an amazing feeling when a most challenging patient turns that corner!
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 spend our days twisting, bending, and holding static positions. We often experience not only physical pain, but emotional as well. We work with people (humans are a very unpredictable science) to perform procedures that are often uncomfortable, costly, misunderstood, and undervalued. We’re presented with constraints on our time and resources needed to perform our best. Also, we may work in practices where our philosophies do not align with the boss’s, or where we do not feel appreciated and respected.
So, what’s the verdict?
Circling back to my question, “Have I always been happy?” the answer is no. Happiness is often related to external circumstances. Many of the challenges I describe are out of our control, and those external sources can certainly present obstacles to our happiness. It does not, however, mean we’re doomed to be miserable!
If you ask whether my career has been filled with more joy than sadness, without a doubt I can answer yes! Joy is linked to feelings such as harmony and contentment. Joy differs from happiness in that it is a self-driven emotion that comes from within.
Struggling to find joy? Here’s what to do
- Think back on what attracted you to dental hygiene. Do you remember the determination you had to achieve that goal and what you were looking forward to? You wished for and worked so incredibly hard for what you have now. Focus on what drew you in. Now you get to do it!
- Comparison can steal your joy. Do what works for you and be content 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 appreciate the way a coworker practices, but if you’re in a position where it’s out of your control and not likely 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 cannot carry the weight of being the most concerned person in the room or you’ll become resentful, frustrated, and burned out. Balance compassion and coaching with being able to let go—which is not the same as giving up or providing less than the standard of care—when a patient is not receptive. Remember that people have a right to own their disease and may not be ready for the same oral health outcomes as you. It does not have to consume you or reflect upon you; this goes hand in hand with perfectionism. Show yourself some grace when things do not go as planned. Those moments can be some of your best learning experiences.
- On a related note, do not take a patient’s barriers to care personally. Behaviors, decisions, and outcomes are so person-specific and tie back to complex emotions and experiences, such as beliefs, trauma, fear, finances, dental literacy, poor past experiences, trust, phobias, and much more. How a patient shows up has nothing to do with their opinion of you. Taking things personally steals your joy and will not change the outcome for your patient. If anything, 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 like stretching, exercising regularly, drinking plenty of water, and taking breaks. Know your limits when it comes to number of days and hours worked.
- Similarly, take care of your mental health. Balance your work life and other responsibilities with self-care and time for enjoyable activities. I’ve found it helpful to frame my mindset at the start of each day. In one role, this consisted of arriving early and spending about 10 minutes in my car facing a peaceful trail near the office. I relaxed, enjoyed my coffee, listened to music that made me happy, and envisioned how I wanted my day to go. It automatically put me in a good mood, and I pictured myself in a “joy bubble”—cue a visual of Glenda the Good Witch. I tried my best not to let factors out of 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 “Groundhog Day” type of loop on repeat, or you can focus time and energy on growth and learning. Invest in yourself, your interests, and your future, and bring as much of that to your day as possible. This will not only act as a refresh but is a core need for psychological well-being. Lifelong learning is linked to higher levels of career satisfaction and success.1
- Practice gratitude. This can be in the form of thank you notes, journaling, or mentally noting a few positive thoughts to close your day. People who do this are more optimistic and content in their lives and are generally healthier than those who focus on sources of aggravation.2
- Change what you can. We have more control over our circumstances than we realize. Do your research and learn your rights, responsibilities, latest evidence-based care, and how to advocate for yourself. Set boundaries and step away from situations that no longer serve you when the negative outweighs the positives, or when you feel your ethics are being compromised.
As someone who has experienced different careers, I can tell you that none come without challenges. I will also tell you that I would not trade my 20 years as an RDH for any other career—I know this is where I belong!
This 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 about when I looked at the Waldo puzzles with my son. We discovered that by viewing the pictures from different angles, it was easier to find Waldo. Work takes up a significant portion of how you spend your time. You have the power to choose a joyful outlook, 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 versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. J Personality Soc Psych. 2003;84(2):377-389. doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117