One of the most challenging things I come up against with many of my patients is something that has nothing to do with medicine. It has to do with attitude.
Take Sara. Sara is a middle-aged woman who works an office job. She complains about her job to me a lot. She also complains about her husband, her house, the yard work she has to do AND the pain that brings her in to see me. Sara believes that there is nothing she can do for herself except come to see me, which is only helpful for a short time, in any case. I have spoken with her many times over the years about the effect that gentle exercise like walking can have on the body and the spirit, but she reports that even a small amount of movement is exacerbating. Objectively, Sara does suffer from some muscles that are too tight, some joints that simply won’t maintain proper function and about 60 pounds of excess weight. But none of these things would stop her from walking or some other form of self-selected movement; none of them would get worse with gentle activity. In fact, I believe they would all get much better in a fairly short period of time. But Sara has chosen to allow the obstacles she faces to define her self and her life; she has chosen to be unhappy. No amount of treatment from me is ever going to help her get better. I’m sorry to say that I think that is the way she likes it.
Now take Joan. Joan has a congenital condition that causes her severe, constant pain. She cannot sit comfortably and walks with a cane. When she comes to see me, we work on relieving her pain to the best of our ability; but we both know it will never go away. Still, Joan is a joy to have in the office. She laughs and jokes and shows a special kind of caring for her fellow human beings that must serve her very well in her job as a pediatric ICU nurse. Despite her constant pain, she has a good outlook on life. This is not to say that she does not have bad days; she does. Sometimes during our sessions she cries and talks about her frustration and disappointment with the life she wants to have, but cannot. On those days, I give her my ear and my shoulder and we get through it. Invariably, the next time I see her, she is smiling again. Joan chooses to be happy and enjoy her life. She is not interested in living her life in any other way.
The longer I am in practice, the more I realize that I am a tool for people to use to make their lives better; I am not the magic answer, I am not the miracle and I am certainly not the person in charge of our relationship. All the power lies in the hands of my patient. They decide if they will come see me, they decide if they will follow my advice and, most importantly, they decide the ultimate outcome of our care.
I know this sounds a little crazy. If I treat a patient, surely I am the one deciding the outcome of care. After all, adjusting a joint to help improve its mobility happens because the doctor performs the adjustment; the patient is relatively passive during that process. But I’m referring not to the treatment itself, but to the patient’s attitude. Does this patient actually want to get better? Do they want better function and mobility? If they do, they often feel much better after treatment. Even when the injury is severe and we will need to work for weeks or months to regain full function, patients experience a feeling of progress and positive movement. On the other hand, patients who are choosing a negative outlook do not feel much better. Their treatment tends to drag on far longer than needed because they continue to report pain levels that do not improve. Eventually, I am forced to refer them out to another doctor in the hope that a better personality match between practitioner and patent will yield better results. I often feel frustrated by my lack of success with these patients and want to do a better job for them. I find myself thinking, “There must be something I’m missing; I just have to work a little harder.” But I’m wrong to think that. In these cases, the one who needs to work harder is the patient. And it’s not on their home care exercises, it’s on their attitude.
People who choose to be happy are healthier. They have a higher tolerance for pain, produce fewer inflammatory chemicals and heal from illness and injury much faster than those who have a negative attitude. Working with patients on diet and lifestyle, it’s the people who maintain a positive attitude that are the most successful. Those who are negative tend to have less impressive results and, generally, don’t complete the plan I have in mind for them. Really, the power is theirs.
So come with me, and choose happiness. I know it’s going to be difficult sometimes. I’ve battled my fair share of stress, adversity, anxiety and depression. But I still choose happy because I can and because it makes for a much more enjoyable life!
Click here to go to “On Choosing Happiness, Part 2”
Then, on to “On Choosing Happiness, Part 3”
For more information on the connection between health and happiness, check out some of these easy-to-read articles: