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When Will I Be Happy? It’s All Relative

Posted Jul 31st, 2020 in the wire, thought leadership, 2020

When we’re young, we dream and imagine what life will be like when we grow up. Over time, we subconsciously edit these fantasies, adding scenes from the lives of others with the misguided thought that they will bring us joy.

When will I be happy? In a TED Talk that is as brief as it is impactful, Shawn Achor tells us that happiness comes from being grateful about where we are in the moment. But instead, “I will be happy when I get into dental school” is followed by “I will really be happy when I own a practice,” and so on.
The act of savouring has been lost. We never seem to be content. Happiness always seems to lie on the other side of this imaginary line we draw in the sand, but we just keep moving the darn thing until all perspective is lost and we wonder why we are miserable.

For many of you, becoming a dentist was your childhood dream. Or at least that’s what you said in your personal statement on your dental school application! But be careful what you wish for, lest it come true, as Aesop said way back in 260 BC, in his famous collection of fables.

Life brings changes. Like Hamlet, how we face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is the tricky part. But face them we must! No matter how well you roll with the punches, we have all just been knocked for the proverbial loop.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about the new normal. Investment advisors lament that nobody questions a soaring stock market. But when the Dow plummets, everyone wants to know why.

What will dentistry look like in the future? How will we ever find our way beyond our current situation? Let’s all take a collective breath.

In the Real World

I graduated from the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto in 1990 and began a one-year residency in general dentistry at the Eastman Dental Centre (now the Eastman Institute of Dental Health) in Rochester, New York.

How to manage patients who were HIV+ was a looming concern, as our knowledge of the disease was as limited as was our ability to help those afflicted. We soldiered on. We changed our protocols and adapted. We forget that shortly before the emergence of HIV and AIDS, dentists didn’t always wear gloves. We became informed, empowered, and, eventually, unafraid.

Let’s go back to the world of finance. The economic gurus will caution that soaring markets are not a reflection of reality, but instead a precarious bubble that will burst at any moment. The downturn in the market, they admonish, is where things should have been all along, a correction. However, everyone looks at the glory days and laments their current situation.

I recently attended Yale (okay, it was an online course, but I still have my certificate) to learn about the “The Science of Wellbeing” with Dr. Lori Santos. This must-take course included a discussion about miswanting, a term coined by Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson, which is defined as the act of being mistaken about what you will like and how much you will like it in the future.

Essentially, our mind’s strongest intentions are often completely wrong. Our visual systems lead us astray as our minds don’t think in absolutes but relatively to reference points. Here’s the kicker—we then go on to pick all the wrong reference points! Enter Instagram with its lovely stories and Photoshopped images of everyone living their best lives, now in a designer mask.

In 1995, Victoria Husted Medvec and her colleagues studied Olympians. Silver medalists tended to be unhappy, as their reference point was the gold medalist receiving all the accolades and endorsements. The bronze medalists, however, were absolutely thrilled as they realized they could have missed the podium altogether!

It really is all relative. My colleagues thought I was crazy to work out of less than 700 square feet as an orthodontist and do all the work myself, a tradition that the orthodontists in our office maintain to this day. I could not handle the frenetic pace of a large practice, so I did the opposite and never looked back. I stayed true to myself.

On Meditation

Meditation is about turning our focus inward and away from the external input of our five senses. In his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, psychiatrist and Buddhist Dr. Mark Epstein mentions the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle who wrote that we are so busy consuming connections through our screens that we are avoiding the true, deeper conversations with others and, most importantly, with ourselves. We all need to focus inward to explore within ourselves what will bring contentment.

Epstein further discussed the work of Robert Thurman, a professor of religion at Columbia, who wrote “it’s not that you’re not real. We all think we’re real and that’s not wrong. You are real. But you think you’re really real. You exaggerate it.” Epstein elaborated, “the picture we present to ourselves of who we think we ought to be obscures who we really are,” or as yoga philosophy teaches us, it prevents us from finding the true self.

Since returning to work, many of my colleagues have commented that while they are now earning a bit less as they navigate changes in the pace of practice, they are actually enjoying dentistry once again.

“How was I working like that before, running room to room, barely having time to think?” they now ask. Well, many of you thought that was normal when, in reality, it was not. You miswanted a level of busyness that you thought would result in a success that would bring happiness, but you were focused on the reference point least likely to do so. Today, like the bronze medalist, you are just happy to be in the moment, doing what you love.

About Bruce Freeman: 
Dr. Bruce Freeman is the Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp, helping dentists across Canada achieve clinical success that results in the best experience for their patients.

Bruce is an international lecturer on clinical orthodontics, facial pain, patient experience, and virtual surgical planning. He is the co-director of the Facial Pain Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital. He further directs the Wellness Program for dental residents at Mount Sinai Hospital, emphasizing how self-care leads to the best patient care.

Bruce is an honors graduate of the University of Toronto. He completed the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester and returned to the University of Toronto to complete his diploma in orthodontics and his Master of Science degree in temporomandibular disorders and orofacial pain. He is also a certified yoga instructor with additional training in breathing techniques, meditation, and trauma informed movement. He can be reached at

As originally published on Dentistry Today.