The [Dental] Happiness Experiment

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Let’s talk about frustration.  On a daily basis, we face situations that cause stress. We solve complicated three-dimensional problems created by challenging oral environments. Moisture, inflammation, forces, bacteria, acid…. all these things create health problems that we strive to solve each day. Our two main tools to fight these problems are communication and our rotary instruments.  The first tool, communication, which many of you are quite skilled at, can be very mentally tiring. We solve other problems using our second main tool, which rotates over 250,000 times per minute. (In other words, don’t screw up!!) This tool is utilized in a part of the body which could not be more personal to the individuals who have hired us: their faces. We also lead a team while we are being this skilled technician. And we even take out loans for the privilege of doing so.

Everyone Is Watching Us

As we are practicing our craft, we do so under the watchful eye of our state dental board, the banks to whom we are indebted, and our industry. Our employees and our families depend on us to be profitable, so we better be fast enough and good enough and friendly enough and all the things! We are also expected by our patients and our team to stay on time. The standard time allotments as we have laid out in our daily schedule do not normally accommodate for Mrs. Jones’ superhumanly strong tongue or Mr. Jones’ extraordinary need to clear his airway every ten seconds.

These challenges are ultimately our responsibility to solve, and as the Lead Technician, we take these types of challenges in stride. When we are done with the task at hand we hurry off to do the next hygiene check as if our arm is not cramping in pain from that tongue we just wrestled. Between the hats we wear as a highly skilled practitioner, CFO, CEO, HR department and Practice Woo Woo Director, it is easy, if not expected, to feel the burden of doing it all perfectly each and every day no matter how tired we are, or how frustrated. This leads us to the subject of how very at risk we all are for burnout, stress, breakdowns and even suicide.  

Why Happiness?

I don’t know about all of you but when I feel all that pressure, being cheerful to my team is not at the forefront of my mind.  In fact, in my practice environment, being happy had become an afterthought for me. If I thought of being nice to my employees, I pictured it as something I would do for charitable reasons. (‘Cause I am a good person, ya’ know.)  I would imagine overhearing my assistant saying “Oh, that Dr. Laura, we are so lucky she is nice to us……”  I did not think about it in terms of benefit to myself.

This perspective changed recently when I read the book Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman. In the book, I learned that my emotional intelligence was the biggest factor for success in my practice. What, you ask, is emotional intelligence?  It’s the ability to not throw your Nintendo game console against the wall when you lose a game of Mario Kart. It is the strength of character not to pull out bottle rockets at the next driver who stays in the left lane going 55 mph in a 70 mph zone. It’s our ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions.

Emotional Intelligence Helps

It is also the ability of a dental professional to recognize that these sources of frustration can be processed instead of internalized. And. (This is important) emotional intelligence is understanding that emotions are contagious in humans. Not only contagious, but also a powerful force for either enjoyable productivity or stagnant toxicity. Which kind of practice environment would you like to work in?  We all have the same answer. Whether we are a specialist or a first-year dental assistant, a hygienist or a general dentist, we all want to live out our careers in happy, supportive places.

I learned in Primal Leadership that work environments with emotionally intelligent leaders are much more productive and much more profitable. (mind blown) I had always just thought of my profitability in my practice from a numbers perspective. I was profitable when my numbers said so. Could my mood really make that much of a difference? I was optimistically intrigued.  

The Experiment

I wanted to try this out. What could it hurt? I went to sleep on a Sunday evening reviewing in my mind that my good mood could actually make a bigger impact on my bottom line than any other skill I could learn. Fascinating…….

Monday morning arrived. I was pumped. Our huddle began and instead of reporting to my team the exact time frame of insomnia I had the night before, or about my husband’s snoring, I told them how excited I was to work this day with them. I encouraged positive discussion about our day, and I redirected if we went off the rails. Smiles all around. Maybe this emotional contagion was a real thing.

At the end of our meeting, I expressed gratitude for each and every one of them and sent them off to give the best service possible. We worked our asses off that day.  All day long I mindfully remembered that my mood was a valuable asset for my own work satisfaction and my bottom line. Even though we worked ridiculously hard, we ended the day with smiles on our faces and with pride in our level of service. This cannot be emphasized enough: not only did we all have a good time that day, but our numbers were off the charts!

not only did we all have a good time that day, but our numbers were off the charts!

I thought to myself: let’s try this again tomorrow! We did and we had another phenomenal day. I did this all week long and I think by the end of the week my team knew something was up.

Contagion

Have you ever been around a boss (or a professor) who did the exact opposite of what happened at my office that week?  I have. Freshmen year in my simulation clinic operative course I was trying to master Class II restorations. (Man, that’s hard!!)  One day, a professor was staying after school to help the students who needed feedback on their preps. Daunted but determined, I told my husband that I would be home late that night and to feed the kids and put them to bed because I had to stay to practice or I would never get better.  

Humbly, I called the professor over to my pod to ask for advice on how to make this mangled plastic tooth look like a neat little box with slightly convergent walls. He looked at my dentoform in disgust. He told me that my prep would not pass boards. Then as I was trying to tell him that I KNEW it sucked but that I was trying to get better, he stood up and walked away. My heart fell. I would never be able to prep a Class II.  

All that debt I had burdened my husband and children to bear in the form of my first year of student loans would be wasted and I would have to pay it back selling meth on the streets for years to come. Imagine if that teacher had been my boss instead of my instructor. Do you think I would want to go to the ends of the earth each day if I was treated like that?

Is this how we want our employees to feel?

Not just from an altruistic perspective, DEWers, but from a business perspective. If they feel supported, empowered and motivated, your team is obviously going help make it happen every day. But if they feel like they are working for a grumpy troll, that contagious unhappiness is going to spread like a zombie disease, killing off your best people.

Getting To Happy

But how do you get there??? That’s what you are all wondering right now: “Yes Laura, I am READY to spread this so-called cheer contagion in my practice but what do I do next? How do I make myself be chipper?”  Well, that part is up to you. Many people turn to yoga, running, religion, or self-improvement. What I have learned recently through my Life Coach training is that the most effective and permanent way to improve how you feel about any circumstance is to change your thoughts. Your thoughts lead to your feelings and without them, you would not have any feelings. You can have two different thoughts about the same exact circumstance and feel two completely different ways about the situation.

An Example

For example, let’s say I have $10,000 in the bank. I could think to myself, “I am running out of money, and we are going to go broke,” then I would feel scared or out of control. Or I could think “Hey! I’ve got ten grand! Sweet!” After this second thought, I would probably feel exuberant.  Contrast the two sentences. Both could be believable. How do those two sentences make you feel? Do you see how we could get our thoughts to work for the emotions we want to feel? Most of the time these thoughts, while we are working, are generated with no conscious effort. Our brain just populates them for efficiency. We then take the thoughts our brain made up at face value, assuming the thoughts are valid, but who made our brain the expert?

Choose New Thoughts

As humans, we actually have the ability to choose new thoughts and therefore new feelings. For example at work during my Happiness Experiment, I chose to swap out “I hate it when this many people are waiting for me,” for “I am so happy that my services are in demand. How great that all these people chose me to be their dentist. ” With the new thought, I felt grateful and also proud.

DEWers this work on our thoughts is not like cramming for a multiple choice test and then regurgitating the facts. It takes persistence and practice, but the power of being in control of our own thoughts, and therefore feelings, can be one of the most transformative skills you can learn. Ask my team and they can vouch for the effectiveness of my own Happiness Experiment. So. What are you waiting for? What is an example of a thought you carry throughout your day at work that you could swap out? I would love to hear from you. I bet you could even come up with some new, better thoughts. And if you need a little help DEWer, I am here for you, please reach out and let’s chat!

You can learn more about Dr. Laura Mach in her bio below or in her last blog. 

 

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