There are certain virtues we expect to find in our medical providers: a desire to help and heal, empathy, and compassion, among others. And yet, not every physician we encounter expresses these qualities.
Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine,Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago investigated the process by which medical students develop the moral intuition to care (Shepherd et al 2018). They studied 563 medical students across 24 US medical schools, analyzing the role of spirituality vs religiosity in virtue development.
The results show that the medical students’ spirituality predicted an intuition to care which predicted increases in empathic compassion and generosity. Interestingly, the importance of religion to the students did not predict the development of virtues. In fact, a negative relationship was found between religiousness and empathic compassion.
The fact that spirituality promotes virtues is not surprising when we consider that it connects people to something greater than themselves. By emphasizing connection to others, spirituality naturally cultivates such qualities as generosity and compassion. From this lens, medicine, ideally practiced in the service of helping others, represents a sacred goal or calling. The researchers suggest the ethical benefits of integrating spiritual growth awareness into medical education (as well as other contexts – military?), given that spirituality may affect students’ care of others.
Dr. Jim Withers of Pittsburgh, PA practices “street medicine.” He brings free medical care to the homeless and has developed Operation Safety Net, a set of essential health and social services offered through “house calls” to those living on the streets.
This model of outreach to the unsheltered homeless has now been replicated across six continents via the Street Medicine Institute.
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Despite the common assumption that happiness is to be found in securing money or material items, the research is pretty clear that such gratification is short-lived. After providing an initial boost, material acquisitions tend to lose their impact quickly (see Brickman & Campbell, 1971, for their seminal work on hedonic adaptation, e.g., how people get quickly used to new circumstances).
What does promote a more lasting type of happiness is when people engage in intentional activities that create “flow” – a state of mind produced by a certain investment of energy, skill, and challenge (Csikszentmihalyi,1997, 1999). And yet, because flow activities require initial effort, we tend to lean towards more passive activities, even though these experiences are less likely to add up to a happy life.
Schiffer and Roberts (2018) found in a recent study that, even though people know that “effortful” flow activities facilitate long-term happiness better than passive ones, they still engage in passive leisure more often on a weekly basis.
According to their research, the reason for this “paradox” has to do with affective forecasting, the process of predicting how an event will emotionally affect one in the future. In particular, the researchers found that people predict flow tasks to be too daunting to initiate, which causes them to not engage in such tasks.
On the other hand, people perceive passive leisure as more enjoyable, requiring less activation effort. Such affective forecasting is inaccurate, given that true enjoyment (in a longer-term context) results from activities that require psychic investment and that facilitate growth.
What’s the take away here? Don’t confuse short-term pleasure (passive leisure) with longer term enjoyment and life satisfaction. Mindless hedonism only goes so far. It may be worth it to hold off on some of the instant gratification behaviors (checking social media?) in order to engage in happiness-lasting activities, even if they require start-up energy. It’s okay to work a little for true happiness.
A rehab center outside of Seattle called reSTART offers treatment programs for those addicted to devices and the instant gratification of online gaming and virtual reality. Treatment includes, in addition to therapy, time in nature, exercise, life skills such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning, and genuine recreational and social activities.