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President's Column: Cultivating Happiness

Aug 01, 2021

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One path toward well-being includes self-care practices that help cultivate happiness. Self-care is something we can each own individually.

Burnout, moral distress, compassion fatigue, depression and stress were growing issues for healthcare workers even before the pandemic. COVID-19 and the subsequent feelings of grief, loss and post-traumatic stress have amplified these issues for many of us.

Resources to address this ongoing emotional crisis are being developed through collaborations such as the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience and AACN’s partnership with the American Nurses Foundation’s Well-Being Initiative.

Although the work continues to implement sustainable tools, resources and systemic solutions to address clinician well-being, there are things we can do to help us move beyond the burdens of the pandemic and boost our emotional health.

One path toward well-being includes self-care practices that help cultivate happiness. Self-care is something we can each own individually. Adopting personal habits that nurture and cultivate happiness is a valuable step to address our well-being. A growing number of researchers are studying the variety of impacts that happiness can have on improving health, longevity, enhanced careers, strong social networks and more.

Cultivating happiness doesn’t have to be about grand gestures, and it doesn’t mean trying to force happiness. I see it as taking lots of baby steps and focusing on the small moments. When you recognize and cultivate those moments, you bolster well-being.

Long walks and gardening are two daily practices that help me re-center and cultivate my inner peace and happiness.

A walk clears my mind. Exercise stimulates endorphins, the happiness hormones. Gardening is another self-care practice that enhances my well-being. Deadheading flowers and pulling weeds may sound tedious, but, after a long or stressful day at work, just 15 minutes in my garden soothes me and brings me joy.

There are many ways to cultivate our happiness at work and at home. Acute and critical care work environments are usually stressful, and some shifts can feel downright overwhelming. Every day as I leave work, I think of one thing that brought me happiness or joy that day. Maybe it’s remembering the unit’s incredible teamwork on a really difficult day, or a moment of meaningful recognition for myself or a colleague.

A few weeks ago, as I sat in my office in the middle of the PICU, a code blue alarm sounded. An infant was in full arrest. The tone in the unit shifted as the resuscitation progressed, and we knew the outcome would not be good. We all felt the weight of that loss.

About 20 minutes later, I heard a crib being wheeled down the hall. Right outside my office door I heard the sweetest little “bye-bye” from the toddler in that crib. He sat up and waved to my colleagues as he was transferred out of the PICU. His sweet voice and innocent greeting brought an immediate smile to my face. It was a reminder that, even during our worst days at work, there are still moments of simple happiness, of joy. That night as I left work, I chose to embrace and bring home that boy’s sweet greeting — a sign of hope and joy.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor, author and happiness researcher, says happy habits “have numerous positive byproducts, which appear to benefit not only individuals, but families, communities and society at large.” She also studies ways that happy habits can be nurtured. Here are some simple habits that can cultivate positive emotions:

  • Pausing to savor a moment
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Performing a random act of kindness
  • Building a social connection
  • Recognizing someone’s good work
  • Journaling
  • Smiling

Self-care practices require nurturing, just like new seeds after planting. Cultivating happiness is about finding those small daily practices that collectively help to re-center you and nurture positive emotions.

What are your happy habits? Tell me at RootedInStrength@aacn.org.