For the last twenty-five years, since embarking on a career as an oncologist, I've been a student of happiness. The most inspiring teachers, for me, have been my cancer patients. That may sound like schadenfreude, the German word referring to enjoyment derived from the troubles of others, but my motivation comes from something quite different.
From the interviews I've done and data that I've collected, I’ve learned that many—although, admittedly, not all--cancer patients change their perspective on life after informed of their malignant disease. They tend to put things in realistic proportion. They don't allow the petty to bother them. They become experts at "letting go" and, ironically, many feel happier than prior to diagnosis.
What's more, my cancer patients typically find that their lives hold more purpose when they succeed in transmitting their valuable lessons to others. "Don't take what you have for granted. Embrace it!" a women diagnosed with a tumor in her breast told me. "Be grateful that you're healthy and share your gratitude with others" is a common refrain. "Have you given your kids one of those smothering -- not quite suffocating -- bear hugs today?" an elderly gentleman with pancreatic cancer wanted to know. And several patients have emphasized, "By honoring what you have, you're honoring what I've lost."
Although many patients with cancer have curable disease, the stigma associated with cancer in our society prompts most of us to make an association between cancer and death. But as existential philosophers would say, contemplation of death is essential to authentic happiness. When we comprehend that our lives are finite, we begin to appreciate that our time is particularly precious and should be spent on doing the things which provide meaning and, ultimately, happiness.
That notion might sound a bit macabre, maybe even depressing. However, if you think back, you may recognize times when catastrophe or near-calamity has led you to greater appreciation of your life. Many of my patients have assured me of their earnest wish that I benefit from the knowledge they've acquired through pain, suffering, and fear. I genuinely believe them when they urge me to appreciate life without having to undergo the ordeals that they encountered.
Wishing to share what I’ve learned from my patients’ unique vantage point, I co-founded an organization, known as Life's Door. The organization serves to invite volunteers to join in the mutually beneficial experience of tending to people who are ill. Patients benefit tremendously from the support and simply the presence of others. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers benefit from the wisdom imparted by heroic patients.
When, also, I drew up my last will and testament, I felt a renewed sense of gratefulness – especially for loved ones in my personal life. My experience led to our organization’s conducting an unusual type of workshop, focusing on developing a toolkit for caregivers and healthcare workers. Workshop activities include -- are you sitting down? -- writing eulogies and obituaries for people who are still alive. Growing beyond our tendencies to recoil from terms like eulogy and obituary can transform relationships with others in many positive ways. Usually, after writing a eulogy for another, the author sends the finished composition to that person. Almost invariably, the person is first startled but then deeply touched to read the types of praise that, in daily life, one might rarely express.
Happiness is a sought-after goal surely for all of us. The "52" concept is about getting to know ourselves better by confronting our mortality. A willingness to deal with our priorities and wishes now can activate an intricate axis of happiness.
What about you? What might make you happier? Taking better care of yourself through diet or exercise? A new challenge at work? Pursuing a frivolous hobby that you've pushed off for so many years? Learning a new language? Maybe even launching a blog! To face our mortality, which is ultimately to confront our humanity, can lead us to pursue goals that we may have suppressed.
The benefits of learning from people who are grappling with their finitude is not reserved for cancer doctors. Although the upside is not instantaneous, we can all grow from the experience of helping and simply talking with and listening to friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues, particularly those contending with illness.
Just like the universities that we attend or the kindergardens in which we enroll our children, there is a "happiness school" out there for each of us. The sole requirement for admission is a readiness to deal with our mortality. When we do, through self-awareness and commitment to hard work, each of us well may find that we excel in this unique institution of higher -- and happier -- learning.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
Thanks for reading the 48th of 52 posts to this blog. To book workshops, speaking gigs or concerts with me, please visit our website (www.lifesdoor.org
) or send an
Click here to return to Blog home page