Finding Joy in Veterinary Practice Through Gratitude

 

by Kristin Youngberg, Vetel Diagnostics

This may be an overarching statement, but I know you’ll agree with me if I say: Life is messy. Whether that’s trying to mend a broken relationship with a coworker, being rear-ended on your way to work, or dropping a blood sample while trying to make it to the next appointment on time. Or that one animal at the end of the day that won’t cooperate. Some days it’s easier to count our burdens than our blessings. However, the Dalai Lama tells us to think, every day as we wake up, “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it.”

 

We are fortunate. Any of us who got up today (we’re healthy), ate breakfast (we’re fed), got to work (we’re employed), we are living an incredible life that not all people have. In a society that is constantly focused on “happiness” as something that can be obtained, it is important to realize that if our ultimate goal is happiness, we’re going to miss the bus. True joy is something that must be cultivated within ourselves, not dependent on a reaction from events or people outside ourselves. Gratitude is one way to begin to find joy, or lasting happiness. After all, “it is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

 

Each moment we are alive is a gift, with no guarantee of another moment or the opportunities it offers. Sometimes the gift is a difficult one. For me, this is often losing an animal I had a connection with … euthanizing a dog at the animal shelter whom I’d cared for each day for months, selling a horse who was so much a part of my being that I choked up any time I heard or thought her name for a year afterwards. The opportunity in these moments is rising to the challenge and profoundly shifting our perspective: learning to accept the reality of our circumstances instead of fighting it.

 

Gratitude is essentially embracing what is, even if that reality feels bleak. But how can we be grateful that a dog was put down? Or on a larger scale, how are we able to be grateful for living through something like a natural disaster, or bankruptcy, or drug addiction? Experiencing negative events can be seen as an opportunity to help us develop empathy and compassion for others. If we’re able to learn something from our struggle, we can pass on the wisdom to someone else who may be suffering. We are able to wield our own pain as a tool to understand others in similar circumstances, to show compassion, to bring them up. This is essential to comforting clients who have lost an animal or who have a difficult decision to make.

 

Unfortunately, gratitude is far from the first emotion we feel when experiencing a negative event.

 

Our brains evolved with a negative bias. This kept us alive and away from danger. However, gratitude supersedes this adaptation by allowing us to see what is good, not only what is bad. Said another way, grateful people do not ignore the negative events that happen in life, but they appreciate the positive aspects as well. UC Davis Professor Robert Emmons did a study that found people who focus on gratitude and consistently wrote down what they were grateful for, “exercised more often, had fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more positive about the week ahead compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.” Writing down the things we are grateful for, or even just smiling for twenty seconds, stimulates the hypothalamus and ventral tegmental region of the brain, regulating stress and triggering a reward circuit.

 

Gratitude is an essential component to finding joy within ourselves. Begin by reframing negative events into positive ones, and recognize the opportunity in each moment. Impermanence is the way of life, and gratitude allows us to celebrate that we were here. That we are alive in this moment. Brother Steidl-Rast puts it simply, “Whatever life gives to you, you can respond with joy. Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity life offers you at this moment.”