I was feeling the weight of 2020 last week when I went to visit Ms. K, a patient who had a particularly rough year. “This is the year I lost my leg in the spring, and now I am losing this battle with lung cancer all on top of the COVID-19 stress,” she said. “But I learned something this year, too. I learned we all need each other, and we all need love.” As she said this, her eyes brightened and the heaviness that pervaded the room lifted, and I felt a warmth in my chest.
“Yes, you are right, and I need to keep that in mind, Ms. K,” I said. “We have learned some important things this year.”
As a doctor at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, California, I understand why people are saying 2020 was a world turned upside down or a “dumpster fire.” The public health system seemed to have failed us, causing much suffering among our patients and staff; as a result of the pandemic, death tolls climbed and the economy tanked, while people sat home feeling isolated.
Taking my cue from Ms. K, though, I have been trying instead to see 2020 as a world revealed. A world where we have a newfound appreciation for relationships and community. A world much more fragile than we had understood it to be. A world that needs our tender attention.
Understanding this is a start, but with so much tough stuff still weighing us down, how do we begin to move forward? Leaning on the research in social and cognitive sciences, I try to remain optimistic. It is in our DNA to care about the people in front of us and our community. What we need now are concrete ways to first foster our own well-being and then our relationships with others.
Here are some ideas that people have embraced in 2020 that we can all try to hold on to moving forward in 2021.
We were humbled scientifically by the coronavirus and socially by our threatened institutions. The only honest response is to set our egos aside, drop our preconceptions, and see what led to this series of failures.
As it turns out, being humbled can be a good thing. There is a rich body of research to suggest that humility first makes us question our assumptions, which often leads to listening to other people’s ideas and adopting “a more other-oriented and less self-oriented outlook.” Gratitude and a greater sense of connection with others follow. Humility is also a good first step in self-compassion; when we have a modest view of ourselves, we see our flaws more easily and can judge ourselves less harshly. This can be very helpful in dealing with personal setbacks.
Some research suggests that humility can be cultivated. But more than ever, many people seem unwilling to question their own beliefs and entertain other perspectives. For myself and my colleagues, as clinicians to whom people look for answers, humility typically is not something we spend time developing.
Given that we have all had a big slice of humble pie in 2020, now is a good time to truly work at incorporating humility into our way of being. And it starts with quieting our inner voices that want to be right and deeply listening. For a month now, I have been challenging my belief that I have the answers, both at work and in my personal life. With a humbler approach to my interactions with others, better conversations ensued with better outcomes for all involved. Give it a try!
Across the world, COVID-19 wrought tremendous suffering, and people felt the pull of compassion, which is defined as sensing suffering and moving to address it. Witnessing images of compassion on social media moved us, whether this was people visiting isolated neighbors or cheering for health care workers. For those of us lucky enough to be providing health care, we were inspired by our colleagues moving toward danger to express their compassion.
In order to feel compassion, one must witness the suffering of another—but that witnessing can be stressful, so we are sometimes inclined to avoid it. A simple acknowledgement to ourselves, by thinking, “This person is suffering,” is a humanizing act. While it doesn’t stop the suffering, it tempers our negative emotions as we lose the tightness that denial entails.
For health care providers like me, compassion is foundational in how we move through our world, and it should be our greatest source of inspiration and energy. But all too often, we rush to the diagnosis and the treatment and miss this crucial step of generating compassion. Instead, take a moment to open your heart and quiet your mind when you first see your patient; their story will inevitably provoke compassion that will enliven you in the moment and give you positive energy going forward.
Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast or beautiful that challenges our understanding of the world. It is something we depend on to keep life fresh. In 2020, those vacations to “awesome” places like New York City or the Grand Canyon didn’t happen, and this contributed to the flat feeling many people experienced. Awe makes us feel more alive, but, importantly, it also makes us more humble, more generous, and less self-centered.
This year, a new study demonstrated that awe can be cultivated, and we don’t need to travel the world to find it. A group of seniors were invited to go on a brisk exercise walk or a walk where they were told to move more slowly but look carefully at their surroundings for wonder and beauty. Those on the “awe walk” reported a greater increase in positive emotions and social connection than the exercise group.
So, if we are seeking awe, we can find it nearby if we take the time to look for it. People can be a great source of awe, too. With some attention, health care providers can find awe in the beauty of our patients’ struggles; this can be another way our work can energize and inspire us. For the rest of us, while we might not be making that “awesome” trip to Yosemite soon, we can all get filled with awe watching documentaries of inspiring moral or political leaders. I still get goosebumps every time I hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech!
A decade of research confirms that a meaningful life or a life well-lived has plenty of joy, but more importantly it involves a sense of purpose. While we are all a little joy-deficient now, 2020 certainly made up for that with opportunities to live with purpose.
Purpose is an abiding intention to achieve a long-term goal that is personally meaningful and makes a positive mark on the world. Wearing a mask, staying home in the spring and over the holidays, seeing patients despite the risks: This is living with purpose. Many of us have found purpose in teaching our kids or caring for neighbors or in political and social activism. For those of us in health care, we are leaders who work daily to promote the health of our patients and community. Never has the importance of this work been clearer.
But living with purpose requires stating our purpose. When the purposeful work we do becomes routine, we can easily fail to appreciate it. I have made friends with a former patient and every week he texts me, “Have a beautiful day on purpose!” After each text, I feel energized and approach my work with a more open heart. We all need reminders of why we do what we do, and what larger values it serves. If the pandemic has given you a deeper sense of what’s important, now is a good time to think about how you can serve those interests moving forward.
As we know now, one of the few bright sides of 2020 was the greater sense of shared humanity that we developed—and with that, a greater sense of concern for others and an awareness of our need for connection.
We shouldn’t miss the opportunity to build upon this. For the sake of everyone’s health, we must use our influence in our families, communities, and exam rooms to advocate for what people now intuit—that an open-hearted, connected world is a healthier one. We need to talk about love.
I am not talking about romantic love but love as defined by researcher Barbara Fredrickson: a moment-to-moment experience of warm, mutual caring that we feel with any person—even strangers—in everyday interactions. What she also calls (more dryly) “shared positivity” creates a mutual sense of well-being. According to her research, our brains are wired to look for this love and if we have this mindset, we can see the world as a source of expanding connectedness and well-being.
As health care providers, we can make a significant impact on the health of our patients and communities if we let our innate concern and affection show, talk about the health benefits of love, and encourage patients and staff to “spread the love.” I encourage everyone to see all our interactions with people—from those at the market to those with our friends and colleagues—as a sacred opportunity to open our hearts and create a more loving world.
It is amazing how close you can feel with a person seeing them for a few minutes a day during a time of crisis. Each day I saw Ms. K in the hospital, we had amazing, pithy little conversations. When she was feeling stronger and ready to go home, she said, “Thank you, Dr. Hass, for all you have done, and I’m glad you are almost through your 2020.”
“Well, we have all suffered, but we have become a little wiser as a result,” I replied. Then I took her hand, gently rubbed her back, and looked into her eyes for a moment. We both teared up as I said, “Along with medical care, I will try to make sure everyone leaves our med center with a little love, too!”