What does it mean to be a virtuous psychiatrist? The answer might lie in the wisdom of the Greek philosophers. When it comes to happiness, success, and wellbeing, Aristotle speaks of eudaimonia (“flourishing”), a sort of moralized happiness, distinct from mere pleasure. Arete (“virtue/excellence”) signifies the qualities necessary to live well and to achieve eudaimonia. Moral virtue embraces the notion that if we fail to cultivate and exercise virtues such as wisdom, curiosity, intellect, aesthetic sensitivity, compassion, empathy, and generosity, we fail to exemplify human flourishing.1
One is not likely to grow as a psychiatrist if one cannot flourish as a human. Professional success alone is no measure of eudaimonia, and one must be wary of paths to professional success that are littered with oppressive loneliness, alienation, apprehension, and self-indulgent greed. Flourishing will not be found in drudgery but in intellectually stimulating and fulfilling work that urges us to be our best selves.
As I graduate from my psychiatry residency program, these thoughts weigh heavily on me. I can think of no better gesture of goodwill to my fellow trainees and other psychiatric colleagues than to share some meditations or pieces of advice that I have found helpful in my own life and career. I certainly cannot claim any degree of Arete. I aspire (and frequently fail) to live up to these ideals on a regular basis, but they have been valuable guides on an uncertain path.
1 Invest in a community of colleagues and friends
No one succeeds alone. Even if that were possible, what meaning does success have in a vacuum? For the ambitious, there will never be enough awards, presentations, and publications. These are hollow achievements by themselves. Kept in the confines of one’s CV, accolades are meaningless, a collector’s obsession. It is only in the context of one’s relationship with a community that these become meaningful: a community that one has contributed to and a community that takes pride in one’s achievements. What is left psychologically of one’s success without this embrace of community and family, except hauteur and snobbery?
2 Be wary of the psychological costs of empty ambition
Professional success and personal happiness do not have to be a zero-sum game, but success pursued blindly often is. A healthy degree of ambition is necessary for success in life, but it needs to be tempered by other values in the context of meaningful life goals. As identified by David Foster Wallace2:
If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough . . . Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Dr Aftab is the Chief Resident for education and research in department of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University/University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He is a member of the Psychiatric Times Advisory Board.
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