Happy for the Rest of Your Life

  • by Michael R. Gradeless, DDS, FACD, DDS, FACD
  • Apr 26, 2021, 13:32 PM

The last thought I had before almost dying was: “Hey, I feel funny.” I now think my heart had already quit at that point, but, luckily, I survived this sudden cardiac arrest. Fortunately, I was at a fitness center with access to trained staff and an automatic external defibrillator (AED). After CPR, a few shocks from the AED, two heart surgeries, eight days in the hospital, a month of rehabilitation and another five weeks at home, I was back at the office. Why would I go back so soon after beating such significant odds? At the urging of my cardiac surgeon, I spent much of the five weeks at home reading and thinking about retirement, work, family and our purpose in life.

In a recent AGD Impact Editor’s Note, Roger Winland, DDS, MAGD, recounted the story of a friend who died suddenly after six short months of retirement. He urged us to use retirement to find a purpose: “Retirement to me is not a time to sit back and reflect on the past, but a time to actively use the life given to us.” This is great advice, but I would replace “retirement” with “every day.” This is one of the greatest fallacies of retirement. We tend to think of retirement as the time we will finally live the lives we dreamed of. The problem with that reasoning is trying to decide when to put down the dental drill and finally live our lives. 

As I found out from my cardiac arrest, none of us are guaranteed to be here tomorrow, and certainly none of us are guaranteed a long and fruitful retirement. There is a thriving industry dedicated to advising us when to put down our dental drills, sell our practices and ride off into the sunset. While most of these advisers are bright and ethical, all of the factors in their equations are unknowable. Since all of our planning for retirement is accomplished at a time when we have never actually experienced retirement, our thoughts are heavily influenced by public policy programs such as Social Security, paid financial advisers and our friends and family who have already retired. Therein lies the main problem. Too little of our retirement planning is influenced by what will make each of us uniquely happy for the rest of our lives.

While everyone’s definition of happiness will be different, some foundational ideas for happiness exist. Here are my top five ways to be happy for the rest of your life, which begins today, not at some point after age 65. 

  1. Never retire. In his book, “The Happiness Equation,” Neil Pasricha advises that the happiest and longest living people have a purpose that drives them to do some form of work every day. We are happiest if we contribute something to the world. This was one of my first realizations after my cardiac arrest. I was never as happy with the thought of being a dentist as when I suddenly thought I might not be one any longer. We all have times when we perform a service for someone who is especially grateful, and that makes the work especially fulfilling. If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, work with consultants and advisers who can help maximize the fulfilling aspects of your work.

  2. Do it now. Find a way to live your dreams today. If that sounds difficult, think how much more difficult it will be later. Our personal resources of time, money and health tend to diminish as we age. Most of us will not have a greater ability to realize more income in retirement. We will not have greater physical capacities in the future. Winland’s story of the death of his friend and my brush with death made me realize we should start working on our dreams today.

  3. “Live as if you are going to die tomorrow. Learn as if you are going to live forever.” This is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It has always been my opinion that when they put the honorific “Dr.” in front of your name, there is an expectation that you will continue to learn long after dental school. Two years after my cardiac arrest, I enrolled in the Dawson Academy for a two-year program of continuing education (CE). At a time when most of my classmates were beginning to retire, I found myself motivated and challenged by a program populated by much younger dentists. If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, pursue AGD Fellowship or Mastership, and continue your education. It is never too late to learn. 

  4. Understand that we can be chronologically older and physically younger at the same time. With proper care, we can make our physical bodies feel younger each year. There are many books about health and fitness, but we all know what we should eat, how much we should weigh, how much we should sleep every night and how much exercise we should get. What I didn’t know was how significantly my life expectancy was being affected by those few extra pounds and too little exercise. Please don’t wait until you get a wake-up call like mine to begin to correct the minor deficiencies in your lifestyle. I guarantee you will be happier if you are healthier.

  5. Know that building relationships can have the greatest impact on our happiness. The people with the most friends and strong families are the happiest. We can expand our friendships through greater involvement in our profession, our hobbies and clubs, and our spirituality. It is inevitable that we will have some tough times in our life. When those times come, the more people we have who care about us, the better off we will be.

Happiness begins today. Despite all my pain and surgeries, I am grateful for my brush with death. I now have doctors and trainers to coach me to be stronger and healthier. I learned the value of friends and family. I have a great business coach to help make my practice goals. I have mentors, study clubs and great CE programs that are helping me become a little smarter every day. As I have become stronger and healthier, I have refused to allow my cardiac condition to stop me from fully living life. I still play full-court basketball, travel with my wife and have returned to flying airplanes. I have finally begun to train for a marathon in Greece. 

We all give so much to our patients, our staff and our practice that we often neglect our own needs and think there will be time in retirement. I hope that you may have many fruitful years of retirement. But I also hope you live up to Winland’s wish that you actively use the life that has been given to you — not in retirement, but every single day.

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