A Room Without a Roof-ah

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If you had told the 21-year-old Miles Dividend M.D.,that one day he would write a personal finance blog, he would’ve looked at you like you were f-ing crazy.

You see, I am not naturally attracted to this ideal of “self help”. My fundamental assumption has always been that we are what we are, and that molding yourself into some future desired form is a fruitless exercise.

I am by nature a fatalist, more or less.

Furthermore, I’ve never been attracted to Pollyanna-ish attitudes that attempt to ignore pain and to whitewash reality.

But my fundamental assumptions have been evolving lately.

I am beginning to have suspicions that happiness (at least in countries like this one) is in many ways a choice, not a blessing bestowed upon us like a winning lottery ticket.

If I were an impoverished Liberian whose parents had recently both died of Ebola, and I had just spiked a fever, then happiness would certainly be a challenge.

But let’s face it I am not. (And neither are you.)

If you’re reading this, then you are likely peering into the warm glow of your own iPhone, MacBook, or desktop.

You’ve probably never really faced the fear of not having enough food.

Your loved ones have likely never been rounded up and shipped off to somewhere terrible.

You’ve probably never lived in a building without running water. Hell, you’ve probably never even lived in a building without warm running water, (short of a rustic backpacking trip.)


Burning man is not roughing it…

Odds tell me that you’ve never been jailed for a political belief, no matter how unpopular.

In plain English, you are damned lucky. (And so, of course, am I.)

And you’re lucky in the truest sense of the word.

Through no skill of your own you were probably born into a first world country. Even working at McDonald’s you can make more money than the average human being in a day. Public education, and the right to vote, and the right to assemble and travel and pray, and the right to say whatever you damned well please, were granted to you when you were still slippery from the birth canal.

Which is not to say you cannot be sad, upset, or depressed.

It is simply to say that you are damned lucky (but probably not luckier than me.)

And that it’s important to constantly remind yourself that this is a wonderful gift unto itself.

I used to think that there was only one objective reality, and that to paint one’s experience as overly joyful was to ignore reality.

But now I am beginning to think that reality is highly subjective. And I am also beginning to think that unhappiness is often an expression of laziness and bad habits.

And this insight comes from nowhere so much as my own laziness.

How easy it is for me to feel sorry for myself.

But every time I feel sorry for myself I am ignoring the 1 million aspects of my own good fortune.

A little example.

As a doctor it is not uncommon for the insistant beep of my pager to wake me up in the middle of the night with a call from a patient,or a fellow doctor, or nurse taking care of a patient.

Once I’m asleep, I want nothing so much as to continue to sleep. And every intrusion into my own sleep feels like a personal affront.

So when I get paged a bunch, my first instinct is always to feel sorry for myself.

But a neat trick that I (ashamedly) have only recently taught myself, is to force myself to think of my patient, when I begin to feel sorry for myself.

I simply imagine my patient feeling something uncomfortable or strange in the middle of the night, and worrying about his health. How alone he must feel. How afraid.

And the point is certainly not that I am selfless or saintly. (Nothing could be further from the truth.)

The point is that the simple trick of reminding myself that the person on the other end of the line is suffering, allows me to feel relatively lucky (as opposed to put upon.)

And turning my perception to someone else’s suffering allows me to recognize (once again) how lucky I am.

It’s a cheap little trick that actually makes me happier. It probably even makes me a more empathetic doctor.

So what are some other cheap little tricks that can allow us to feel happier?

1. Don’t complain.

Try to never allow yourself to complain. To complain is usually to ignore how lucky you are and to focus on little things that don’t really matter. Furthermore complaining doesn’t make you more sympathetic to other people. It actually makes you more of a drag.

2. Celebrate your own good fortune.

When something makes you happy, acknowledge it out loud. In my experience this reinforces my own happiness. It allows me to focus on my own abundant good luck.

3. Lookout for opportunities to be nice to other people.

When someone asks you for a favor, or is clearly in need, they are giving you an opportunity to make yourself happy. If you help someone without looking for repayment, you will seem like a good person in their eyes, and feel like a good person to yourself. This is very happiness inducing.

Don’t do it because you should, do it for the selfish pursuit of your own happiness.

4. If you are depressed, seek help.

Everything that we experience is filtered through the biochemistry of our own brain.

Sometimes our biochemistry is faulty. And this can make us blind to our own happiness and good fortune.

If you cannot feel happy anymore, if you have difficulty sleeping, if you’re gaining or losing weight inintentionally, if you have overwhelming feelings of guilt, these are all signs of depression.

Go see a doctor. Talk it out. Take medicines if necessary. There is no need to waste your own happiness on a simple biochemical imbalance that is easily treated.

If you’re anything like me, you’re damned lucky. And if you have a hard time seeing this you owe it to yourself to do everything in your own power to allow yourself to recognize this simple and abiding truth.

And if you have your own shortcut to recognizing your own happiness, don’t hold out!

Share it with everyone below in the comments section.

(Not just for the rest of us, but for you. Sharing it will undoubtedly make you happier.)

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7 Responses to “A Room Without a Roof-ah”

  1. Ming October 12, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    Agreed 100%.

    As a psychiatry resident I found out very soon just how lucky I am to be in my position for all the same reasons you mentioned above.

    Recently on my last night float ER shift, I saw a name popup on our electronic ER board at 3am which meant another pt to evaluate. Sigh. I saw her with a wheeled-basket which probably contained all her worldly possessions. She was here to see if she can stay a few days because she needed shelter and warm meals and access to clean and hot water. Unfortunately we are not a shelter and at 3am that day the only shelter downtown available couldn’t accept her because of some incident she got into. It was raining and cold that night. We had to turn her away (of course the standard resources were given as part of her paper work).

    My attending and I were ok with her sleeping in the chair in our lobby but the security policy could not allow that.

    And as often is the case, mentally ill patients are frequently homeless or incarcerated. And anytime I get the feeling that I am annoyed by a page or a new pt to evaluate in the ER at 3am…I think of nothing more than just how insanely lucky I am to be in my position.

    There’s been a lot of complaints/grievances from doctors regarding the current state of the profession and what not. But taking a global perspective…we are way way waaaaay better off than basically 99% of the human population.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. October 12, 2014 at 10:36 pm #


      Thank you for the great example of the type of bad fortune that we come face to face with each day as doctors. And truly nothing is as devastating as mental illness. It effects everything if not treated.

      We are so lucky, but (tragically) we must continually remind ourselves of this fact. And we doctors are some of the luckiest of all. Patients are predisposed to like us. We are payed well. We have respect granted to us right off of the bat. And we work each day to ease suffering which is a tremendous honor.

      Few are luckier than us. Which is why I cringe when I see the “poor doctor” articles that seem to be all the rage these days.


  2. Jana Sullivan October 13, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Great post, AZ. Wow, recognizing my own happiness has come in a couple of forms: Serving others – I have found a tremendous amount of joy as well as good perspective on life by serving people who truly need help. One quick example was going to Haiti with some people from my church after the most recent earthquake. The act of stepping into their lives to help re-build buildings offered them some relief from the hard work. I know they felt cared for and that in itself brought our sweaty, tired and sore team much happiness.

    Giving generously of my time, my talents (volunteering and mentoring) and my treasure – this may sound hokey but when I am able to give someone else a piece of myself and it meets their need, man I light up inside. I like to say I am blessed to be a blessing.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. October 13, 2014 at 12:08 pm #



      The contrarian in me spins it that you should be nice out of nothing more than the selfish pursuit of your own happiness.

      But you (a more naturally generous person) presents happiness as the surprising side effect of doing good.

      Either way everybody wins.

      Keep up the service. (I’ll try to too.)


  3. Ben October 13, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Thanks for the article
    My wife and I are both physicians and have been working on the techniques you have described. The pager example is spot-on. One thing that helps me is to go through a list of things I am thankful for every night before sleeping. The more I do this the longer the list gets until I am down-right embarrassed because of the overwhelming (as MMM would say cascading boxes falling on my head) amount of luxury I experience every minute of my life. So what if my contractor just lost his license one week before a planned remodel? I am remodeling my f-ing house! I have a house! It will stay yellow and with poor storage for another 6 months. Like you said I don’t have Ebola. I appreciate this article and keep up the good work.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. October 13, 2014 at 9:13 pm #


      That strikes me as a simple yet effective technique. I will definitely try it.

      Thanks for the comment,


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