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Finding professional joy

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OVER the last decade or so we've seen the rise of veterinary business management. For decades, the narrative goes, veterinarians have been undervalued and underpaid. Charging ‘what we're worth’ equates to more sustainable and better resourced practices, an ability to keep up with continuing education and better mental health, where funds are actually directed to hiring additional staff and facilitating reasonable working hours.

All of which are good things. But when a colleague gave me a lift in a luxury car (it would have cost what I have promised to pay back to the bank for my house), I found myself sliding down the car seat to remain out of public view.

‘What are you doing?’, he laughed. ‘I paid for this car with money I earned, and it brings me joy. Don't be so uptight.’

Indeed, I pay for things that bring me joy with money I've earned – books, a trip to the movies, a house to accommodate my spouse and the odd passively acquired patient. But, it wasn't until I was challenged by the sight of a fellow professional in a Porsche that I realised, within me, is an invisible line. Beyond stating that necessities in life such as food, water, shelter, clothing and transport are on one side of that line, and luxuries like fancy cars, yachts, business-class airfares and expensive jewellery are on the other, it's hard to articulate what I feel professionals should be able to purchase with their income and what they shouldn't.

I'm no ascetic. I've spent many an afternoon indulging in cake as I read a great book, or having a great meal with friends. I've travelled abroad, usually for a conference, but occasionally just for an adventure. I don't object to ‘nice things’ per se. But there are two things about overt displays of wealth by professionals which unsettle me.

The first is what it says about being a professional. In their explanation of the role of the professional as traditionally conceived in their book ‘The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts’, Susskind and Susskind state that ‘we want to trust professionals, to see them as upright people whose motives often seem noble, and for them to be the embodiments of honesty, probity and integrity. We expect that they will act in good faith and put the interests of those they help ahead of their own’.

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I am familiar with the argument that one must help oneself so that one can fully help others, but does one really need to be able to help oneself to a luxury vehicle or handbag to maintain one's mental health in order to deliver a professional service to those who need it?

The second is that, given what we know about pleasure and happiness, exorbitant purchases are a waste of time. Those familiar with the term ‘hedonic adaptation’ will know that ‘well being gains’ from positive life change are eroded with time. According to those in the know, this is because of a combination of declining positive emotions generated by the change, and an increased desire to seek additional positivity. Thus, ‘the pleasure of success and the ignominy of failure abate with time. So, does the thrill of a new sports car, the pain over a failed romance, the delight over a promotion and the distress of a scary diagnosis’.

As scientists and professionals, we of all people should know that overconsumption is not the path to joy.

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