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Happy Talk, With Veterinarians

By Julie Kumble

Julie Kumble admires a mountainous view during a cross-country bike trip.
Julie Kumble admires a mountainous view during a cross-country bike trip. // photo courtesy of Julie Kumble

This past July, in the middle of making a cross-country bike journey, I presented a workshop at the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in Indianapolis. About 100 veterinarians spent two hours discussing “Leadership, Success and the Happiness Quotient” with me.

Jennifer Watkins is veterinarian. She knows a lot about happiness. She sees it when her older client whispers in the ear of his rescue mutt, telling him that the vaccination won’t hurt. Or when she sees the beaming face of a horse owner who learns that her beloved mare is pregnant.

People who care for animals know a lot about happiness, but they also know a lot about stress, compassion fatigue and the elusive nature of personal balance. Vets work long hours with creatures who get sick, injured and sometimes die. On top of patient care, they have the pressure of with patients’ owners, who can sometimes be difficult or balk at costly but necessary treatment. Vets also struggle with high educational debt, as well as the regular heartbreak of euthanasia. For some, stress and depression blot out the light. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), 1 in 6 veterinarians has contemplated suicide.

Nearly 10,000 veterinarians attend the annual AVMA convention, earning continuing education credits, networking and choosing from workshops on, say, Feline Thoracic Radiography or Imported Vector Born Disease Risks. Many also choose workshops, like the one I led, on wellness and work-life balance.

Mine was a lively, interactive workshop where we delved into many questions: “having it all”; generating happiness by being a leader who mentors and gives; and clarifying one’s personal mission statement and strategic plan. People don‘t usually show vulnerability during convention workshops. But midway through the session, a young woman said, “Being loved and respected are essential to my sense of success and happiness.” Wow, she said “love” in a professional settingI thanked her for being brave enough to say that. Another said, “My personal mission has to blend giving to others and sustaining myself through fun and non-work activities.”

Giving to others. Love and respect. These are elements of gross national happiness metrics. I shared stories from GNHUSA and spoke about the United Nations and Bhutan’s efforts to advance happiness quotients on a societal scale. Bhutan and the UN, like GNHUSAAdvisory Board member, Beth Allgoodunderstand the importance of the human animal bond. Allgood, who is US Campaigns Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, also sees how that bond is related to One Health, the interconnection of human and animal health from disease prevention and treatment to well-being. Whether through wildlife conservation or community connectedness, the human animal bond is a big part of societal happiness. Perhaps no other group of people understands this as well as veterinarians.

By framing leadership, success and happiness in the larger context of GNHUSA, I hope I helped some of our societys most cherished caregivers build resiliency and see their work as essential for a stronger, happier society.

During my cross-country bike ride I asked people along the way, “Who has made a big difference in your life and why?” I anticipated this 8-week, 3,000 mile inquiry on two wheels to be about quiet leaders, giving leaders, servant leaders. I didnt anticipate that these questions would connect so much to my talk at the AVMA convention.

Now, I see that happiness is innately connected to giving. And because animals are a natural connector among people, not just veterinarians, these happiness conversations can happen at dog parks, adoption centers and vet clinics.

Lets keep the conversation going on two wheels or on two feet with our four-footed friends around!

Julie Kumble is a volunteer with GNHUSA and consultant with Greater Good Leadership. She is the author of Leaders of the Pack, Women and the Future of Veterinary Medicine. She just completed a coast to coast bike ride across the U.S.

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