To the Editor:
We read with great interest the article by Lieff1 on low faculty retention due to lack of meaningful and aligned work in academic medicine. Even though not explicitly mentioned, the conceptual and practical framework she proposed fits very well with positive psychology, the study of human optimal functioning, well-being, and life satisfaction.2 This new field of psychology applies a scientific approach to the study of strengths and virtues that facilitate thriving in individuals, families, institutions, and communities.2 Instead of the usual emphasis on weakness and illness that characterizes traditional psychology, positive psychology focuses on positive emotions (“contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future”3), individuals' positive traits, and institutions that foster meaningful, aligned work and professional fulfillment.3
Some medical schools are starting to introduce some practices of positive psychology to promote more engaged academic work and reduce the likelihood of burnout of their faculty.4 However, these initiatives have not yet reached medical education in a systematic way. We strongly believe that an educational approach based on positive psychology principles is also imperative in medical education. With such an approach, medical educators could help students identify their virtues and strengths instead of focusing on “fixing” students' weaknesses, and could nurture them, using positive experiential teaching and learning, academic assessment, and counseling. Research suggests that when students' strengths and talents are identified and cultivated in alignment with academic programs, students set their own educational goals, learn more, improve their scores, are more satisfied with campus life, communicate better, and report more control of their academic future compared with students who do not know or develop their strengths and talents.5
An organized approach is essential to succeed in this intervention, because introducing positive psychology requires not only the implementation of positive initiatives within classrooms but also the involvement of the entire academic community, including steering committees, faculty, students, administrative personnel, and support staff.
Perhaps the most important reason to integrate positive approaches to human potential and well-being into medical school teaching is to make it more likely that students can lead happier, more mindful, better-adjusted lives and find more fulfilling work and life experiences not only in medical school but also after graduation. The influence that such better-adjusted physicians would have on patient care could be only for the better.
Nuria Pedrals, LPsy
Psychologist and general director of student affairs, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Attilio Rigotti, MD, PhD
Associate professor and director of research affairs, School of Medicine, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
Marcela Bitran, PhD
Associate professor, Center of Medical Education, School of Medicine, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile; firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Lieff SJ. The missing link in academic career planning and development: Pursuit of meaningful and aligned work. Acad Med. 2009;84:127–134.
2 Seligman MEP, Csikszentmihalyi M. Positive psychology: An introduction. Am Psychol. 2000;55:5–14.
4 Brown S, Gunderman RB. Enhancing the professional fulfillment of physicians. Acad Med. 2006;81:577–582.
5 Schreiner LA, Hulme E, Hetzel R, Lopez, S. Positive psychology on campus. In: CR Snyder, SJ Lopez, eds. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2008:569–578.