Updated Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Peter Justus discovered he could find happiness just cleaning his teeth.
The experience affected him so deeply he wrote a book about it. I read it because I'd been immersing myself in news so discouraging that any respite looked welcome, especially a road map to happiness.
And I read it because I was curious about Justus himself. He's not a psychologist or a philosopher. He's a gastroenterologist who practices on the Eastside and has an appointment as an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Washington.
I picked up a copy of the book at his home in Bellevue, and we talked for a while. The book is "The Pursuit of the Personal Renaissance Experience: Finding Opportunities for Happiness in the Ever-Present Now."
It's his take on a very old subject. My take on his take: Time is short; don't just get through what you are doing now, but focus on it and do it well. It gives us pleasure to learn new things and to get better at doing whatever we are doing. Connections to other people are paramount. Being a good person is important; having more stuff isn't.
He uses his knowledge of biology as a tool for understanding what makes us happy and why.
Justus is a lean and fit 64. He's the son of ethnic Hungarians who emigrated from Transylvania and arrived in the U.S. five weeks before he was born. He and his wife, Sheila, have three grown sons and a granddaughter.
Before his epiphany, Justus said, "I thought that you expect perfection, and if anyone questioned that, it was a deep personal hurt."
One of the things he took pride in was the condition of his teeth. He had no cavities until he was an adult, but he had a lot of tartar and plaque buildup, so he had to visit the dentist for cleaning more often than the usual twice a year.
Justus bought an ultrasonic cleaning tool to use at home. Using the cool gadget made him happy, but only briefly, then it bored him. Two minutes in the morning, two at night. And it had no effect on his plaque.
When his dentist retired, the new dental hygienist asked how often he cleaned his teeth. He was embarrassed — so fazed by the implication of inadequacy that he went home and dug out the instructions for his device. He'd never looked at them. For the first time he used it properly. He got better at it. His intense focus felt good and so did mastering a new skill and reduced his plaque, actually accomplishing something.
He thought about his joy, examined it, took it apart, tried to replicate it in all the other minutes of his day. That was about five years ago.
He improved his golf game one small piece at a time. At work, he calculated how much time he spent on the technical aspects of the job and how much on relationships with people. Relationships were the biggest part of his job, so he paid more attention to them. He focused on patients more intently, making eye contact and finding out more about them as people, making sure they knew he was really hearing them.
Life-forms compete for resources, he said, but if you take the time to make connections based on specific commonalities you can see yourself in others. That can be a cure for conflict and a route to deeper bonding.
He found cancer in a patient and cried because he'd bothered to learn about the man's life.
What is it about becoming better at anything that feels good, he asked himself. He believes there are roots in our evolution. The ability to adapt has been vital for humans so, "We need to be rewarded for our ability to adapt," he said.
"Realize that you are imperfect, but that you can get better at almost anything."
Justus wrote notes about his ideas and experiences for his sons, then decided to share them with everyone else. His sons and wife sent him back to redo his first draft. He wrote and rewrote and rewrote some more. The book became it's own stimulation. "There was a lot of waking up at 3 a.m. with thoughts" he had to write down, Justus said.
Justus' advice is that each of us try to spend the 1,440 minutes in each day in meaningful ways. It's good advice. Don't just get through the day; live it.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
The Pursuit of the Personal Renaissance Experience: Finding Opportunities for Happiness in the Ever-Present Now: $9.95, 111 pages, available on Amazon.com
Dr. Peter Justus