A medical student stops going to class. See what happens next.

This quarter, during the block of our human health and disease course dedicated to learning about the pulmonary system, I conducted one of the scariest “academic experiments” of my life: I stopped going to class.

What did she do with all that free time? one might be wondering. Instead of spending hours every week watching the lectures I missed going to in person and reading textbooks (I saved all of that for five days before our lung block exam), I caught up with friends I hadn’t seen or talked to in a long time, wrote more, painted more, went on more long runs and food adventures than I let myself go on during previous school quarters, and in short: I did whatever made me happy.

One may now be wondering: Why would someone who always attended lectures all of a sudden stop? Very frankly, I felt burnt out and exhausted. And even though the week before the pulmonary exam was anxiety-filled, slacking off made me happier. Thinking back, the reason for this was because I got to spend more time — quality time — with other people.

This case for slacking off in school and spending more time with friends isn’t based on purely anecdotal evidence. For almost 80 years, researchers at Harvard have studied the lives of hundreds of men to learn about what makes life worth living. The prospective study, which has followed them since their undergraduate days at Harvard, has had four lead directors since its inception, and now studies the families and children of these men, aims to answer the question: What really keeps people healthy and happy? Among the big takeaways of the Grant Study:

Lesson 1: Social connections help us thrive. In contrast to people who reported more feelings of isolation and experienced health and mental declines during midlife years, study subjects with friends and family lived happier, healthier, and longer lives. Loneliness is toxic to not only one’s happiness, but to one’s overall health as well.

Lesson 2: Quality trumps quantity. Grant Study researchers found that more important to health and well-being than the amount of friends one has is the quality of relationships one is in. Furthermore, people who reported being in securely attached relationships — relationships in which people had others who they could count on in times of need – had longer-lasting, sharper memories. Not only did these relationships protect them physically, they were mentally protective too.

The insurmountable amount of knowledge that we can potentially learn in medical school, coupled with the school work that always expands to fit the time we give it, puts us as medical students at risk for forgetting to foster these secure relationships in our lives. It becomes too easy to make every day a to-do list, drumming up new goals for ourselves just as soon, if not before, we accomplish the old ones. A close friend and fellow classmate described this perfectly one day by remarking, “Sometimes, people focus so much on being human ‘doings’ that they forget to be human beings.”

I may have cut it a bit close this quarter with my lung exam, and I do attend lectures in-person more often now (don’t worry, Mom), but my “experiment” helped me realize how much happier I could be if I gently push the brakes on the doing school work and spent less time as a human “doing” and more time as a human being. Whenever I notice I’ve spiraled down into a sea of studies, research, and to-do list check boxes, and not interacted with others in awhile — and I mean really interacted with them, more than just in passing — I hope I’m able keep to this piece of advice in mind every time, and I hope you do, too.

Don’t forget to make time for the important people in your life. When we’re older, as studies have shown, what will matter most won’t be the grade we got on some pulmonary exam back in med school or the number of degrees we may have under our belts. We won’t be thinking about that time we scored in the 90th percentile, and we won’t be smiling at our certificates before going to bed every night. People matter. Relationships matter. Try slacking off a bit; live in the moment and enjoy the spring sunshine.

Take time to just be.

Natasha Abadilla is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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