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6 Ways to Get Happy (or Less Miserable)

The Careerist

January 7, 2014

Dan Bowling, who holds faculty appointments at Duke Law School and the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in positive psychology, returns as our guest blogger. He is again writing about the elusive topic of lawyer happiness.

HappyCube-by-Arquiplay-iStockWhy do I write about happy lawyers? Because I know so many of them.

This is counter to the prevailing narrative. If your knowledge of the legal profession and law schools is limited to The New York Times, Above the Law, and The Careerist, or books like Failing Law Schools and The Lost Lawyer, your image of the legal landscape is a dark one. And there is no question that many lawyers are, in fact, not happy. The incidence of depression, alcoholism, and anxiety is higher among lawyers than in most professions.

But how do you account for the existence of happy lawyers? Life satisfaction studies we have conducted show a typical bell curve “happiness distribution” among lawyers and law students. Also, studies on lawyer job satisfaction in the last quarter century show a consistent record of high job satisfaction levels among lawyers—around 75 percent. Admittedly, job and life satisfaction arenʼt the same thing, but few serious persons would argue they are unrelated.

So, what gives? I theorize it has a lot to do with the choices happy lawyers make. I donʼt mean choices that we think will make us happy, but courses of action that in the aggregate add up to a life well-lived. A focus on the process, not the outcome, in other words.

So here's a summary of how you can make the choice to be happy:
1. Look at the Big Picture. Bad grade? Itʼs okay. Didnʼt make partner? Nobody will remember when youʼre dead. The universe doesnʼt revolve around you and your worries. Happy lawyers have perspective; they take a long view of life, and donʼt obsess over every short term setback or problem.

2. Laugh. Humor is considered by moral philosophers to be a classical virtue, a universal human good. So why do so many law firms seem like morgues? Come on, Bartleby the Scrivener, lighten up, laugh, chill a bit—it will enhance not just your mood but also that of the people around you. Savor those moments of laughter and the positive emotions they generate and carry them around with you throughout the day.

3. Learn Optimism. A general bias toward optimism is a trait most happy people share. Unfortunately, many humans—and a majority of lawyers, according to some studies—arenʼt genetically programmed that way. To make matters worse, in law school lawyers are trained to avoid optimistic thinking. The problem is when a critical job skill morphs into a chronic pessimism that negatively infects all aspects of life. Happy lawyers develop a habit of mind of looking for realistic, positive outcomes to bad situations. The positive explanatory style at the base of optimism isnʼt easy to learn, but It can be done. I suggest reading my friend and mentor Martin Seligmanʼs seminal work Learned Optimism (1990), as a start.

4. Avoid overload. Stop. Log off Instagram and quit posting pictures of your dachshund on Facebook. F-O-C-U-S on this page. Stop worshiping at the altar of multitasking; all you are doing is encouraging your brain to jump around from unconnected thought to unconnected thought. And you're dumping a truck load of stress on yourself. Happy lawyers can focus for long periods of time—not just on work, but on family and friends.

5. Keep moving. We are descended from the monkey, not the cow, as Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang reminds us. It is in our DNA to keep physically moving, not stand and graze. Law practice is an activity of little physical movement, so you have to look for opportunities to get up during the day, to walk around, to take some work outside (ok, keep billing). It will reduce stress and give you an emotional boost during a dreary day.

6. Develop Relationships. The late Chris Peterson was one of the most prominent research psychologists of this century. When asked for the secret to happiness, he had a simple answer: “Other people matter.” Scores of studies show the importance of positive relationships to overall well-being.

Sure, there are plenty of lawyers who are misanthropic jerks—and they may be quite successful. But I donʼt know many happy ones.

 E-mail  Vivia Chen: [email protected]     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist



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Thanks, Michael

Great post -- and a nice antidote to the usual negativity toward the profession on this blog and elsewhere.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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