There is no way to overstate just how critical happiness is to driving engagement and optimizing performance. Going beyond finances, benefits include improved leadership skills, social and emotional learning, creativity, agility, and resilience, resulting in long-term organizational and individual growth and development.
Can lawyers be happy? Let’s look to science for answers!
It is a tough reality: our brains are more likely to process and retain negative information than they are to process and retain positive information. This is a result of our history as a species – if we were to survive in our pre-modern world, we had to remain ever vigilant of potential threats. The reaction to a rustle in the leaves could mean the difference between life and death – and so, over time, our brains developed the “negativity bias.”
Practicing law, we unfortunately reinforce this negativity bias more than most people do. As lawyers, we have to pay constant attention to many details that may threaten our clients. One misplaced paragraph can mean the difference between settlement and jail time and closing the deal or losing it to our client’s competitor. For better or for worse, the stakes are high.
While we need to notice these details, we are harming our capacity for joy and positivity in the process. Over time, lawyers begin to feel and act pessimistic – which is why it should come as no surprise that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be unhappy than other professionals! According to Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness, pessimists view bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable – meaning that lawyers often believe that one bad event affects their entire life, that it will never get better, and that there isn’t anything they can do about it. This can prove devastating to our quality of life. After all, research shows that up to 40% of our happiness is attributable to our mindset!
The field of positive psychology focuses on enhancing well-being and on the conditions and processes that lead to successful, optimally-functioning people, groups, and institutions. Combining positive psychology with mindfulness, lawyers can learn to “rewire” their minds, embracing positivity and optimism. One simple exercise toward this end is practicing gratitude.
Empirical evidence by Seligman suggests that practicing gratitude is strongly associated with mental health. This means that people who regularly practice gratitude – taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for – experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. By writing down and actively acknowledging those who have a positive influence on their lives, people become better at recognizing the good in their lives. This empowers people to feel more grateful and thankful more often, and research has found doing this for one week can have positive benefits for up to six months!
All this is possible because of something that scientists call neuroplasticity – the ability of our adult brains to create new neural pathways – literally “re-wiring” our brains to focus on the positive instead of the negative. Put simply, gratitude is the antidote to our negativity bias!
So, it’s worth asking: what are you grateful for today?