July 18, 2019

Are Lawyers Unhappy? (Part 2)


This is Part 2 of a series of articles on lawyers and happiness. Click here for Part 1.

Guess what? Happy people make happy workers! That seems intuitive; there’s also research to back it up.

How do lawyers measure up in that regard? Not so well. Research shows that, even though we’re as happy with our work as the next person, we’re generally not happy people. Some people think this is because the personality traits that make good lawyers don’t make happy people.

Happiness research focuses on three key factors: personality traits, personal choices, and circumstances. These weigh in at roughly 50%, 40%, and 10%, respectively, which means that 50% of us just seem blessed with sunnier outlooks on life, while another 40% can get there only by “adaptive behavior” – i.e., cultivating happiness-producing habits and an upbeat attitude.

Neither group is much affected by circumstances – including how much money they make – which factor in at only 10%. Although both groups take a nosedive from major stressors like job loss or relationship breakups, both also tend to recover to predictable “personal happiness set points,” where the 50% find a customary sense of well-being which the other 40% can’t reach without considerable effort.

Some researchers think the percentage of temperamentally unhappy lawyers is higher than 40%, because the very traits that incline us toward unhappiness are the same ones that account for our successes in life and our choice of law as a career. For example, the authors of the book The Happy Lawyer conclude that the practice of law is “disproportionately filled” with people who tend to be less happy than the general populace, citing research that shows we’re more introverted and less socially connected, more doubt-ridden and inclined to consider worst case scenarios, more logical and less in touch with our feelings, as well as being achievement-oriented, aggressive, and competitive to a fault – all factors that weigh against personal happiness. If that’s true, then most lawyers are part of the 40% (or more) whose happiness in the practice of law and in life can swing either way, depending on how well we adapt.

If we’re not part of the naturally sunny 50%, then what can we do? We can start by realizing that, as Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” If we want to get to a newer, happier place in law and in life, we won’t be able to rely on what got us here.

Giving up what’s always worked for us won’t be easy, even if research shows it’s making us miserable. Not easy maybe, but not impossible either.

To be continued.

After 20+ years in private practice, Kevin Rhodes recently gave himself the title “Change Guru” to describe his work helping individuals and organizations to make transformative changes. He leads lead workshops on that topic for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. Check out his website at http://kevin-rhodes.com/.

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  1. Great follow up post to your first installment. I love that Einstein quote about changing our thinking – it is possible after all! It also reminds me of an Anais Nin quote “we see the world not as it is but as we are.” Can we change our world for the better? It starts with each of us, our outlook – indeed that may be the only way.

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