July 22, 2018

The Practice of Life (Part 6): Facing Down the Saber-toothed Tiger

rhodesThe 2013 Colorado Lawyer Satisfaction and Salary Survey, showed that most Colorado lawyers (a) work under the kind of chronic stress that hurts us in the long-term, but (b) put up with it because they’re well paid. Lots of other scholarly research and media articles have said the same thing.

In other words, one of the things that can stand between lawyers and happiness is the money they make. 83% of Survey respondents reported earning $60,000 or more, 69% were at $80,000 or more, and 54% were over $100,000. Those are strong numbers. So what’s to complain about?

If you’re not happy, the numbers don’t help. Turns out that “money doesn’t buy happiness” is more than a folksy saying; it has roots in neuroscience. Our minds know that being happy and making money aren’t mutually exclusive. Our brains, on the other hand, aren’t so sure. They’d rather play it safe and take money over happiness any day.

Why do our brains do that? Once again quoting positive psychologist Shawn Achor and his book The Happiness Advantage:

Neuroscientists have found that financial losses are actually processed in the same areas of the brain that respond to mortal danger. In other words, we react to withering profits and a sinking retirement account the same way our ancestors did to a saber-toothed tiger.

Did he just say that our brains react to financial stress the same way they would if we found ourselves face-to-face with a saber-toothed tiger? Yes, that’s what he said. It’s a neurological fact that money issues light up the most basic survival-instinct parts of our brains. Mess with our paychecks and our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. Adrenaline pumps through the system; we get busy surviving.

No wonder, then, that the Great Recession hit the business of law so hard. It hit us where it hurts: in our above-average pocketbooks. That was bad enough on financial terms, but the source of our distress and disorientation goes much deeper. Making good money helps things look good on the outside, and therefore maintains a happiness-depleting external locus of control, at the expense of a happiness-enhancing internal locus.

That shift in locus is why, in our minds a least, a well-paying job trumps happiness. Pit happiness against money, and we’re not talking prestige anymore, we’re talking survival. And that is why we eventually take on the mindset of learned helplessness that kills happiness. This doesn’t happen because our priorities are screwed up; it happens because our brains are wired that way.

Fortunately, we can use our minds to alter our brains’ automatic “put up and shut up” response. Which is why knowing the tiger is still on the prowl has motivated many lawyers to seek new, sustainable solutions to the business of law. (In case you missed it, we looked at several of those in the last series.)

Going inside ourselves to cultivate happiness becomes a practice of life that’sgood for our souls, good for business, good for professionalism. And none of that requires taking a smaller paycheck. In fact, as we’ve also seen, cultivating happiness might just create a larger one.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice and a registered mentor with the Colorado Supreme Court’s CAMP program. He offers career coaching for lawyers and leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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