Happiness Strategies for Daily Life

Next week, I am going to talk to a group of lawyers in New York about happiness. Lawyers are a skeptical bunch by nature, as you might imagine, and New Yorkers — well, let’s just say it’ll be a tough crowd (Hey, just kidding. Sign up, my Yankee friends!).

First, I have to convince them that happiness is important not just in one’s personal life but in one’s professional life. I am confident I can do that, given that I have been teaching a course on that topic for years at Duke Law School. But these are somewhat abstract notions, applicable to lawyers as a whole. The toughest part will come next, when I talk about individual happiness.
Believe it or not, some people just don’t want to be happy, or at least they don’t want to work at it. It is far easier for a skeptic to complain he was just “born unhappy,” or think bad luck just follows him around like a rabid dog. And it is true  — life throws a bunch of crap at all of us, some more than others. Life’s not fair, as John Kennedy famously said.

But some people manage to maintain, or at least recover, a sense of happiness and well-being regardless of what hand fate deals them. What is it about these people — why are some people happier than others?

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a famous research psychologist who focuses on this question. “I have found that truly happy individuals construe life events and daily situations in ways that seem to maintain their happiness, while unhappy individuals construe experiences in ways that seem to reinforce unhappiness,” she said. Make lemonade out of lemons, in other words.

One might challenge Lyubomirsky and other researchers who focus on the positive side of life (confession — I am one of those), that the genetic predisposition for happiness is so fixed in an individual that efforts to become happier are doomed to fail. This theory holds some people are just born Eeyores. Fair enough; no serious scientist disputes that a genetic cocktail dictates much of how we perceive the vicissitudes of life.

But not all of it. Lyubomirsky and other researchers who explore the connection between genetics and happiness claim that up to 40 percent of one’s life satisfaction is subject to individual thoughts and actions, and they have a wealth of data to back it up. While you might quibble with the percentages – the science hasn’t advanced that far as of yet – the vast majority of researchers agree that a person can make herself measurably happier with deliberate cognitive and behavioral strategies. “The thoughts and behaviors that characterize naturally happy people (i.e., “happy habits”) can be nurtured, acquired, or directly taught,” writes Lyubomirsky.

This is what I will talk to the lawyers about. Although the bulk of the literature claims lawyers are relatively unhappy as a group, this doesn’t mean all lawyers are. Tens of thousands of lawyers are perfectly content with their life circumstances — giddy, even. What is it that makes one lawyer in a firm happy and the partner the next office over miserable?

I contend it is the same as for everyone else  — yes, lawyers are people, too! — and happiness strategies that work in a non-clinical population can work for lawyers as well. I have written about this elsewhere in greater detail, but here is a quick summary.

Happy lawyers:

  1. Choose optimism. Lawyers are prudent sorts to begin with, and we are trained to look for worst case outcomes. However, when this spills into our daily lives it can lead to depression. Happy lawyers are “smart” optimists, which can be considered a realistic, fact-based assessment of the future with a positive bias. Write that down — it’ll be on the exam.
  2. Choose to look at the big picture. You are not the center of the universe. Most people don’t notice your screw-ups, unless you accidentally launch a couple of ICBMs into Kansas City or something like that, so don’t dwell on them. Live life through the windshield, not the rear view mirror.
  3. Choose to use strengths. The worst thing you can do is spend all of your time working on your faults. Think that makes you happy? Figure out what you are good at and do more of it. Unless you are Miley Cyrus.
  4. Choose to stay active. We are biologically programmed for fun and play. Move around, you’ll live longer and be happier while at it.
  5. Choose to laugh. Lighten up, Bartleby the Scrivener. Humor is a virtue — it improves your mood and the mood of everyone around you. Maybe you shouldn’t go Chris Rock in a client’s boardroom during a deal closing, but you get the picture. Have some fun every day.
  6. Choose relationships. Real ones, not Facebook friends. The late Chris Peterson, a giant in positive psychology, said the secret of happiness is simple: Other people matter.

That is enough for today. I don’t want to give away all my material. If you want to hear more, come to New York! See you there.

(Note from Dan: If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from serious depression, seek help from a professional, not a blogger. A place to learn more is on the website of the National Institute of Mental Health).