Want to Be a Happy Lawyer? Achieving Happiness Has More Science Behind It Than You Think

This year’s Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference in New Orleans was held during an important event in the city’s history – its tri-centennial birthday. The city was buzzing.  Hundreds of legal marketers came together to tackle many of the reoccurring challenges law firms of all sizes are facing in today’s ever-evolving landscape, and the Big Easy did not disappoint. As a first-time attendee, I left with many valuable takeaways from the sessions, but one presentation that stood out was Catherine Sanderson’s keynote on The Science of Happiness. Her presentation hit home for those in the legal industry, where happiness levels are reported at very low numbers.

Why should we care about happiness? For many people, understanding how to achieve “happiness” is misunderstood, and for some, it is completely unknown and might seem unattainable. Catherine reminded us that we need to care about achieving happiness because it makes us less hostile, more helpful and much more productive in our personal and professional lives. Being happy leads to a healthier existence, the ability to recover from surgery more quickly and even leads to a longer life. All great reasons why we need happier lawyers, right?

But what we think makes us happy actually doesn’t – and there’s science to back it up. According to Sanderson, some of the things we are doing to be happy aren’t the right things. There’s an overwhelming belief that more money will bring us happiness, but the reality is that there is no evidence that it does. When you have more money, get a raise, etc., you adjust to the new level of wealth. Sanderson points out that we acclimate to whatever we have and end up still wanting more.

Big life events also seem to bring us happiness, but they don’t actually. For example, working for that promotion and achieving it brings momentary happiness, but with it also comes high stress and a lot of pressure, reverting us right back to lower happiness levels. That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for a promotion, but we shouldn’t base our happiness on this one life event.

So, what does empirical data say does make us happy? Data suggests that specific behaviors we engage in make us happy, including:

  • eating particular kinds of food
  • exercise (more of the feeling after working out, but you actually have to work out to get that feeling)
  • shopping for others
  • age (the older we get, the more we focus on quality relationships and get rid of the riffraff)
  • nature
  • personality
  • optimism

Sanderson expands on this, stating that three components of someone’s personality contribute to happier individuals: extroversion (how outgoing and social a person is), high self-esteem (which helps overcome negative experiences) and optimism (the ability to look at things in a positive light, which is impactful in life success no matters one’s circumstance).

Sanderson also shares that three components of relationships make us happy: being around happy people (which raises our own happiness), having close friends and family, and having meaningful conversations.

Our propensity for having high self-esteem or being naturally extroverted (which can lead to higher rates of happiness), is 50% genetic, meaning we have no control over it. The good news is that the other 50% is entirely in our control. The ability to adapt, which Sanderson explained is what we do when we obtain more money and adapt to that lifestyle and then our happiness subsequently drops back down, is key to adapting to bad events, too. The ability to adapt to bad events or circumstances, while still having optimism, allows us to find happiness much easier.

How can we translate the science of happiness into our everyday workplace and become happier? Sanderson shared 10 tactics that we can follow, which are all backed by science:

  1. Change your behavior. Get enough sleep, exercise, spend time outside and meditate.
  2. Find your match. This means both personally and professionally.
  3. Take time to read a book you love.
  4. Keep a gratitude journal. Go to bed every night and think about what you are grateful for.
  5. Make a gratitude visit. Reach out to someone who has had a positive impact on your life; write them a letter and pay them a visit to let them know how you feel in person.
  6. Smile (even when you aren’t happy).
  7. Perform random acts of kindness. Volunteer. Donate to charity. Give a gift to someone.
  8. Spend money on the right things. Experiences > material belongings.
  9. Avoid comparisons.
  10. Build and maintain close relationships.

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