lawyers unhappy kate mangan post

Why bother with happiness? From the Declaration of Independence to modern self-help aisles, we are bombarded with resources and tips telling us to find happiness. But the happiness hawkers assume, usually without analysis, that happiness is a worthy goal. As good lawyers, we should examine the premise that happiness is worth achieving before we embark on its pursuit.

The Upside of Happiness

There are a plethora good, research-backed reasons to pursue happiness. Happiness has been associated with numerous health benefits, including stronger immune responses. Happiness may also promote longevity.

At work, being happier may produce significant benefits.1 Barbara Frederickson, of the University of North Carolina, has found that happier people are more open, which helps them see more connections between ideas, think outside the box, and have more creative insights. Creative problem solving is, no doubt, a boon for attorneys. Happier workers also are more productive, which could help lawyers manage his or her notoriously heavy workloads.

And of course, there’s the obvious reason to pursue happiness: We simply feel better when we’re happy.

Yet this rosy picture, the one usually presented by the media and those who make a living selling happiness, overlooks important details that are especially relevant for lawyers.

The Downside of Happiness

If we felt happy all of the time, we would be deprived of critical tools for our own development: negative emotions. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of The Upside of Your Dark Side, argue that every emotion has a job to do. Negative emotions “identify trouble or opportunity and suggest methods of repair or gain.”

Psychologist Aaron Sell, who studies anger, notes that anger prevents people from being exploited. Getting angry at opposing counsel may make them back down — protecting you and you client.

Or consider frustration, an emotion that’s a far cry from happiness. Frustration, while unpleasant, can be what some researchers call a “desirable difficulty.” It forces you to engage, struggle, and process more deeply. In another words, It helps you develop.

Failure and adversity are two more emotions that do not promote happiness, at least not in the short-term. But we need failure and hardship to learn and grow. This gives us the chance to fail, dig deep, and overcome obstacles. Unrelenting happiness doesn’t provide opportunities to examine shortcomings, which may be essential to improvement. And, ironically, as anyone who has ever returned from a setback can attest, the ultimate achievement is sweeter than it would have been without the obstacle.

The Value of Pessimism for Lawyers

Lawyers should approach pursuing happiness with special caution. In most endeavors, pessimism is maladaptive. Pessimistic athletes perform worse, pessimistic students get worse grades, and pessimistic life insurance agents sell less. But pessimistic people may make better lawyers. Though more study is needed, one examination of University of Virginia law students showed that pessimistic law students performed better than their optimistic classmates.

Pessimistic attorneys may be better able to spot potential problems for their clients.  If you become too optimistic, there is a possibility you will not serve your clients quite as well.

That’s important because serving others may be one of the surest paths to a meaningful (if not happy) life. Happiness, in contrast, can be more about taking for oneself. One recent study by Steve Cole and Barbara Frederickson found that happy people who have little meaning in his or her lives look the same as people who endure chronic adversity.

Many lawyers derive deep meaning from serving his or her clients. In fact, the American Bar Association has advised that you seek meaningful work to improve well-being.

A Better Goal: Meaning

There is a happy medium between pessimism and happiness. The first step is to become aware of when pessimism or negativity is needed so that you can turn it on and off. Hunting for the worst case scenario will help you draft a killer motion, but it may not serve you well outside the office. Learning what the pessimism feels like, when it’s warranted, and when you should leave it behind can enable you to excel as a lawyer while protecting your own well-being.

The second step is to search for meaning, not just happiness. Negative emotions are as important to a full life as the positive ones. As Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, wrote, “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure… or a quest for power… but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.”

Featured image: “Businessman with a paper bag with angry face on it” from Shutterstock.


  1. Research needs to be done to determine whether these benefits hold true for attorneys who may have a special need for pessimism