Stop Trying to Be Happy, Lawyers

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 


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  • If you just want to feel good, there are illicit substances that will jack your serotonin through the roof.
    How boring to strive only to achieve your own personal happiness, without trying to make life better for your family, your customers, your community…

  • Gabriel Munoz-Calene

    Contemplation on the nature of a meaningful life and the quest for happiness are ancient endeavors.

    It is important for lawyers to reflect on these issues, whose essence is woven into the development of law itself.

    Your post reminds me that personal reflection is important both for the individual lawyer and for clients.

    An unhappy client with a successful verdict may not be superior to a client who settles an emotional dispute in a meaningful way.

    A counselor at law may apply philosophical considerations in the analysis of client issues. As a trusted advisor, the attorney has the opportunity to advise clients on meaningful ways to overcome obstacles and resolve disputes.

    Jurisprudence provides a great resource for lawyers who wish to incorporate philosophy into their law practice. A study of natural law, positivism, and legal realism provides sources for lawyers to draw upon and apply to their advocacy:

    We cannot all be Descartes or Kant, but we all want happiness. And happiness, I am sure from having known many successful men, cannot be won simply by being counsel for great corporations and having an income of fifty thousand dollars. An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food besides success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897).

  • Sherman Clark

    Good and important stuff Ms. Mangan. Those of us who teach law need to think more—and more carefully—not only about what will help our students be effective and ethical lawyers, but also what will help them thrive as members of the profession and as human beings. Reflections such as yours here are very helpful. Keep it up.

  • J. Flanders

    This is fantastic. I sent it to my wife. Now she may come to understand me better.

  • I get it that the title of this article is meant to get attention. What concerns me is that there are already too many lawyers who have unhappiness as a goal. Or at least there are too many lawyers who accept unhappiness as a necessary condition.

    So let’s consider what makes most lawyers happy?
    In my experience it’s our ability to make a difference in the world.

    And what empowers a lawyer to make a difference in the world…or shall we say “more of a difference” in the world? Every intelligent person knows that to make a big difference in the world requires more resources. To make a small difference in the world requires few resources. And if you have no resources at your disposal you can’t expect to make any difference in the world. Resources all require money.

    Which leads to the logical next question, how does an ethical and professional lawyer make money? The answer is, by learning ho to organize and manage his or her business in such a way as to efficiently produce value for clients.

    – There’s value to the clients in finding a law firm that can help you (that’s marketing).

    – There’s value to the clients in thinking through your options, making a plan and a decision to accept help to improve your situation (that’s called “sales”).

    – There’s value to the clients in having your work done efficiently by the lowest qualified person necessary to do the task, not the most over-qualified person available. There are too many stories about brilliant lawyers who don’t know how to manage a law firm who wind up charging $500/hour to lick the stamps that go on on the correspondence to the court (I’m making a point, try not to miss the point)

    Doesn’t every client instead have an interest in knowing that your lawyer has the resources of time, money and education to hire, train and manage a qualified secretary. (that’s called turning your “practice into a real business” and “staffing”).

    – There’s even value to clients in knowing that their attorney has confidence about his or her financial controls and runs a profitable law firm that affords him or her plenty of time to rest & recover free from worry over how to make payroll next week while they’re SUPPOSED to be focused on your case or matter (financial controls, budgeting & profitability)

    Happy lawyers really DO make more money. But it’s not the money that makes us happy. It’s having a business that affords us the opportunities and the freedom to be our best for our best clients; and the freedom to decline work from less than the best clients. It’s having a law firm that works for us, instead of the other way around. It’s having staff who enjoy working for a firm that offers them a career path instead of dead-end chaos.

    What makes most lawyers happy is having purpose and the resources to pursue that purpose. This isn’t a theory or based on a study of some law students. This is a fact that has been well known to thousands of some of the most successful lawyers in the Country for generations.

    Happy lawyers make more money and lawyers who are broke can’t do nearly as much good for anyone. Least of all their clients, their families or themselves.

    By contrast, many lawyers eschew happiness as a worthy objective. What they’re left with is false pride in how much they can endure. Stoicism. The endurance of pain without complaint. The endurance of an inefficient law firm, without complaint. The endurance of an unprofitable law firm without complaint. The endurance of a law firm that lacks the ability to help more people, without complaint.

    Happy lawyers make more money.
    And happy clients are what cause law firms to grow.

    The alternative is to endure conditions which don’t make us happy. Which if an unhappy condition must be endured in order to achieve a happier condition then that’s one thing. But when enduring the unhappy conditions becomes the objective in and of itself for lawyers, then it’s their clients who ultimately pay the price.

  • Alex

    There is pessimistic and then there is relaxed, confident, and alert. Do I want a pessimistic lawyer issue spotting for me? Or do I want a relaxed, confident and alert lawyer issue spotting for me? I’ll take the second one.

    • Alex

      Also, the article assumes that issue spotting is the main job of lawyers, which is a 1L conception of the law. RJon makes good points about the many other jobs of lawyers.