A recent article in the New York Times on young 20-something Internet mega-millionaires quoted one as saying “You ask yourself, ‘Why am I not happier given how lucky I’ve been?’”

While we as lawyers, being supremely circumspect, would rarely verbalize this sort of “squishy” sentiment out in the open, given the levels of unhappiness in our profession, it is a question we should be asking ourselves. 

So here are some of the findings about "happiness," which has exploded as a subject of research over the last few years. Let’s start with the data on the current state of happiness in the US.

Recent surveys point to a relatively high “happiness quotient” these days:

·             86% of Americans are content with their jobs (General Social Survey)

·             76% are satisfied with their family income (Pew Research Center Survey)

·             62% expect their personal situation to get better over the next five years vs. only 7% who expect it to get worse

·             65% of Americans are satisfied over all with their own lives—one of the highest personal satisfaction rates in the world.

As the query of that Internet mega-millionaire illustrates, happiness is not correlated with financial resources or even political stability: countries like Nigeria, El Salvador, Columbia, Mexico and Puerto Rico (along with Switzerland, Denmark and Canada) register higher rates of happiness than the US in the World Values Survey. Other countries, such as Romania, Russia and other former Soviet countries, consistently score at the bottom.

This fairly rosy picture in the US becomes decidedly darker when we factor in the “happiness” data on lawyers:

·             Lawyers generally have one of the highest dissatisfaction rates with their work of all industries/professions, with 65% of young associates surveyed by the ABA last year intending to change professions within two years.

·             Lawyers also have the highest “personal distress” rates of any industry, exhibiting dramatically higher incidences of suicide, mental illness, divorce and substance abuse than other industries. 

Women lawyers seem particularly effected by these developments:

·             Fewer women are seeking law degrees: from 1963 through 2001 female enrollment at law schools climbed nearly every year, from 3.7% to a peak of over 50%; since 2002, however, the percentage of women in law schools has declined each year, currently down to 46%.

·             At a time of very high attorney turnover generally (over 20% leave their jobs every year), the highest drop-out-of-the-profession-entirely demographic is women.

·             In spite of many years of women in the "pipeline," only a small proportion of women stay to become partners in law firms (17%) or senior legal counsel in corporations (18%).

The message seems to be that, in spite of Americans’ general glee, few lawyers are happy living the lawyer’s life.

What Makes Us Happy?

As it turns out, over the last few years a wave of books on happiness, primarily written by academics, have been published. Among them are:

The Pursuit of Happiness, by David G. Myers

Happiness, The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment by David Lykken

Happiness, A History by Darrin M. McMahon

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman

The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben Shahar

Most of these books are based on David Lykken’s findings that there is an individual “set point” of happiness to which most people revert, regardless of their life circumstances—illness, financial concerns, family problems. Lottery winners and paraplegics, those both accepted and rejected as partners or general counsel, all on average return to their baseline levels of happiness within a year.

If health and other circumstances don’t impact our happiness, what does? Jonathan Haidt compares our emotional life in The Happiness Hypothesis to a small, conscious monkey riding a large, unconscious elephant: in many ways we are estranged from the great bulk of our own inner feelings. The running commentary in our minds about what we feel and why is often simply wrong, he contends. For example, research subjects unknowingly hypnotized to react in a specific way to a cue quickly come up with rational, and in their mind truthful, “explanations” of why they acted that way, even though those explanations are causally entirely beside the point: their reaction was programmed in their unconscious by the hypnosis. 

Not only are we not able to access a great part of our inner feelings, evidently we are not very good at analyzing the happiness data that we do have access to. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness explains that we are very bad at remembering what made us happy in the past and in predicting what will make us happy in the future, often overestimating the bang we will get and how long it will last. For example, people often list children as a source of happiness, yet the data indicates that children in fact are "extremely negative," "mildly negative" or have no effect on overall happiness. (More about this later.)

Could We Be Happier?

If we’re not really in touch with a lot of what’s going on under those layers of cerebral evolution, and if what we do know about our well-being is not very accurate, what then is the best route to securing our happiness?

McMahon’s Happiness, A History points out a historical paradox about happiness: the harder we work to get it, the more elusive it proves.

But the Dalai Lama’s book contends that happiness can be consciously achieved. And he goes further to say that we can do so by training our hearts and minds.

Additional research from nearly every one of these authors essentially agrees with that rather mystically sourced solution. Increasing your happiness, according to Haidt, involves consciously taming your unconscious mind as an elephant trainer trains an elephant. Daniel Gilbert emphasizes that it is our perspective that determines our experience of happiness, and therefore our ability to change our perspective can bring us greater happiness. Even Lykken of set-point fame wrote a book contending that we can get happier, and included his recipe for key-lime pie. 

In a grand gesture of confidence in the ability to teach happiness, starting this fall Great Britain has required that all primary schools teach emotional intelligence, or what they call mass "happiness training."

What about just faking your way through happiness? Certainly there are many who believe that the ability to mask one’s emotions is a critical aspect of the lawyer’s job description. Can we just stuff down those bad feelings to achieve a happier state? 

Years ago it was determined that we can jumpstart positive emotions by consciously exhibiting the physical expressions that are associated with those feelings: that is, smile first and you may well start to feel congenial later. 

But suppressing unhappy feelings can be downright dangerous. Researchers have found that subjects who force themselves to stay pleasant in spite of rude and offensive office conditions have dramatically higher heart rates and blood pressure, which stay elevated even after leaving work, eventually resulting in compromised heart health.

Happiness 101

The most popular class at Harvard College these days is referred to as “Happiness 101” and is taught by Tal Ben Shahar, a professor in the field of positive psychology. His new book, Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, is a summary of that class. 

Ben Shahar came to this field because of his own personal epiphany. An undergrad at Harvard in computer science, he was doing very well academically, the captain of a sports team, socially active; in other words, according to the traditional formula, he was successful. But he wasn’t happy. So he switched majors to try to figure out why.

Ben Shahar defines happiness as the intersection of pleasure and meaning. He thinks that the materialistic approach to science–focusing on what is tangible and measurable– which has held sway since Darwin, should not in fact be the standard that the science of happiness uses: a more spiritual or emotional approach he believes is more accurate, even though spiritual/emotional states are hard to hold in your hand or measure.

Ben Shahar does not advocate trying to be happy all the time – only psychopaths and the dead can hope for that, he says. Giving ourselves this permission to be human, he insists, is important because both pain and struggle are inevitable, like the law of gravity, and they can also be what catapults us to greater growth.

But there are some guidelines he suggested in a recent telecast to improve happiness, and some are not what you might expect. 

·             Make the journey more important than the destination. Daily steps are more important than the grand arrival. Goals, therefore, are valuable in the opposite way they are often used, not to make sure we get to some specific place but to plot the journey. The nineteenth century French philosopher Alain noted: “A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied.” Anything, no matter how small, that can improve the journey—a better cup of coffee in the morning, a more interesting route to drive home at night—is what is likely to bring the greatest amount of happiness to your days. So remember to reward (your kids, your employees, yourself) for undertaking the process as much as for the completion of the goal. 

·             Develop good relationships. Daniel Goldman’s most recent book Social Intelligence points out how we humans are made to interact with others and to feel good because of those interactions. Getting to know the people at the office and building those and other relationships will only add to your sense of satisfaction.

·             Put things in perspective. Acknowledge the bigger picture and concentrate on the positive aspects of your situation. Yes, your car is a junker and needs to be replaced, but thankfully you have the means to do that.

·             Capture and hold on to your life’s "peak experiences" or your happiest moments. Having children may not likely add to a person’s overall happiness but what children often do add are peak moments that may well stand out in a parent’s memory high above the average of their total experience. Those are the memories you should return to over and over again.

·             Simplify your life. Daniel Kahnemann conducted an interesting study of the emotional experience of women during their day– while at work, at lunch, leisure, etc. Surprisingly, the subjects didn’t enjoy spending time with their children or most of their time at work.   The reason? Because they were not REALLY there, not really present with either their children or their colleagues—they were also contending with the phone, email, deliveries, repairs, etc. Women are better multitaskers than men. But there is a downside to multitasking. Doing a number of things at once can devalue everything, the way that playing several pieces of beloved music at the same time produces noise. So one way to achieve a greater sense of enjoyment is to simplify your life by being wholly present at whatever you are doing: resolve to conduct the new staff meeting and read the bed-time book with your full attention, without interruptions. 

·             Make small changes first. It is often hard to make major changes – in a spouse, job, or geographic location – because of the risks involved. Smaller changes can move you forward in small steps: teach a night class if you’re thinking of teaching, or give yourself an hour or two a week doing something you really enjoy or doing something that expands your sense of meaningfulness/worth—volunteer, take a class, be with friends, etc.

·             Balance your joys. Ben Shahar calls it the Lasagna Principle: if you eat even your favorite food all day every day, eventually you get sick of it. Similarly, we all need both time with and time away from what/whom we enjoy or love. Would you enjoy that donut more if you only had it once a week? Is visiting the relatives best done in one-day doses? By trial and error you can determine what optimum quantity of any given pleasure brings you the highest sense of enjoyment.

·             Meditate. According to recent, dramatic brain research, we can lower the amount of brain activity on the right side (which produces negative feelings) and raise it on the left side (which produces positive feelings) through regular mediation, which can be sitting, yoga, walking, tai chi, chi kong, etc. Jon Cabot Zinn did testing with electrodes that shows regularly meditating monks’ brains are in fact dramatically happier than ours. And only a few weeks of mediating a few minutes daily—which can be done on your lunch hour at your desk— is necessary to improve the ratio.

·             Breathe deeply. You can reverse the fight/flight response, the source of much daily psychic and physical stress, by taking three deep breaths. Try it when you are sitting at a red light or waiting out a tedious meeting.

·             Be grateful. Appreciation increases the sense of satisfaction with life, and not just by highlighting good news. Developing the habit of writing down each night three things for which you are grateful has been shown to be the most reliable way to raise your overall happiness level.

As counterpoint to our mega-millionaire who asked "Why am I not happier given how lucky I’ve been?”, here is a passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love, a recounting of her year-long odyssey looking for fulfillment through three countries:

"I keep remembering my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it."