Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, admits being surprised by the results of the research she conducted on how to permanently increase happiness, funded by a 5-year million-dollar grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.  She conducted a meta-analysis (a "study of studies"), along with Ed Diener and Laura King, two well-known names in positive psychology, of 225 studies and concluded by writing The How of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2008).  

Lyubomirsky expected, consistent with a number of previous, more limited studies, that relationships would emerge as the over-arching key to well-being.  Contrary to those expectations, she found that, more than any other variable, including relationships, work was both a cause and consequence of happiness.  

"The evidence demonstrates that people who have jobs distinguished by autonomy, meaning and variety – and who show superior performance, creativity, and productivity – are significantly happier than those who do not," she concludes.

"Why does our work make us happy? Because it provides us a sense of identity, structure to our days, and important and meaningful life goals to pursue. Perhaps even more important, it furnishes us with close colleagues, friends and even marriage partners."  So the relationship piece is not lost, but plays a supplemental role to work itself.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Her studies reveal that the causal direction between happiness and work runs both ways. Not only do creativity and productivity at the office make people happier, but happier people have been found to be more creative and productive. They are better “organizational citizens” (going above and beyond their job duties), better negotiators, and are less likely to take sick days, quit or burn out.

One interesting finding was that people who express more positive emotions on the job receive more favorable evaluations from their supervisors as much as 3.5 years later.

"The more successful we are at our jobs, the higher income we make, and the better work environment we have, then the happier we will be. This increased happiness will foster greater success, more money, and an improved work environment, which will further enhance happiness, and so on and so on and so on."

What does this have to do with our legal business?  Of autonomy, variety and meaning, autonomy is the one we have nailed.  Autonomy is often an attribute of the legal job, one that research shows lawyers embrace, sometimes to the detriment of collaboration.  Variety is worth noting, given the rush to specialization.  In light of high salaries, many firms have retreated from the first-year rotations through departments and later year department-wide assignment systems that used to give young lawyers some claim to it.  Carefully reinstating some opportunities for variety may be greatly appreciated.

Meaning can be harder to come by, being the trickier piece to consciously engineer.  Information we have on why young people, particularly Gen X and Yers, go to law school, and what they hope to achieve in their careers, reinforces the importance of meaningfulness.  As a practical matter, that is often assumed to be measured by the amount of public or pro-bono work available to them.  Reinvigorating your pro bono program, and involving young lawyers in the process, is a good first step but also articulating and reaffirming the firm’s values vis-a-vis those within the organization (for example, "we provide premier training and career support") and its clients ("we build long-term relationships based on superior industry expertise and unparalleled service") helps young lawyers place themselves in a framework of meaning.

Creativity is a skill not as often singled out for recognition by law firms, and even productivity is usually rewarded only on a single level minimum-billed-hours-required-for-the-bonus formula.  Fine-tuning both salaries and bonuses so as to reward specific behaviors, such as business development activities or developing a specific expertise, offers eager Type As the opportunity to both increase their compensation and distinguish themselves from the pack, while achieving firm goals.

Providing positive feedback is an important part of evaluations that firms often overlook, so set in their problem-solving mode that they forget to reinforce what’s working.  This study points out the importance of encouraging evaluees to crow or compliment too, for the firm’s sake as well as theirs.

In short, this meta-study flags as important some of the same things we hear from lawyers going out the door:  provide a more meaningful, personally relevant work experience with supportive personal relationships in order to increase satisfaction and earn loyalty.

Now, back to work…