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February 09, 2021 The BLT (Balanced Life Theory)

Pursuing Happiness in the New Year

Cedric Ashley
It is not the pursuit of happiness in and of itself that will make us happy; it is the pursuit of meaningfulness.

It is not the pursuit of happiness in and of itself that will make us happy; it is the pursuit of meaningfulness.

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You are not alone if you could not wait for 2020 to end. It is not hyperbole to say that 2020 was a year unlike any other in recent history—a year filled with angst, uncertainty, and despair. But 2020 is in our rearview mirror as we embark on the second year of this decade (that statement alone can generate significant debate as to the start of the 20s decade). If we could only erase 2020 and start the decade with 2021! But erasing, forgetting, escaping is not possible. And rightfully so. There are lessons to be learned from 2020.

The Pursuit of Happiness

We can reset and shift our mind-set in 2021 toward finding happiness in our lives. There must be something about happiness that matters. Among the various things that the founding fathers sought in declaring their independence to create this country was the pursuit of happiness. And, yes, those desired pursuits were juxtaposed against slavery, involuntary servitude, and limited, if any, rights for women, all occurring within lands first inhabited by Native Americans. By isolating the concept of happiness and bringing it forward centuries later, I choose to look at the perfect principle (happiness), not the flawed persons (the founding fathers). The concept in and of itself is astounding. Along with life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness was declared by the founding fathers as a God-given right. Would not the declaration of the pursuit of happiness suggest that the colonists were living under conditions and circumstances in which happiness was not being achieved?

The concept of happiness may be overlooked in the legal profession because the Declaration of Independence has no legal significance in our courts of law. It is the Constitution and Bill of Rights that serve as the bedrock of our legal system and the jurisprudence that flows therefrom. From this, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that the pursuit of happiness is a right found within the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. See Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).

So, if the pursuit of happiness has constitutional significance for litigants before the highest court of the land, isn’t that sufficient enough reason for practitioners of the law to try out this constitutional right? Why do I offer a historical and legal approach to the topic of happiness? Because I’m part of the tribe of lawyers, and I know instinctively this “soft and nebulous” concept of happiness is not something that you will immediately embrace. You will likely recoil and respond, “I don’t have time”; “I am happy”; “It will take care of itself.” That may be the case, but it is also the case that, in far too many circumstances, we are not doing a good job with self-care.

In 2016 a groundbreaking study of more than 12,000 attorneys was conducted, and the results were published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. The study revealed that, of the surveyed attorneys, 28 percent experienced symptoms of depression; 23 percent experienced symptoms of stress; 20.6 percent screened positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking; and 19 percent experienced symptoms of anxiety. (Patrick R. Krill, et al., “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, January/February 2016 (10:1) at 46–52; https://tinyurl.com/y65y9726.)

Although efforts toward attorney well-being are slowly beginning to emerge, this hasn’t been the case through the long history of the profession. We are a service industry governed by rules of professional conduct (RPCs). First and foremost, we are obligated to achieve the best outcome we can for our clients in an ethical fashion, and the RPCs guide us to achieve that. Although the profession is making small nudges in the direction of making sure that RPCs address attorney well-being from a supportive perspective, not a disciplinary perspective, we are largely left to our own mechanisms to chart this course.

The Pursuit of Meaningfulness

But what does the science say about pursuing happiness? Research in the area of resilience, well-being, and positive psychology informs us that if we pursue happiness, we won’t find happiness. If you’re still reading this article, I’m certain that this was not the response you expected. It’s not the pursuit of happiness in and of itself that will make us happy; it is the pursuit of meaningfulness in life where we will find happiness.

This year, rather than the traditional New Year’s resolution that we will keep or not keep or . . . well, you get the picture, how about your own Declaration of Meaningfulness? What can you pursue in the various domains of your life that will achieve meaningfulness and thus lead to happiness? This doesn’t have to be limited to the work domain of your life. It can be, but think broader: It could be spending more time with family; choosing to volunteer with a pantry food program (because you are food secure and want to give back to others); pursuing that musical hobby that you let go; or spending more time with nature.

Whatever you choose to pursue, be sure that it is designed to be meaningful for you, which will lead to your happiness. These are your choices. This is not a matter of it being good for you in the long run (“no pain, no gain”). If getting up in the dark at 5:00 am to work out doesn’t sound pleasing to you, that may not be your declaration. Certainly, there are benefits to working out, and there are great chemicals that will be released in your body and in your brain that will be to your benefit. Maybe you just need to fit it into a time frame of your day that’s more consistent with your circadian rhythm.

Pursuing meaningfulness will do more than just make you happy. It will serve as an anchor to ground you during life’s storms. It will serve as a shock absorber to the blows delivered by life’s battles. And it will serve as a north star when you have lost your way. So, what are your truths to pursue that you hold to be self-evident?

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Cedric Ashley, Esq., is a sole practitioner (Ashley Law Firm) in Princeton, New Jersey, concentrating in business, employment, and criminal litigation. Cedric is the Editor-in-Chief of GPSolo magazine and an elected member of the ABA GPSolo Division’s General Council for the 2017–2021 term. In the New Jersey State Bar Association, Cedric has served as Co-Chair of the Diversity Committee and the Law Office Management Committee.