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Law Practice Today

May 2024

The Practice (and Importance) of Cultivating Happiness

Molly Ranns


  • Lawyer well-being is an integral part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence.
  • Happiness can be cultivated to lead a happier, more fulfilling life, both personally and professionally.
  • Practicing gratitude, cultivating strong relationships, performing simple acts of kindness, and focusing on the positive can lead to increased happiness.
The Practice (and Importance) of Cultivating Happiness

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People climb mountains in search of it. Seek out relationships for it. Travel, leave jobs, start new careers, and embark on adventures to find it. Meriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” and even the Dalai Lama himself said, “the very purpose of life is to seek happiness.”In a profession known to have higher rates of depression than the general population, has happiness remained elusive for many legal professionals? Despite a pay raise, new car, bigger house, or more impressive job title, happiness can continue to evade some while others seem to exude joy in their daily lives despite their trials and tribulations. In fact, research demonstrates that lawyers experience unhappiness at a rate that is 3.6 times that of other professionals. We have come to understand that lawyer well-being is an integral part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence and that well-being is defined as “thriving” and includes the ability to make healthy and positive work-life choices. It seems pertinent then to explore not only what happiness is but, more importantly, how it’s cultivated to lead a happier, more fulfilling life.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, distinguished researcher and Professor of Psychology, has devoted much of her career to understanding and increasing happiness. Through her work, and the work of others, we find that about 50% of an individual’s happiness is determined from birth and that only 10% of happiness is actually determined by an individual’s personal circumstances. This has been further explored when studying lottery winners, who just one year after their windfall are no happier than non-winners. Instead of looking at this dismally, we can use the information to take a more optimistic viewpoint: If half of the pie is the ”genetic set point,” so to speak, and only a small slice is determined by life circumstances beyond an individual’s control, this would indicate that 40% of a person’s happiness is cultivated through intentional activity—mental and behavioral strategies utilized to increase one’s personal joy in life. Truly happy individuals tend to interpret their daily life events in ways that increase, or at least maintain, their level of happiness, whereas unhappy people tend to do just the opposite. 

Though happiness is, at times, broadly defined, psychologists and other social scientists agree that happiness is made up of both positive emotions and a sense of satisfaction. We can likely agree that what gives people satisfaction can vary widely from person to person, so what makes a person happy may be very different for each of us. What fills me with positive emotions and satisfaction (and thus happiness) includes world travel with my husband and our children, anywhere and anytime, as well as engaging in activities such as sporting events, concerts, or other social engagements. It means being active and keeping busy. What fills my sibling, someone with whom I share a genetic makeup, with happiness could not be more different. He prefers to be a homebody, spending time with his family on several acres of land. His desire to travel is limited to Northern Michigan to a beloved family cabin, preferring road trips to airplanes. These sets of experiences vary widely, yet both have the same results—they fill us with joy and contentment, peace and rejuvenation. Regardless of the nuances in what makes people happy, there are numerous recognized emotional, mental, and physical benefits to being so. Those benefits include a higher income and greater quality of work, more satisfying relationships and longer marriages, stronger social supports and richer social interactions and connections, lower stress levels and a bolstered immune system, and even a longer life. With these benefits in mind, and understanding the control we have and the role we play in our own happiness, how might we go about cultivating it? To begin, try these science-backed, intentional activities.

  1. Start Practicing Gratitude. Positive emotional and mental health is strongly associated with practicing gratitude or taking the time to reflect upon the things for which you’re thankful. Keeping a daily gratitude journal has been linked to the experience of more positive emotions, improved sleep, increased compassion and kindness toward self and others, and even a stronger immune system (id.). Just one week of spending a few minutes per day taking a gratitude inventory can have lasting benefits for up to six months (id.)! Teach yourself to focus on the positive instead of the negative and begin cultivating your own joy.
  2. Cultivate Strong Relationships. Believe it or not, research demonstrates that having strong, positive relationships is one of the most significant predictors of happiness. Individuals who identify feeling protected against stress, having good physical health, and leading happier and healthier lives share something in common—they all spend time cultivating strong social connections. Thriving in your dimension of social well-being means “developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network while also contributing to groups and communities”. If social well-being is not something you’ve prioritized, start today by taking time to form deeper connections with important people in your life or perhaps finding meaningful ways to form new friendships.
  3. Perform Simple Acts of Kindness. Though popular culture has a tendency to focus on the self when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, research suggests that focusing prosocial on others is what consistently makes people happy. Whether it be volunteering at a food bank, purchasing a cup of coffee for the person behind you in line, or giving a compliment to a stranger, there is no question that increasing your positive emotions first starts with performing simple acts of kindness toward others. There are countless idioms referencing the benefits of kindness, so perhaps you really can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
  4. Focus on the Positive and Reframe Your Negative Thoughts. Unfortunately, research indicates that our brains are more inclined to process and remember negative information than positive information. This tendency, known as the negativity bias, is even more pronounced in lawyers compared to the average person. Consider this scenario: While researching for a legal brief, you discover supportive cases that lead to a favorable verdict for your client. Yet you realize you overlooked a case that the opposition used to their advantage. Despite the victory, the oversight preoccupies your thoughts. Although a pessimistic outlook can occasionally benefit legal practice, an inability to adopt a positive perspective can diminish joy and affect decision-making. It's essential to shift negative thinking toward a balanced, logical approach, rather than dismissing negative aspects altogether.

Most of us would agree that happiness matters. Finding joy and satisfaction in life, experiencing positive emotions, and viewing our circumstances optimistically are things we can likely agree we strive to achieve. Now armed with the understanding that we play a large role in our own happiness, including our ability to cultivate it, we have knowledge that can go a long way. If the methods you’re trying don’t seem to be effective or you just need a bit more help getting to where you want to be, don’t forget about the resources available through Michigan's Lawyer Assistance Program.