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Litigation News

Winter 2019, Vol. 45, No. 2

The Advantage of Positivity

Joseph Beckman


  • Lawyers, as a group, are “above average” on things like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
  • We've discussed that meditation and gratitude journals can drop our stress and increase our happiness.
  • Now consider acting your way into a new way of thinking.
The Advantage of Positivity
DjelicS via Getty Images

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We know from earlier in this series that lawyers, as a group, are “above average” on things like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. We have talked about two major, well-documented ways—meditation and gratitude journals—that can drop our stress and increase our happiness with an investment of just 20 minutes a day in our self-care.

These changes can literally rewire our brain. The new wiring gives us greater resilience and makes us less likely to spiral downward into depression or substance abuse. This new wiring is important, in part, because our profession and training actually (in a weird way) reward our ability to spot and plan for every possible way something might go wrong, and thus makes us more susceptible to going to a negative place than the average person.

Act Your Way into a New Way of Thinking

To this student of psychology in the mid-1980s, one fascinating development was the advent of “positive psychology.” This science has shown many ways to “act your way into a new way of thinking.” The good news is that this is a lot easier than dropping the extra 20 pounds you put on during that stressful three months with two cases settling on the eve of trial!

We are well primed to leverage this knowledge if we simply get out of our own way. By investing in ourselves, we learn how to keep our saw sharp, we feel more in control, are likely to do better work, and—not kidding—live a happier and lower-stress life.

Research shows that “happiness” leads to success more frequently than “success” leads to happiness. As you become conscious of your own updraft, you may find yourself—like me—proselytizing about the benefits of your “fave five” techniques for maintaining your happiness.

We have all heard the admonition to “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others” in flight safety demonstrations. This concept applies equally to managing your emotional well-being. You can’t help your spouse or your children until your own emotional house is in order.

So What Is Happiness?

Before we try to define “happiness,” let’s start by identifying what it is probably not:

  1. “Being the best” lawyer in your office, firm, court, etc.
  2. A subjective belief that you are “an important lawyer.”
  3. A subjective view that “only I can save ‘them,’” whether “them” is the client whose rights you fight for so valiantly, or any other “wronged” individual or group for whom you care passionately.
  4. Earning the highest (or a very high) salary.

The reality is that none of us will be “on top” forever, and we are all replaceable. I’d like to think if something tragic were to cause me a premature end, the world would stop spinning on its axis. Sadly, if I am at the firm when I meet my maker, I have no doubt what will happen: My clients’ needs will all be met by one (or more) of my very competent partners. After a “suitable” period of mourning (whether months, weeks, or hours), my personal effects will be efficiently boxed up. One of my partners will happily move from the “street side” to the “wetland side” of the building! I will likely fade into memory. And life will go on. So perhaps my own life—professionally and personally—will be more fulfilling if I invest a bit in seeing and savoring the joy inherent in every day.

Big Changes Start Small: Tiny Little Habits

Fortunately, we have data that should give you comfort that it is not hard to turn the ship. The good news: You can start small. Really small!

B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., of Stanford Behavior Design Lab, notes that “[f]inding the right ‘tiny behavior’ helps you defeat giant sized self sabotage.” Fogg has been studying human behavior for over 20 years, and in 2011, he started sharing a method called “tiny habits” to help people bring new (and hopefully positive) habits into their lives.

The bigger question to Fogg is, “What is it that makes a [new] behavior become automatic?” His short answer: “Emotions create habit.” It turns out that the “simplicity” of the new habit, as opposed to the intrinsic “motivation” of the person trying to develop and maintain the new habit, is the key. Fogg’s favorite “tiny habit” is a five-second habit that coincides with your feet hitting the ground as you get out of bed, he says during his TED Talk entitled “Tiny Surprises for Happiness and Health.”

For example, say to yourself, “It’s going to be an awesome day.” Maybe even say it out loud. According to Fogg, this small act can lead to a small series of other healthy behaviors that start you on an upward emotional spiral. In his “awesome day” example, the subject next added a quick seven-minute workout to his morning routine.

Fogg found that incorporating a new morning habit was “stickier” than other habits he studied, including a similar evening ritual. His research suggests these tiny morning habits quickly become automatic. Fogg urges his audience to add a tiny habit, then “[w]atch for how the [new] habit leads to you doing other good things.”

A Case Study?

After my dentist yelled at me that if I did not start using a fluoride mouthwash daily, my molars might cave in upon themselves, I started the “tiny habit” of rinsing for 60 seconds immediately after getting out of bed.

Unfortunately, I have to wait 30 minutes after rinsing before I can eat or drink anything. This includes my morning coffee. Accordingly, I began meditating immediately after hitting the start button on the coffee. That gets me through 20 to 25 minutes out of the 30. At this writing, I’ve not missed a day of meditation in six full months, and the associated positive emotions of “the streak” are amazing!

Fogg suggests you “begin by focusing on behaviors you want, not behaviors you think you need in your life.” In my case, I needed the mouthwash, but wanted the meditation. The 20-minute habit flows from the 60-second habit in very much the way Fogg predicts.

If Nothing Else, Just Smile

So what are the benefits of smiling? I’d respectfully suggest they are twofold. First, investing the time in yourself is very likely to leave you feeling less anxious, less depressed, and hopefully less dependent on the less healthy coping mechanisms you may have been using.

Second, it can make you happier. If you are happier you may start smile more frequently and more broadly on your own.

If you’re not feeling happier, smile anyway. Charles Darwin said, “Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” No joke. Smiling, believe it or not, reduces cortisol (a stress hormone), and increases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.

There are, of course, studies. Several studies suggest depressed people who received Botox injections in their “frown lines” (with injections, in theory, inhibiting one’s ability to frown), reported decreases in depression symptoms.

If you are smiling more broadly, that is not only likely to have a positive impact on those around you but also likely to lead to a longer life. In perhaps my favorite study, players who smiled broadly for their Topps Baseball Card lived, on average, 7.0 years longer than those with “no smile.”

If you’re “not ready” for a regular broad smile, smile anyway. Players with a “slight smile” still lived 2.1 years longer than those with no smile!


  • Ernest L. Abel & Michael L. Kruger, Smile Intensity in Photographs Predicts Longevity,  Ass'n for Psy. Sci. (2009).