(c) Neil Hamilton, Professor, School of Law, and Director, Holloran Center
Emily Semo, University of St Thomas School of Law, Class of 2012
[published Dec. 20, 2010 in MN Lawyer]
Fields from neuroscience to psychology have recently been grappling with the question – what makes us happy? The answer to this question provides important information for each practicing lawyer. Can we better understand what makes our clients happy? Can we better understand how to help our law firm colleagues and staff be happy? Can we better understand how we can be happy?
In this literature, the definition of happiness itself is elusive, ranging from present pleasure to life-long fulfillment and satisfaction. In general, there are four main approaches to defining and studying the concept of happiness. The neuroscience field focuses its research on transient happiness, using definitions that range from “pleasure to exhilaration to euphoria.” Much of the social science research investigates a definition of intermediate happiness, such as “contentment or satisfaction.” Third, a subset of social-science scholars focus on life-long happiness, including “self-realization” and reflections on what it means “to have lived life well.” A fourth approach uses the broader term “wellbeing.” In their new book, Wellbeing, The Five Essential Elements (2010), Tom Rath and Jim Harter propose that wellbeing includes our general, daily happiness levels as well as our levels of short-term and long-term satisfaction with our career, social relationships, financial situations, physical health, and community relationships.
In her recent book, Exploring Happiness (2010), Sissela Bok notes that definitions of happiness used in theory and empirical research vary widely, and the chosen definitions in any given instance function “as Rorschach tests or sorts – of personality, traits, hopes, and biases.” In short, we define happiness from our own personal experiences, revealing much about our own value system by how we choose to frame the concept. For example, Monson and Hamilton’s empirical research does show movement over a career in understandings of professional identity from more self-interested conceptions to more other-directed conceptions (available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1581528). We could not, however, find empirical research on whether people at different life or developmental stages define happiness or wellbeing differently. It makes intuitive sense that as a person gains both life experience and maturity of judgment, the person’s definition of happiness may change.
Important Threshold Questions
While research regarding happiness or wellbeing must be carefully analyzed to determine what trait or quality is actually being measured, general patterns can be seen in the research and used to help us improve the happiness and wellbeing of clients and colleagues and ourselves. An important threshold question is how much of our happiness is genetically determined? Psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California-Riverside suggests that our general happiness levels are determined 50 percent by genetics and 10 percent by circumstances outside our control, hence 40 percent of our happiness is within our own control. This statistic does not define happiness in any more specific terms. In short, we can significantly influence our level of happiness over the course of our life, if we can figure out how to do so. A second threshold question is how much does income affect happiness? A 2006 study conducted by Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman asked respondents the global question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Those who earned more than $90,000/year were almost twice as likely to respond that they are “very happy” than those who made less than $20,000. However, there was little to no difference between the highest income earners and those who earned between $50,000 and $89,999 annually.
If we look at clients and lawyers who make more than $50,000/year, how do we help increase their happiness and wellbeing? In this essay, we are going to focus on one common theme in this developing empirical literature: service to others contributes to happiness and wellbeing.
Service to Others as a Major Contributor
A number of empirical studies emphasize a correlation between service to others and increasing happiness and wellbeing. Clinical Law Professor Larry Krieger of Florida State University College of Law has focused his research on wellbeing and personal motivation. He highlights 20 years of empirical research showing that when our actions are motivated by intrinsic values, such as “close relationships with others, pro-social/helping outcomes, and community involvement,” we experience “satisfaction and wellbeing.” Additionally, a well-known longitudinal study of happiness conducted by Harvard University studied members of the class of 1941 over their entire life spans at regular intervals. The study recorded various physical and psychological factors for each participant as well as self-reported levels of wellbeing and happiness. The study has shown that the use of adaptations such as altruism and suppression of self-serving impulses is one of the major factors predicting healthy physical and psychological wellbeing. Moreover, the study found that the ability to maintain “warm connections” to other people is strongly predictive of healthy late-life adjustment. These findings suggest that an ability to move beyond self-serving objectives and impulses to a commitment to genuinely connect with and help others can increase our physical and psychological wellbeing.
In Exploring Happiness, Sissela Bok further explores this correlation between altruistic behavior and both increased subjective wellbeing and increased neurological activity in the pleasure centers of our brains. She highlights a 2001 study conducted by Peggy Thoits and Lyndi Hewitt of Vanderbilt University that found a correlation between performing volunteer work and increases in “life satisfaction” and “happiness.” Moreover, experiments in the field of neuroscience have found that participants’ brain activity indicative of pleasurable responses was higher when they were instructed to think of giving money to a charitable organization than when they were instructed to think about keeping it for themselves.
In their recent book, The Happy Lawyer (2010), Nancy Levit and Douglas O. Linder present corroborating empirical research regarding lawyer happiness and suggest that a focus on improving the lives of others may help increase levels of happiness among lawyers. They note a 2007 study performed by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago that compared the general happiness levels of people within 198 occupations and professions. Respondents were asked: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” The results showed that the clergy ranked at the top of the list as the profession with the happiest members, while roofers ranked as the unhappiest. Lawyers came in only slightly above average. Levit and Linder hypothesize that the clergy rank as the happiest profession because their work involves them in “deep and meaningful ways in the lives of others,” sustaining and invigorating the profession’s members personally and professionally.
Using These Findings in the Practice of Law
We can use the empirical findings that service to others increase levels of self-reported happiness, long-term life satisfaction, wellbeing, and pleasurable biological responses to better relate to our clients and colleagues and improve our own wellbeing. For example, in 2005, the Legal Underground blog asked lawyers to comment regarding what they enjoy about their work. Many responses indicated that lawyers enjoy counseling clients, building trust with clients, solving problems for clients, helping the vulnerable, and affecting their communities in a positive way. We suspect that a brief conversation with any of your colleagues in any field of law would yield similar responses.
The work that we are most satisfied with is that which involves us in helping and improving others’ lives. Moreover, not only does a commitment to serving others and other-directedness lead to higher levels of wellbeing, Hamilton and Monson also find it is empirically correlated with increased levels of effectiveness in lawyers as evaluated by clients and senior lawyers (available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1495824). As lawyers with counseling skills, we can help our clients and colleagues appreciate the significance of the empirical data suggesting the correlation between service to others and happiness and wellbeing. Active listening, storytelling and framing questions to help clients and colleagues understand and consider intermediate and long-term happiness and wellbeing and service to others are excellent counseling strategies. If we can work to increase our clients’ and colleagues’ levels of happiness and wellbeing, we can work toward increasing our own levels as well.