Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Hopefully every lawyer will recognize the words from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence credited as being penned by the esteemed Thomas Jefferson along with help from other founding fathers as our country was on the verge of breaking free of the motherland. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

For lawyers, for our nation, there is no greater authority than the documents drafted to enshrine for us the precepts and principles upon which our country was founded.  And yet, those inalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, often elude us, dancing tantalizingly just out of reach, it seems.  And while there are law suits and legal decisions many of which provide some guidance about what we as a nation of laws mean by life and liberty, our ability to define that pursuit of happiness section, seems to be as tantalizingly out of reach as is our ability to achieve it.

When we talk about happiness, or at least the pursuit thereof, what do we mean?  What is happiness?  We have all seen the pictures of cuddly puppies ensconced in the loving arms of a young child with the inscription below, “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”; I wonder though if the puppy is thinking "happiness would be my escape from the clutches of this little kid."  One person’s happiness (and to save my fingers when I use the word happiness, please assume it means the entire phrase including the pursuit thereof) is easily another person’s despair.  Witness the numerous times my own Beloved Husband has run off to the wilds of Canada to spend weeks in a boat with his brother catching fish.  I would rather have my head shaved, thank you very much. 

But seriously, what does make us happy?  How do we get there, and why do we try?   You may recall from your Psychology 101 class in undergraduate school the name Abraham Maslow.  Maslow devised a theory of human development often depicted as a pyramid of needs that we as humans have and once the needs on the bottom of the pyramid are met — food, shelter, clothing — other needs start to become more important to us.  At the bottom of the pyramid are the “Basic needs or Physiological needs” of a human being: food, water, sleep and sex.

  • The next level is “Safety Needs: Security, Order, and Stability.” These first two steps are important to the physical survival of the person. Once individuals have basic nutrition, shelter and safety, they attempt to accomplish more — individuals can focus on developing and flourishing in different ways once this level is met.  If you are struggling just to stay alive, it makes sense that you won’t be looking at developing an expertise in rocket science.
  • The third level of need is “Love and Belonging,” which are psychological needs; when individuals have taken care of themselves physically, they are ready to share themselves with others, such as with family and friends.
  • The fourth level is achieved when individuals feel comfortable with what they have accomplished. This is the “Esteem” level, the need to be competent and recognized, such as through status and level of success.  Recognition for who we are and what we have accomplished from the outside as well as within from our families and peers goes a long way to moving us to "happiness."
  • Then there is the “Cognitive” level, where individuals intellectully stimulate themselves and explore.  The time, space and ability to investigate and learn about those things we find most interesting is what this level is about.  Often we are so busy living our lives that we miss out on giving ourselves a chance to just think and explore new and different ideas or concepts.
  • After that is the “Aesthetic” level, which is the need for harmony, order and beauty.  I am hardly the artistic type, having virtually no creative qualities, but I can appreciate beautiful surroundings, particularly nature, and often crave order in my own life.
  •  At the top of the pyramid, the “Need for Self-actualization” occurs when individuals reach a state of harmony and understanding because they have achieved their full potential.  Once a person has reached the self-actualization state they can refocus on themselves and try to build their own image. They may look at this in terms of feelings such as self-confidence or by accomplishing a set goal. 

Martin Seligman, another renowned psychologist, picked up on the work of Professor Maslow, coining a new phrase known as “Positive Psychology” that basically repackages Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into an easier-to-understand acronym known as PERMA.  Seligman, author of the book Flourish and creator of the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the key to a good life are:

Positive emotion – taking all things together, how happy you would say you are.  Are you optimistic, hopeful and look on the bright side?  This includes the concept of resilience as an ability to bounce back from life’s certain difficulties.

Engagement - using one's highest strengths to perform the tasks that one would perform anyway, without remuneration or "job security"; doing those things that we love to do or why my husband spends vast sums of money and weeks at a time communing with fish.

Relationships – Believing that there are people in your life who really care about you, people who have your back.  Included in this concept is the ability to be empathic, your emotional and social intelligence quotient.

Meaning- belonging to and serving something bigger than oneself; generally feeling that what one does in one’s life is valuable and worthwhile.

Achievement- the ability or willingness to stick to doing something, practicing and using your core strengths in your life; determination is known to count for more than IQ.

In his book, Flourish, Seligman posits that what Mr. Jefferson meant by "happiness" is really our sense of well-being, happiness being a rather transitory and subjective feeling that when measured is measured only in the moment.  Well-being on the other hand is more a sum total of our life satisfaction.  If we accept that well-being is the real measure of happiness, then Seligman says that those five factors combined can more accurately measure a person’s true success and life satisfaction. 

Interestingly, the book notes that "doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being" (see note 20 of the book citing an article from the American Psychologist 60 (2005) on Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions . )  Later in the note it reads that further research revealed that by asking a student to perform five acts of kindness per week, students were documented to experience an increase in well-being. 

Dr. Arthur Brooks, currently the president of the American Enterprise Institute, made basically the same finding in his 2008 book, Gross National Happiness.  There, Dr. Brooks argues that what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of “earned success” — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.

And even here in Tennessee, the former executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization, Dave Shearon, who has a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, has over the past few years brought to Tennessee attorneys his own take on this by producing a series of CLE programs called  “Lawyering and the Good Life … Positive Psychology: Tools to Move Forward."  The premise seems to be that if you increase your orientation to the positive in your life and in your work, you will not only feel better about being a lawyer, you will also enjoy it more and become more productive.  Mr. Shearon points out that it does matter whether or not you, your partners and your staff are happy, hopeful and optimistic, he and goes on to cite studies that demonstrate that success flows from happiness rather than happiness flowing from success.  He states in his handout, “… a successful effort to increase attorney well-being would decrease rates of depression and substance abuse and increase both professionalism and contributions by attorneys to their communities.  This conclusion is supported by research documenting the correlation of superior functioning and more ethical behavior with higher levels of well-being.”

And while the good news is that we can to some extent increase our feelings of positivity, which in turn will make our lives better, there were some disturbing statistics presented.  Lawyers have the highest rate of major depressive disorders, 2 to 4 times that of the general population.  Our rates of anxiety, phobia and interpersonal sensitivity are 5 to 15 times higher than those of the general population.  There is widespread career dissatisfaction, and rates of suicide and substance abuse are extremely high.  Even more disturbing is that this trend begins during law school.  At the beginning of law school students report at less than 10% being depressed. By the end of their first year in law school, 30% of the students report being depressed, and this rate increases to 40% by the end of the third year.  This is the exact opposite of the trend for college students.

Mr. Shearon presents interesting data culled from a variety of scientific studies that find happy people live longer, have better marriages, and business teams with a higher number of positive expressions are more likely than their counterparts to thrive.  In essence, to do better, you need to feel better.  And, as previously pointed out, the really good news is that you can help yourself feel better.  Shearon offers a series of exercises you can use to increase your positivity including the three good things exercise, the gratitude exercise and the Explanatory Style exercise.  But don’t just read about it, check out www.authentichappiness.org and test yourself. 

To my way of thinking, this theory of well-being and from whence it derives go a long way to explain why attorneys seem to get such a kick or charge out of doing pro bono work.  First, they are doing a kindness.  Second, they are "learning and growing."  Third, they are developing new relationships.  Fourth, they are engaging in professionalism — belonging to and serving an ideal, equal access to justice, that is greater than they are alone.  It explains why bar associations grow and thrive as means of creating community.  For many lawyers, both belonging to a bar association and participating in pro bono work provide a much needed refuge from the daily barrage of deadlines, clients and billing requirements.

You can spend your life deriding others who are eating cornmeal pancakes with cheese on top or you can look at your life as a chance to savor a delightful polenta with a bit of flavorful brie on the side.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Either way, according to the new positive psychology, the choice is yours.