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The Pursuit of Happiness Has Many Avenues
Our founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence that one of our unalienable rights is the pursuit of happiness. Fast forward to the present time and happiness is a hot topic with books such as former lawyer Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project becoming best sellers. In a recent ABA Journal article, “Hunting Happy,” the authors note that happiness has become hip in our profession, which once earned a reputation for almost pathological misery. The spread of the “happiness movement” into the legal profession is seen as significant because of the conversation it has started about pivotal aspects of the profession.
Credit is given to the great recession for highlighting the value of work-life balance because it temporarily restored such balance for many lawyers. In addition, the growing happiness movement is fueled by scientific research in hedonics — the study of pleasure and happiness, and a new generation that prizes a high quality of life and balance. Law professor Douglas O. Linder co-authored The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. “There’s been a long-term trend toward greater emphasis on leading a satisfying life versus huge amounts of income,” he says.
There are conflicting reports on just how happy or unhappy our profession is. In April, Forbes magazine reported that associate attorney is the unhappiest job in America. However, other studies indicate that lawyers are in the middle or even slightly above average on the happiness scale in surveys of all occupations. Critical to work happiness is a sense of control that may be why lawyers in small firms surveyed as happier. In “Hunting Happy,” it was noted that many aspects of big-firm practice reduce happiness, including billable hour requirements, technology that allows work to infringe on personal time, and high levels of stress. But, those issues can arise and impact happiness in most practice settings. The article’s authors found that the least happy were lawyers in large firms, with only 44 percent of them reporting they were satisfied, while small firm practitioners and lawyers working in the public sector tended to be happier. Getting older may have its advantages as it was also noted that lawyers over 50 tend to be happier. Simple advice for being happy in your work is to do what you love. This can be accomplished by finding work that interests you, aligning work with your values, balancing work with the rest of your life and having deep work-place relationships. This can be done within the confines of a career in the legal profession.
The happiness movement embraces both large and small changes that can make a difference in personal and professional happiness. As lawyers, spouses, parents, family members and friends, we are accustomed to putting the needs of others before our own. Certainly there are times when we have no choice but to make sacrifices to keep clients and family happy. However, we need to remind ourselves from time to time that if we don’t include ourselves in the category of “most important people in our lives,” and thus put ourselves first from time to time, we will end up burned out, ineffective, unhappy and unable to be of help to anyone. There is no doubt that we live in a tough world, and we need to be physically and mentally healthy to survive and be happy as lawyers. To do that, we must take good care of ourselves.
There is a lot of great advice elsewhere in this publication for thriving and being happy by making improvements in our personal and professional lives. My law partner Patrick McNally likes this saying: “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.” That made me think about some simple things that can help us be happy and cultivate joy in everyday life; here are some of my favorites.
- Try to reduce “mental clutter,” which has been defined as when all the stuff you are trying to remember gets mixed up with all the stuff you are trying to forget. A way to do this is to be a disciplined listmaker. Then take some time every day to look at the week and month ahead and edit that list.
- Say no to requests to undertake things if you do not have time to do them properly or are not really interested in them. Do so gracefully by letting the other person know that you appreciate his or her dedication to the project or cause, are flattered to be asked, but due to other commitments, you just do not have the time. If you are really interested, ask the other person to call you back when you anticipate free time in your schedule.
- Spend some time in silence. I find that I am much more relaxed when I don’t have the radio on and avoid talking on my cell phone when driving to court or any important engagement. I use the time to focus on the task ahead, enjoy the scenery or meditate.
- Breathe deeply. This helps me to relax anytime, and when in a difficult conversation, it gives me time to formulate a response and sometimes even keeps me from saying something I will regret.
- Buy a pair of fuzzy slippers and keep them at the office to put on at the end of (or during) a long, hard day. It is amazing how happy one can feel when your feet are comfortable.
- Keep some healthy snacks at the office. I go to the grocery store across the street at the beginning of the week and buy a bag of apples and a bag of baby carrots to keep on hand for late afternoon snacking.
- Replenish yourself. Find time to be alone, take a bubble bath, meditate or engage in spiritual or religious activities on a regular basis.
- Schedule time for yourself to do something you truly enjoy such as learning new things or reading for pleasure. I always wanted to make crusty yeast bread. I learned how, thanks to a snowy weekend and the book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
- Enjoy pets. I love our dogs, Cilla and Jake, even when they cause trouble. Cilla, a 13-year-old golden retriever mix, is terrified of storms. One spring evening, after the dogs had been left inside for the day due to stormy weather, my husband arrived home before I did. He texted me that we had yet another destroyed window blind, two broken antique crocks, an empty bagel bag in the living room, a chewed mop in the pantry, and a pile of poop on the new mat in the kitchen, but otherwise, all was well! While overall, Cilla is very happy, by human standards, she does not deal well with stress. Regardless, I do find it stress-relieving to hang out with our dogs (and my husband, who cleans up Cilla’s storm damage).
- Enjoy a life outside of work. For me, that often includes preparing food for family or friends.
Try This Recipe
Pork tenderloin is a great tasting cut of meat and just as lean as skinless chicken breasts, according to the National Pork Board. [See recipe below.] Overcooking it will cause it to be dry and tough, and while we may live in a tough world, eating tough meat will not contribute to happiness.
TBA President JACKIE DIXON is a partner with Weatherly McNally & Dixon PLC in Nashville.