Positive psychology offers a range of important lessons that can help make us happier — but not if we ignore the difficult reality of the conditions we face.
With the pandemic intensifying before it gets better and our democracy recently under attack by violent white supremacists, lessons from disaster psychology complement those from positive psychology. For example, learned optimism — a concept introduced by positive psychology founder Martin Seligman — does not involve ignoring or sugarcoating the challenges we face, but enables us to recognize and interrupt negative thought patterns that we rely on out of habit rather than necessity.
Positive Psychology & Balanced Perspective
While the legal profession is uniquely challenging in many ways, the answer to “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” is no different from what makes non-lawyers happy, with autonomy at the top of the list. While the legal profession (its environments and its culture) may interfere more than most professions with the well-being factors that contribute to human happiness, very serious efforts are changing that — and individuals always carry power over their own lives, as we discussed in this blog post on happiness in the legal profession published last year, which also discusses strategies for building happiness based on positive psychology.
Robust positive psychology trainings are available, including a few great free programs. The University of Pennsylvania, which operates the Positive Psychology Center, was the first to offer a (not at all free) degree in positive psychology (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) under founder of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman. Penn also offers a free course on Coursera (also featuring Seligman), as do a couple other well-known universities:
- Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization (offered by the University of Pennsylvania, instructed by Dr. Martin Seligman)
- The Science of Well-Being (offered by Yale, instructed by top instructor Dr. Laurie Santos)
- Positive Psychology (offered by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, instructed by Dr. Barbara L. Frederickson)
Dr. Laurie Santos’ Science of Well-Being course at Yale is the prestigious university’s most popular course. She has summarized key lessons in a December 2020 Newsweek article as well as a January 2021 Guardian article, which include the following — and she explains here how the practice of savoring is foundational. (Another positive psychology lesson foundational to Dr. Santos’ course (mentioned in her intro to savoring) is the practice of tracking in order to build habits.)
- Connect with others. Of course, the pandemic has required us to adapt our approach, involving both new opportunities and challenges. (Find more here on overcoming isolation in the legal profession.)
- Practice gratitude. While simple list journaling alone can help, variations such as writing gratitude letters (or even social media shares) has the added benefit of strengthening bonds and reinforcing connection. (Find more here on how our approach to gratitude can also involve acknowledging our challenges, which might be particularly relevant during the pandemic.)
- Become more present. Whether you call it mindfulness or not, it helps us to pay attention to (and savoring when possible) our present moment. (Find Mindfulness Essentials for Lawyers & Law Students here.)
- Help others. Lawyers usually have more than enough opportunities to help others. Whether you’re also paid for it or not, pro bono work is a natural way to work in alignment with your values. (Still, many lawyers struggle wanting to help more than is possible as an individual human; having boundaries is also essential to well-being.)
- Rest & Move. Our physical well-being and mental well-being are related. (Find more here on Physical Well-Being in the New Year — including our new weekly yoga sessions!)
- Be kind. It’s more about practicing kindness, which often requires time and energy we don’t feel like we have — but yields returns.
Positive psychology itself doesn’t equate to the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Also in January 2021 (the same month it published wisdom on happiness from Dr. Laurie Santos), The Guardian also published an article explaining Why It’s Time to Stop Pursuing Happiness, which discusses interesting studies showing “counterintuitive ways that the conscious pursuit of happiness can influence our mood.” Positive psychology itself teaches us not to pursue happiness per se, but meaningfulness. Still, the field has been critiqued from a variety of angles, including its origins and its very name — “assigning value labels to feelings like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ is inherently flawed,” argues positive psychologist Nick Holton in this 2020 Fast Company article.
One finding the Guardian article notes may be the most important suggests that “paying constant attention to our mood can stop us from enjoying everyday pleasures.” Specifically, focusing on mood per se interferes with the ability to savor the present moment, discussed above. We might need to practice other positive psychology habits (and tracking them) with moderation — particularly gratitude, as the Guardian article notes:
You will have heard that keeping a “gratitude journal” – in which you regularly count your blessings – can increase your overall wellbeing, for example. Yet research shows that we can overdose on this. In one study, people who counted their blessings once a week showed the expected rise in life satisfaction, but those who counted their blessings three times a week actually became less satisfied with their life. “Doing the activity can itself feel like a chore, rather than something you actually enjoy,” says Dr Megan Fritz at the University of Pittsburgh, who recently reviewed the conflicting evidence for various happiness interventions.”
Disaster Psychology & Difficult Reality
The concept of toxic positivity could be more palpable during times of crisis (or 3 simultaneous national crises, in addition to personal ones). Positive psychology in no way recommends ignoring negative feelings, but it’s possible to get mixed messages when popular discussion shifts away from the negative. And when what we need is a survival plan, positive psychology can feel out of reach. As a 2020 HBR article discussing the limits of a positive mindset points out, “When we pretend that emotional pain doesn’t exist, we send a message to our brain that whatever the emotion is, it is in some way bad or dangerous. If our brain believes we are in a dangerous situation, our body will respond as such.” (A growth mindset is more balanced approach.) As we seek to learn optimism, it’s important for those of us who have experienced trauma to understand that it’s possible but often difficult to be optimistic after surviving trauma, and to expect the process to require time and patience (and support including from licensed professionals).
One secret to happiness may be to Get Better at Being Sad. Helen Russell, author of How To Be Sad: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier, By Being Sad, Better (2021), explains (also in a January 2021 article in The Guardian) how “sadness has a function,” and “aiming to avoid sadness or suppress negative thoughts can backfire.” Ultimately questioning whether we need a new definition for happiness, an ancient debate of course, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) emphasizes similar problems with pervasive positive thinking. (This review of The Antidote notes that Dr. Seligman, positive psychology’s founder, has shifted away from using the word “happiness” per se.) A 2018 article from The Conversation discusses recent research about psychological flexibility, growing from adversity and more, with the succinct headline, “True happiness isn’t about being happy all the time.”
Beyond sadness, many of us are dealing with anger, fear, and trauma — and it can feel catastrophic. Fortunately, as explained in a recent Scientific American article, “’The majority of people who have a major catastrophic life event are going to eventually either return to baseline or, in some cases, come out better on the other side than they were before,’ says Megan Hosey, a rehabilitation psychologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who works with chronically ill patients in intensive care units.” The article offers additional tips from disaster psychology to get through, including to “spot warning signs of mental trouble, acknowledge and express their distress, focus on the present moment and the small things they can control, and find ways to connect with others.” Importantly, the article concludes:
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to keeping your mental health intact, and the approach that is best for you will depend on your situation, your access to resources and your preferences. Psychologists say to trust your instincts and to try the available strategies that you think might help the most. Be willing to try out new things if the approaches you first choose do not seem to be working.” (emphasis added)
Working with a licensed therapist can provide critical support and guidance through strategies. They can identify specific struggles to target, like depression, anxiety, ADHD, burnout, vicarious trauma, and so much more. Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation with one of our clinicians. (A 2020 New York Times Opinion, makes the important point that studying Happiness Won’t Save You — If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.)
Therapists can also help us find ways to explore, rather than ignore, negative emotions and help us navigate the elusive line between that which we can control and that which we cannot, which can be particularly helpful for harnessing our anger at social injustice, rather than bypassing others’ suffering with a broad brush of stoicism.
Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggests focusing on 2 specific things we have control over during these uncertain times: our Vision and our Breathing. A 2020 Scientific American article explains that “both of these bodily processes also offer us easy and accessible releases from stress.” As Huberman explains in the interview:
“You can’t control your heart rate directly. You can’t control your adrenals with your mind. But you can control your diaphragm, which means you control your breathing, which means you control your heart rate, which means you control your alertness. You can control your vision, which thereby controls your level of alertness, your level of stress and your level of calmness.
Vision and breathing are essential as levers or entry points to autonomic arousal because they are available for conscious control at any point.” (emphasis added)
Perhaps a more practical training for many of us right now would be Managing Emotions in Times of Uncertainty and Stress, another free course offered by Yale on Coursera. Additional resources related to building resilience and strategies for coping with adversity are in the following section.
Free & Confidential Consultations:
Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.