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There’s Happiness in Healthy Relationships

Recently social scientists have taken a look at the relationship between material well-being and emotional well-being or happiness.  For most of the world, greater levels of material wealth have led to greater levels of perceived emotional well-being, most everywhere, that is, but in the United States.  (The Atlantic, January/February 2003) In the United States, those defining themselves as very happy have declined over a period of time in which the median family income has nearly doubled.

Robert Lane, a professor at Yale, argues that the leveling off of and diminishment of happiness, with rising income, reflects the trade-off between the two sources of happiness material comfort and social and familial intimacy.  Modern economic development increases wealth by encouraging mobility, commercializing relationships and giving us families in which all adults work.  The result is greater incomes but weakened social and familial ties.  In less developed countries, the improvement in material benefit more than offsets the declines in social connectedness.  At some point, however, the balance tips and Lane believes this has occurred in the United States.  He thinks that the United States will continue to become unhappier in the future as incomes rise.  Lane cites as one basis for his argument, the rise in clinical depression. He might also have mentioned addictions,  both, substance addictions like alcoholism or drug addiction and process addictions like gambling addiction, relationship and sex addiction or food addictions.

While depression, substance addictions and process addictions all operate in different ways in the brain, each is a disease of isolation.  Each is in part a reflection of an abnormal way in which the psyche has compensated for the lack of close healthy familial and social relationships.  What often makes the issue confusing is that these disorders often arise in the context of familial and social relations that seem very close, but because of their enmeshment and toxicity produce an often stronger version of isolation than simply attenuated relationships.

Okay, so rather than just go to your financial planner for a review, if you do not experience happiness regularly in normal times, then start the year with an emotional inventory.

Here are some questions to help you in taking that inventory:

1.      What is the quality of your thoughts?

There is just no getting around the powerful connection between what you think and what you experience.  Negative thoughts tend to create negative experiences.  Depression and addiction thrive in an atmosphere of negative thoughts.  The difficulty, of course, is in how do you change negative thinking.  Thinking is not changed by thinking.  Taking different actions, changing old patterns, which underlie the negative beliefs, are what can cause the quality of your thoughts to change.

2.      Do you try to control what you have no control over?

Depression is often connected to a feeling of powerlessness.  But often that feeling of being powerless arrives from an emotional need to control what can’t be controlled.  I can’t control whether my son or daughter is happy, whether or not my case is ultimately successful.  The need to control beyond what one actually influences usually reflects fears that tend to isolate us and must be faced for the fears to lose power.

3.      Do you mostly react?

There is a lot we have no control over and some things we do significantly impact.  One aspect of depression is the skewed impression that you have no control over the things where you do have control.  You really do control where you work and the kind of job you have.  People usually have a number of options.  A depressed lawyer sees he has no choice but to work in a firm he hates for long hours or be unemployed.  If you don’t see more than two options as solutions to a problem, you are looking at it through a distorted lens.

4.      How good is your self-care?

Many of us over time learn to treat ourselves poorly.  We eat a lousy breakfast or we don’t get a full night’s sleep.  Or we don’t exercise.  Over time, bad habits involving eating, sleeping and/or exercise are almost guaranteed to cause major health problems.

5.      Do you nurture your spirit?

Time for work and for sleep always gets into the schedule even if the amount of time for each is badly skewed.  But just as important is time for learning, relationships, and solitude.

We are in a profession that requires constant learning, but if learning in our profession does not stimulate us, we need to spend time learning in areas that do.  Time for relationships gets to the heart of Professor Lane’s argument.  It is just like watering your tomatoes in the summer.  If you don’t learn to spend some time each day devoted to experiencing those relations that are important to you  “then your vines will wither.”

Every study shows that those individuals with active spiritual lives and practices, be the practices more secular like yoga or some forms of meditations, or more religious like regular church worship, result in a significantly greater degree of happiness.  The types of social relation networks that go with these activities also provide a guard against isolation in times of stress.

6.      Did you laugh today?

A major pitfall for many of us lawyers is taking ourselves too seriously.  Humor helps people connect.  The lack of humor over time becomes a sort of social dry rot.

7.      What did you look forward to today?

A good indication of an unlived life is one that seems to be just automatically trudging along on its own.  After a while it gets pretty isolated as one’s feelings become more and more remote from what is actually happening.

8.      What do you look forward to tomorrow?

Just as bad as having no hopes for the future, is to have unrealistic expectations.  You can’t enjoy life if you are continually focused on that one personal injury case finally coming in that is going to get your practice over the hump.  This is a good time of year to re-evaluate priorities to assure that they are not only reasonable but enhance all aspects of your life.

9.      What do you do that makes you happy?

Some people answer this question with enthusiasm.  Others are stumped.  It is an important question.  The answer is what gives vitality, energy, and meaning to your life.

10.  With whom do you share your true self?

Lots of lawyers put so much effort into their lawyer persona that they lose a sense of whom they really are.  Gradually and unconsciously identifying with a persona allows part of a person to be repressed.  Denying whom you are, or parts of yourself, often leads to depression, addiction, and/or problems with relationships.

Once you determine how you did on this inventory, the next and most important step is, how to make a change?  Most people truck along until the heart attack occurs, their drinking gets them in trouble, or their depression brings them to the psychiatrist’s office, i.e. we usually don’t change without severe pain.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Small incremental changes can often bring great relief, but they must address basic patterns and we must get help with understanding and dealing with our own resistance to a change, even those we know we need to make for the better.

– by Don Carroll

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers.  The Lawyer Assistance Program has two outreaches: PALS and FRIENDS.  PALS addresses alcoholism and other addictions:  FRIENDS depression and other mental health problems.  The Lawyer Assistance Program also works to provide support and training to the Mecklenburg County Lawyer Support Committee.  The article first appeared in the Mecklenburg Bar Newsletter.  For more information go to http://www.nclap.org/ or call toll free:

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