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If Professor Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine it will.  You are wrong to believe that finally getting that big case in will make you as happy for as long as you might imagine.  On the other hand, if Gilbert is right, you are also wrong to think that you will be more unhappy with a single setback, such as a broken wrist or broken heart, than with a lesser but more chronic problem such as a trick knee or a tense marriage.  You are wrong to expect that the untimely death of someone in your family will leave you bereft for year after year.  In fact, Gilbert argues you are wrong to reckon that the cheeseburger you order at your favorite restaurant will definitely hit the spot.  As the New York Times recently reports, studies by Harvard Psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert, along with University of Virginia Psychologist Tim Wilson, Carnegie-Melon Economist George Loewenstein, and Princeton Psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman have shown that when it comes to predicting how you will feel in the future, you are most likely wrong.

In the past few years, these four scholars have conducted a series of experiments about the decision making process that shapes our sense of well-being.  In their view, one of the critical steps in assessing well-being lies in understanding our emotional expectations about whether something will make us happy or unhappy and then how we feel after the actual experience.

According to their research, most of the actions we take, whether they are big decisions such as to buy a house, or to have children, or work eighty hours a week for a fatter paycheck, are based on our internal and usually unconscious predictions of the emotional consequences of these events.  What these social researchers have discovered is that while we get the big picture, right, we know we will enjoy going to the theater more than going to the dentist we tend to over-estimate the emotional payoff, both the intensity and duration of future events.  In other words, we might believe that making partner, getting married or buying a new house will make life nearly perfect; but, almost certainly, the emotional satisfaction derived from these experiences will be less intense and of shorter duration than our emotional anticipation of the experience has predicted.  Similarly, Gilbert and his colleagues found that the impact of a negative life experience will also be less intense and more transient than test participants predicted.  Gilbert sums this up paraphrasing the Rolling Stones in that it’s not, You can’t always get what you want, but the problem is you can’t always know what you want.  Loewenstein’s view of their research is: Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things.  And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point.  Our brains are not trying to be happy.  Our brains are trying to regulate us.  These researchers believe the tendency toward adaptation explains the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience.

This research is perhaps more significant for lawyers than it is for any other group of individuals.  Lawyers tend to be goal-oriented.  We invest enormous amounts of energy for our clients in a lengthy process to get to a guilty, or not guilty verdict.  This research on happiness suggests that because of the adaptation process, happiness is not nearly as dependent on our goals as the manner in which we work toward them.

Here is another way to look at the puzzle of happiness:  Make a list of all the things that are most important to your happiness.  Your list might have on it your children, your spouse, faith in God, physical health, intelligence, and at least a certain amount of economic security.  If you study your list for a while, it may become apparent how little control you have over the things that you define as being important to your happiness.  You may love your spouse and your children but you have no control over whether that love will be returned, or their health or their survival.  You may also discern that while you can enjoy habits that are good for your physical and mental health, you have no way to control the fortuity of cancer, heart attack, or disability from an accident.  Further discernment will probably also suggest that even things like your faith, or view of life, are not things over which you have direct control.  We see in these days of economic downturn and specialization that people, who have worked in an area for many years, can suddenly find themselves without a job or prospects for one in their area of expertise.

Happiness seems to be more of a product of whether one sees the objects of happiness as things I should have (entitlements) or if one sees them as gifts.  Ultimately, an attitude of gratitude for what is present rather than feelings of deprivation for what is not, seems to be the key to enjoying this human adaptation process, whether to good fortune or ill fortune, that Gilbert and his collaborators describe.

Fundamental to gratitude is a kind of humility that encourages acceptance of our own fundamental limitations.  Our legal culture does not encourage this.  Rather it teaches that our value as human beings depends on what we can do, what we possess, whom we know, or how we look.  These underlying cultural messages contribute to an attitude of selfishness and inflation that undercuts acceptance and gratitude.  While we all want to be happy, most strategies to compensate for the need to want to be happy usually mask feelings of inner fear and shame or of not living up to some projected image we have.  These strategies include working all the time, TV, junk food, gambling, alcohol, drugs, relationships, and sex.  The more one of our strategies to try to feel good (or later to avoid feeling emotional pain) is tied to a basic, instinctual survival need, the more of a barrier it will likely be to the experience of happiness.  We use these strategies as emotional avoidance devices to avoid experiencing negative emotions when our experiences are different from the way we think they should be.  The gap Gilbert and colleagues found, between what we expect and the actual experience, reinforces what we intuitively know, that all our efforts to obtain happiness through achievements and addictions will be short lived at best.  We may intuitively also grasp that genuine solutions seem to be in the direction of acceptance and gratitude for the many things over which one has no control that give life meaning.  However, without something else to grab hold of to replace them, the old emotional strategies are all we have got and will carry the day.

The old saw is you have to be present to win.  Fundamental to emotional enjoyment of life is being present.  Recent research on the flow experience validates this.  The more present, the more in the flow you are, the more enjoyable the experience.  One can be most present, when not trying to control what can’t be controlled.  Much dis-ease comes from trying to control getting to the end result of happiness, rather than being in a process of happiness.  Fundamental to the process of happiness (as oppose to the goal of happiness) is acceptance of the way reality is.  The hardest part of acceptance is acknowledging that some troubling aspect of our life cannot be changed.  For example, if I have a seemingly incurable health problem, live with a depressed family member, or have a child with a serious alcohol problem, such a circumstance is going to be difficult to bear.  But if, in addition, I am also bitter, resentful, and angry about the problem, I have added another perhaps worse problem a negative, judgmental attitude that will aggravate the issue and add fuel to the fire of resentment.  The paradox for us as lawyers is to be able to fight passionately against injustice and unfairness, but at the same time accept on an emotional level there is unfairness and injustice that we can’t do anything about.

With emotional acceptance of this paradox comes gratitude.  A profound sense of gratitude comes in appreciation of the things which bring happiness when one realizes, on not just an intellectual, but a deep emotional level, that one really has no control over the things that bring happiness.  Happiness comes when we let go of all the things we think we need to become happy (which if we get them, after some momentary exhilaration at having them, will according to Gilbert and company no longer make us happy anyway).  When we let go of both the things we think we need to be happy and our negative coping strategies we have developed because we haven’t gotten what we thought we needed to be happy, then we can really be present to enjoy and appreciate what is occurring in our lives.  We become happy by the manner in which we engage in life not because of what we expect.

The 12 Steps for Being An Unhappy Lawyer

1. We learned that we could handle anything perfectly as lawyers, that we had total control.

2.  We came to believe that there is no greater calling than to be a lawyer, that we ARE what we DO.

3.  We made a firm decision to live our lives as consummate lawyers, resisting the need for self-care and the influence of anything outside our careers.

4.  We made a searching and thorough inventory of all legal knowledge, committing it to memory for all time.

5.  We recognized that our discomforts are the fault of people, places, and things outside of us, that professional failing and weakness of character are inappropriate for a lawyer.

6.  We were entirely ready to deny our own negative feelings, doubts, and misgivings.

7.  We never let our mistakes, fear, or feelings of inadequacy show.

8.  We made a list of all people and institutions which upset us and harbored resentments toward them all.

9.  We refused to take action to resolve these tensions, but tried to get even whenever we could.

10. We continued to act as though everything was fine, always maintaining the correct appearance of a lawyer.

11.  We diligently refused to accept new ideas, seeking only to live life on our own terms as we feel entitled to.

12.  Having rigidly clung to our original attitudes and practices, we continue to recommend them to other lawyers, joining together with those similarly miserable for the rest of our practicing lives.

Taken from Building Healthy Attitudes & Coping Strategies: by I. Michael Kaufman, MD, Medical Director, Physician Health Program, Toronto, Ontario.

Another 12 Steps for Lawyer Happiness

1. We admitted difficulty living as a lawyer only, that problems arise from this single focus in life.

2.We came to believe that accepting help and support from everything life has to offer could restore our physical, mental, social, and spiritual health.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our fellows who have learned these lessons and a Higher Power, as we understand one.

4. We made a searching and fearless personal inventory of our problems, strengths, goals, and dreams.

5. We shared our list with trusted others, acknowledging our character weaknesses, virtues, and humanity.

6. We were entirely ready to accept the help available to address our basic human needs.

7. With humility and an open mind, we sought to correct the shortcomings in our lives.

8. We made a list of all persons and institutions we resented and became willing to address these issues.

9. We made direct amends where necessary and took any action required to relieve these tensions, except when doing so would harm others.

10. We continued to monitor internal feelings and needs, promptly admitting when we had a problem.

11. We remained open and responsive to help, guidance, and love we can receive from others who care about us.

12. Having achieved personal revitalization as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to the others in our lives, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

– by Don Carroll

Taken from Building Healthy Attitudes & Coping Strategies: by I. Michael Kaufman, MD, Medical Director, Physician Health Program, Toronto, Ontario.

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