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Stuck? Take a Quick Inventory

Social scientists have researched and examined 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, the total numbers of those who categorize themselves as “very happy” have declined over the 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 primary 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 we are seeing in the incidence of clinical depression.

Depression is a disease of isolation, in both cause and effect. Depression can result from several causes. Some causes may be purely chemical. Often, however, depression results from our emotional responses (or more frequently, our suppression or avoidance of normal emotional responses) in the context of familial and social relations, regardless of whether these relations appear to outsiders as “close” or “estranged.” Many people, especially lawyers, report feeling isolated, even with what others would perceive to be strong family or social ties. Many of us have had the experience of feeling “lonely in a crowd of people.”

There are certainly well-known aspects of the legal profession that lend themselves to promoting a sense of emotional isolation from friends and family. Today’s business culture and its preoccupation with the almighty billable hour can leave little time or, more importantly, emotional energy for much else in a lawyer’s life. Sometimes, lawyers may find themselves representing people, causes, or institutions with whom they do not personally agree, yet in order to be zealous advocates and successful, they must distance themselves from their own feelings about the client or the circumstance. Of course, the problem is that one cannot selectively shut down or push away only certain feelings. The lone viable option is to turn the emotional awareness and feeling switch into the “off” position, thus creating the unintended collateral consequence of not being able to be emotionally connected when one may actually want to be.

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 emotionally. Negative thoughts tend to create negative emotional experiences. Depression (and addiction) thrives in an atmosphere of negative thoughts. The difficulty, of course, is in how one changes negative thinking patterns. It is surprising to many of the lawyers we work with to learn that thinking is not changed by thinking. Taking different actions and changing old behavior patterns that underlie negative beliefs are what can cause the quality of one’s thoughts to change. There is a slogan often used in early recovery, “Act your way into a new way of thinking.” Often we do not realize the extent to which our actions are promoting and reinforcing our negative thinking patterns until we are willing to do something different and take a different action.

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

Depression is often connected to a sense of apathy or powerlessness. But often that feeling of being powerless stems from a frustrated emotional need to control what cannot actually be controlled. None of us can control whether our children are happy, although we go to great lengths to try to make them happy. We can be zealous advocates and bring every skill and resource we have to bear on a case, but we cannot control whether or not our case is ultimately successful. We can take actions to support any desired outcome, but in the end, there is very little we can control in the world besides our own attitudes and actions. The need to control beyond what one actually influences usually reflects the presence of some underlying fears. These fears tend to isolate us and must be faced in order for them to lose their power.

  1. Do you mostly react?

There is a lot we have no control over, but there are some things we do have the ability to control or influence. One aspect of depression is the skewed impression that you have no control over the things that you do have some control. For example, 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.

  1. How good is your self-care?

Many of us over time learn to treat ourselves poorly. We eat a lousy breakfast or no breakfast. 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 and are a significant factor in contributing to ongoing depression. Interestingly, making deliberate improvements in these three arenas (diet, exercise, and sleep) are a superb non-pharmaceutical way to prevent and begin to treat depression.

  1. Do you nurture your spirit?

Time for work and for sleep always make it into the schedule even if the amount of time for each is badly skewed. Just as important for our spirit, however, 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 it practices more secular like yoga or some forms of meditation, or more religious like regular church worship—have 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.

  1. Did you laugh today?

A major pitfall for many of us as lawyers is taking ourselves too seriously. Humor helps people connect and can do more to nourish our spirit than years of talk therapy. Lack of humor over time becomes a sort of social dry rot. Find a way to connect and laugh with good friends.

  1. What did you look forward to today?

An indicator of an unlived life with an emotional disconnect is a life that seems to be just automatically trudging along on its own in auto-pilot mode. After a while life gets pretty isolated as one’s feelings become more and more remote from what is actually happening. Set up something different and spontaneous to look forward to today. Shake it up a bit. Change is good and can reconnect us with ourselves emotionally as we have a new experience.

  1. 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. The legal profession is terrible about reinforcing the notion, “I will be happy when….” You can fill in the blank: when I get to law school, when I get a good job, when I make partner, when I earn XYZ, when I secure this new client. The list is endless. Future goals are certainly good and worthwhile, but not when we disconnect from happiness and satisfaction today for a future payoff that never comes. (Happiness never “comes” because once we’ve attained whatever “it” is, we begin looking ahead to the next thing that is “going to make us happy.”) This is a good time of year to stop chasing a future event and to re-evaluate priorities to assure that they are not only reasonable but also enhance all aspects of your life.

  1. 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 whatever gives vitality, energy, and meaning to your life.

  1. With whom do you share your true self?

Many lawyers put so much effort into their lawyer persona that they lose a sense of who they really are. Gradually and unconsciously identifying with a persona allows core and critical parts of a person to be repressed. Denying who 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 into trouble, or their depression brings them to the psychiatrist’s office. We usually don’t change without severe pain motivating us to do something different. It doesn’t have to be that way. Small incremental changes can often bring great relief, but they must address basic patterns. We must get help in identifying and accurately seeing those patterns, and then with understanding and dealing with our own resistance to a change, even those we know we need to make for the better. If you feel stuck in some of the ways described, the Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential and free resource to help get you started down a new road.

– By Don Carroll and Robynn Moraites

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers, judges, and law students, which helps address problems of stress, depression, alcoholism, addiction, or other problems that may lead to impairing a lawyer’s ability to practice. If you would like more information, go to or call: Cathy Killian (for Charlotte and areas west) at 704-892-5699, Towanda Garner (in the Piedmont area) at 919-719-9290, or Tony Porrett (for Raleigh and down east) at 919-828-6425.

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