Chasing Happiness

HappinessA July 2014 article in the Wisconsin Lawyer magazine describes a nationwide study about the happiness of lawyers.  This study shows factors that correlate with lawyer happiness, as well as those that don’t correlate.  Those factors that correlate most strongly are what the article calls internal factors, and the factors that are least likely to correlate are external factors.  The internal factors relate to how well a person is able to communicate and interact with others, and the external factors relate to points largely outside one’s immediate control.

The article highlights the following internal factors, which positively influence lawyer happiness:

•Autonomy, or being authentic and having a sense of control over one’s choices (0.66)
•Relatedness to others (0.65)
•Feeling competent in performing one’s job (0.63)
•Internal motivation at work (0.55) – that is, finding the work itself meaningful, enjoyable, and so on, rather than being motivated by external factors, such as pressure from others or needing to impress others
•Autonomy support at work (0.46)
•Intrinsic values (0.30) – these may include personal growth, helping others, and so on, in contrast to such extrinsic values as power, affluence, and others


The good news about these factors is that they are attainable workplace goals, and these factors apply to any workplace setting, not just law firms or other places where lawyers work.  In other words, these are factors that lawyers and the settings that employ them can foster, regardless of the type of legal work being done in that setting.  Moreover, many of the factors on the list are within an employee’s grasp, and being in control is an important component in reducing stress.

External factors least influence lawyer happiness and include:

•Income (0.19)
•School debt (0.19)
•Class rank in law school (0.12)
•Law review membership (0.00)

I see this list as being positive for lawyers and perhaps in particular law students.  While law students should strive to do well in school and take advantage of opportunities such as internships, law review, and moot court, ultimately, whether a person is at the very top of their class or has achieved certain status markers in law school does not correlate with their long-term happiness.

That means students should hopefully take the opportunity to see law school for what it is—an extraordinary chance to learn, grow, and develop critical thinking skills, along the path to an interesting, challenging, and potentially fulfilling career.  Students should not ruminate about status markers, if they can help it, as that leads to self-defeat and lack of productivity.  Students should instead chase the courses and extracurricular activities that make them happy and pique their interest.  They may be surprised by what interests come to the forefront, and those leanings may show them the path to a happy career.

At Marquette, an array of practical, skills-based course offerings, mentoring opportunities, and academic success programs increase students’ sense of competency and provide autonomy support.  Eckstein Hall’s open-concept design also encourages students to connect with each other and faculty, fostering relationships among those in the building.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. David Papke

    Scientists have actually been able to demonstrate that happiness is not the opposite of unhappiness. Images of the brain show that parts of the left cerebral cortex are more active when we are happy, while parts of the right side become more active when we are unhappy. As a result, a lawyer and anybody else for that matter can be both happier and unhappier than average. Cheerful melancholy emerges as totally viable. (See Arthur Brooks, “Love People, Not Pleasure,” NYT, July 20, 2014, SR1.)

  2. Nick Zales

    I agree with most of this article. But clients with money who leave me alone to do my work for them is what makes me happiest as a lawyer. The various events the law school puts on are also something I truly enjoy. No billing hours, just being with friends and making new ones. Dean Kearney has gone a long way to make Marquette a special place for learning and friend making. Kudos to him for what he has done.

  3. Melissa Greipp

    A new study is out that shows seven traits chronically unhappy people display. It’s uplifting to see that these traits appear to be attitudes a person can modify.

  4. David Papke

    The problem with the newest study of happiness, I think, is that it emphasizes beliefs and attitudes rather than social conditions and relationships. I guess you can change some of your beliefs and attiudes and thereby become happier, but it’s much more difficult to change conditions and relationships. A study reported in the New York Times on Sept. 16, 2014 confirmed that racism and poverty do in fact cause unhappiness. The study also found that the No. 1 unhappiness-causing event in a typical day is spending time with one’s boss, the point being not that bosses are rotten people but rather that rank and social hierarchy pinch.

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