Written by Candice Reed, this article was originally published on July 17, 2018 in the Leadings as Lawyers blog, hosted by the Institute for Professional Leadership at The University of Tennessee College of Law.
When I was at Penn, studying positive psychology, I had a professor who claimed to know the “one thing” (for all you Billy Crystal fans out there). Chris Peterson, the renowned psychologist who spent the latter part of his career studying character strengths and teaching others the secret to happiness, was fond of saying (repeatedly) that “other people matter.” They matter to our health, our longevity, our success and our enjoyment of life and work. Studies suggest that positive relationships are the most significant source of life satisfaction and emotional wellbeing.[i] Conversely, a lack of close social connections not only decreases mental wellbeing, but also physical health (even more so than smoking cigarettes).[ii]
Yet, as lawyers, we routinely silo ourselves away from other people – we hoard work because we want the billable hours, we fear if we ask questions we may seem dumb, we search for answers on a computer and shut our office doors to avoid interruptions, we call into meetings rather than show-up in person and we eat lunch at our desks. We trick ourselves into thinking that these practices make us better lawyers . . . more efficient, more focused, more productive. But in reality, they are making most lawyers miserable.
A recent study found that lawyers are the loneliest professionals in the country, resulting in decreased job satisfaction, fewer promotions and more frequent job changes. Further, loneliness is a vicious cycle that feeds on itself. As University of Pennsylvania management professor Sigal Barsade explains, when you are lonely you become hypervigilant to social threats and lose your social skills, which often causes you to avoid social interaction and makes you less collaborative (thus repeating the cycle of loneliness). Lawyers are no longer congregating in the public square, chatting about a recent case or deal over blue plate specials at the local diner. Many of us are holed away within the four walls of our office with our eyes locked on a computer screen most of the day, and this social isolation is resulting in wellbeing issues like substance abuse, depression and even suicide. It’s also hurting productivity and profits, as attorneys are less engaged with their work.
Despite the hit that loneliness is taking to our individual wellbeing and firms’ bottom lines, most attorneys are reluctant to discuss the value of positive relationships. When I first started speaking to lawyers about relationships in my wellness CLEs years ago, the anxiety was palpable, as if at any minute I was going to lead the group in a round of Kumbaya. Talking about relationships to a room full of lawyers was about as easy as watching the first season of Game of Thrones with your teenage son or daughter (or your elderly parents . . . take your pick). But why do we quickly dismiss such topics as “touchy-feely crap”? After all, didn’t most of us go to law school out of a desire to help other people? Aren’t there lawyers out there right now working tirelessly to make sure that other people’s rights are protected? Don’t we want to connect with our clients, our colleagues, and even our opposing counsel . . . at least on some level?
Interestingly, until the latter part of the twentieth century, science also historically ignored the study of positive relationships and any discussion of love (stay with me). In 1958, Henry Harlow, then president of the American Psychological Association, said, “Psychologists, at least psychologists who write textbooks, not only show no interest in the origin and development of love or affection, but they seem to be unaware of its very existence.”[iii] However, during the height of the behaviorism movement in the 1950s, Harlow famously brought the topic of love into psychological discourse by studying attachment between infant rhesus monkeys and their mothers. The standing belief at the time was that infants were attached to their mothers because their mothers were the infants’ sole source of food.[iv] Harlow sought to disprove this theory. Harlow separated infant monkeys from their mothers at birth. He raised the infant monkeys in individual cages in which he had placed two stationary models designed to resemble full-grown, female rhesus monkeys: one model made of wire, which provided milk to the infant monkeys; and a second model made of terrycloth that did not provide milk but had a pleasing texture. According to behaviorism, the infant monkeys should have attached to the wire model due to the fact that this surrogate provided milk; however, all of the monkeys in the experiment bonded with the terrycloth model instead. While the infant monkeys sought food from the wire model when hungry, they stayed closer and “cuddled” with the terrycloth model the rest of the time and clung to their terrycloth mothers when they were frightened by unexpected noises.
Harlow’s research was considered ground-breaking because it showed that “even among animals, social bonds reflect more than the satisfaction of physiological needs.”[v] In other words, we don’t love our mothers just because they fed us as babies. And we don’t like our friends solely because they bring us chicken soup when we’re sick or a bottle of wine when we break-up with the loser they cautioned us against dating in the first place. In addition to providing for our physical needs, positive relationships (of all types – family, friends, co-workers or spouses) provide us with emotional support, needed validation, and a sense of comfort and belonging.[vi]
Building on Harlow’s work with rhesus monkeys, modern-day researchers, Harry Reis and Shelly Gable, have found that most of us have a desire to belong – to relate closely to another human being. They have concluded that this need for relatedness is just one of three intrinsic needs that most humans share; we also yearn for competence and autonomy.[vii] However, unlike competence and autonomy, studies suggest that when individuals satiate their need for relatedness by sharing with others, their positive affect significantly increases. And increases in positive affect tend to correlate with increases in overall subjective wellbeing (i.e. happiness).
So what does this all mean? Does science suggest an answer for breaking the cycle of loneliness among the legal profession? Even if we all agree that positive relationships are necessary for increasing overall wellbeing and life satisfaction – and positive relationships require that you produce feelings of relatedness with other people – how do we encourage interaction among exhausted lawyers, who even if they wanted to are simply too tired to socialize at the end of a seemingly never-ending day? How do we break the cycle of isolation and loneliness and rebuild a culture of connection and collaboration?
While ditching the billable hour might be one giant leap toward this goal, there are small steps that each of us can take to foster positive relationships both in and outside of the office every day (or at least a couple of times a week).
Results of a 2000 study by Reis and his colleagues show that “[f]eeling understood and appreciated by partners” is the strongest predictor of relatedness and often achieved by talking about something meaningful or experiencing pleasant or fun activities with a partner.[viii] Science suggests that one effective way to strengthen relationships is to share good news with each other . . . in person, or at least by phone. Posting on Facebook doesn’t count. Researchers refer to this process as capitalization. Studies suggest that when individuals share the news of a positive event with other people, their positive affect increases beyond the valence of the positive event itself.[ix] In other words, sharing good news gives you an extra dose of positivity above and beyond that which you experienced when the positive event first took place. But here is the catch, capitalization only increases positive affect in the person sharing his or her good news if the listener responds constructively, recognizing and validating the good news.
So if your goal is to increase intimacy, trust, life satisfaction and overall wellbeing in both yourself and the people you care about, talk to them. Tell your co-worker what you did over the weekend or how much you are enjoying the latest Patterson novel. And the next time your colleague starts bragging about his kids or telling you stories from her glory days, turn off your mental egg timer and take a few minutes to listen. Get into the story. Be supportive, ask questions, and respond enthusiastically.
Numerous researchers have studied the effects of habitualizing gratitude, and all of them have reached the same conclusion: counting your blessings on a regular basis makes you happier and contributes to greater life satisfaction. As Derrick Carpenter, another MAPP graduate, explains, “People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.” Expressing gratitude is also an effective means for cultivating positive relationships.
Try incorporating gratitude into your morning routine. Write a short thank-you note to a friend or send an email congratulating a colleague on a job well done at the beginning of your work day. Compliment others on their good ideas (before rushing to tear them apart). Keep a gratitude journal where you write down two or three good things that happened to you during the day, recognizing the people that made them happen. Over time, these simple exercises will begin to train your mind toward the positive and help you build connections with the people around you.
A lot of lawyers fail to socialize because they work up until the point of exhaustion each day. It’s hard to have a meaningful conversation with a coworker or pleasant dinner banter with your family when you’re working long hours at the office and then incessantly checking your email until your head hits the pillow.
In addition to getting enough sleep, it is critically important for people working in highly stressful jobs to disconnect from work-related activities during the evenings or non-work hours. Research suggests that workers in highly-stressful jobs are more engaged and exhibit better attitudes at the office when they “switch off” after-hours.[x] What does this mean? Quite simply that by putting down your phone (at least one hour before you go to bed), leaving your work files at the office, and engaging in restful activities (like pleasurable reading, a quiet stroll through your neighborhood or playing checkers with your kid) at the end of a long day at work, you’ll get a better night’s sleep and be more productive and in a much better mood the next day – which will make you far more pleasant to be around.
Further, most lawyers could significantly reduce our stress (and even global professional rates of depression) by going on vacation and participating in social leisure activities.[xi] So join the bar association’s softball league, meet up with some friends for trivia night or take a vacation . . . a real vacation. Leave your work files and laptop at the office and take several days to rest and play with your family or friends. Not only are you likely to feel better, but the benefits of spending that time together (without the stress of work laying heavy on your mind) will extend to your loved ones as well.
Even when you cannot devote an entire week (or several hours in the evening) towards rest, executive trainers Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz suggest that you emulate the train, play, recover routine of some of the world’s elite athletes and take mini breaks throughout your work day. Every two hours, take 5-10 minutes to get away from your desk, walk around the office or call your mother. Taking time to rest even for small periods of time throughout the day is likely to increase your overall supply of energy and keep you from crashing and burning (and ditching the firm happy hour) later.
Admittedly, engaging personally with other people is not a strength among most lawyers. Dr. Larry Richard, a former-lawyer-turned-psychologist who has been studying lawyers for over 30 years, explains that lawyers generally rank much lower than the general public in sociability, resilience and empathy, which oh, by the way are the typical personality traits most valued in and exhibited by highly effective leaders.[xii] So if we want to lead as lawyers – and if we want to thrive as human beings – we need to be intentional and actively work on rebuilding our village, collaborating with colleagues, fostering positive personal relationships and recognizing (both inwardly and outwardly) that other people matter.
[i] Reis, H. T., & Gable, S. L. (2003). Toward a positive psychology of relationships. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 129-159). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
[iii] Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual evolution: A scientific defense of faith (p. 89). New York: Broadway Books.
[iv] Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
[v] Id. at p. 253.
[vi] Moeller, Phillip (2012, Mar. 15). Why Good Friends Make You. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/15/friendship-happiness_n_1348648.html
[vii] Reis & Gable (2003).
[viii] Id. at p. 147.
[ix] Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What to do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.
[x] Sonnentag, S., Kuttler, I., & Fritz, C. (2010). Job stressors, emotional exhaustion, and need for recovery: A multi-source study on the benefits of psychological detachment. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 76(3), 355-365.
[xi] Jourdrey, A. D., & Wallace, J. E. (2009). Leisure as a coping resource: A test of the job demand-control-support model. Human Relations, 62(2), 195-217.
[xii] Mack, O. V. & Bloom, K. (2017, June 12). Lawyers As Leaders: Is Your Personality Too Legal? Above the Law. https://abovethelaw.com/2017/06/lawyers-as-leaders-is-your-personality-too-legal/
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