20 Mar 2018
By Michael Fleming, Head of KWC Legal at Kissing With Confidence
Lawyers are not, by the nature of their profession, the people most likely to be suffused with the warmth of human happiness.
Their job often requires them to scan for problems: where is the potential breach of contract?; the regulatory non-compliance?; the hole in the argument? And then charge clients a lot of money to fend off their problems.
It can infuse their thinking with pessimism. It’s also a very challenging, competitive, regulated sector in which to work. The hours can be horrendous. The fee and chargeable time targets are relentless. It’s stressful. Finding any sort of life/work balance is hard.
However, it is increasingly being recognised that an antidote to the stresses faced by the legal profession could be the cultivation of happiness, a universal concept now sometimes referred to as wellbeing, or flourishing.
It is timely, as the International Day of Happiness is upon us today (March 20, 2018), to consider whether happiness can have a tangible effect on the wellbeing of partners, directors and employees and, moreover, whether it can affect people’s ability to perform at an optimum level.
The International Day of Happiness is a celebration promoted by the UN, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, to promote the idea that progress is about increasing human happiness and wellbeing and not just about growing the economy.
There are few professions in which that line of thinking bears greater examination than in the legal world. A 2014 study in England and Wales reported 96% of practising lawyers experiencing negative stress and 19% extreme stress at work.
Last year, the mental health charity LawCare reported an 11% increase in the number of UK lawyers calling its helpline, with nearly half citing depression and workplace stress as the reason for their call.
What is particularly encouraging is that many influential people in law – particularly in bigger firms – are recognising the negative effects of dissatisfaction and the detrimental impact on output, and they are putting strategies in place to address the issue.
This is a pragmatic position, since hundreds of academic studies have now convincingly shown that enhanced levels of happiness among employees result in valuable benefits such as better conflict resolution skills, higher performance ratings and greater self-esteem.
People who are happy in work have also been shown to be more altruistic and to be healthier. Their immune systems are more robust and they are less likely to be absent from their desks as a result of sickness.
Scientists, understandably uneasy about nebulous concepts, often refer to it as “subjective well-being”, based on how individuals feel about their own lives. But they have also developed tools for measuring happiness, such as the Satisfaction With Life test which asks people to make a subjective, judgmental assessment of their personal circumstances.
And, interestingly, esteemed psychology professor Sonya Lyubomirsky of the University of California Riverside discovered that there are three main components that make up a person’s happiness level – their genetics, their life circumstances and their attitude and approach.
According to her research, only 10% of the variation in happiness levels is determined by life circumstance – that is, elements such as house, job, partner, income, health; 50% is explained by genetic make-up.
That means a remarkable 40% is down to attitude – how people think and what they do. This is a huge area which can be productively worked on and in which strategies can be deployed to make a substantive difference to positivity of outlook.
Studies of teams have also shown that those in which there was a 6:1 ratio of positive to negative statements in meetings were much more likely to be high performing.
Lawyers, who are trained to think forensically, may be disinclined to devote much time to concepts such as happiness. But they are likely to be swayed by evidence, and a rapidly expanding body of research points to a simple equation: that happy people perform better.
One of the first people to put this principle into practice was the social philanthropist Robert Owen, who improved his workers’ lives in the mills of New Lanark in 1800. His ideas were copied all round the world.
What was true then is true now, especially for the legal profession – helping lawyers to work on enhancing their happiness and produce tangible, identifiable benefits for the individuals and their firms.