The Talent

July 22, 2010 5:27 PM

The Careerist: Pessimism Can Be Useful

Posted by Vivia Chen

Try as we might, we can't seem to get away from the topic of lawyer happiness. Just a few weeks ago, I peeked into former Supreme Court clerk Gretchen Rubin's best seller, The Happiness Project and queried: Are lawyers just too damn smart to be happy?

This time, Dan Bowling, a labor lawyer and happiness scholar, is chatting with us about this topic. This fall, he will teach a course on lawyers' well-being at Duke Law School. A former law firm partner and head of human resources at Coca-Cola, Bowling has been studying the mystery of lawyer happiness with famed psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why should we care whether lawyers are happy or not? Why do they get such special attention?
As a population, lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide more than any other profession. Lots of people say, "So what?" But I think we have to care; we shouldn't have such a large number of our membership be miserable.

Is there more misery these days because of the economy? 
Most of the the evidence on lawyer unhappiness predates the economic crisis. The evidence dates back 20 to 25 years.

Okay, so lawyers have always been a miserable lot. You also say that studies show that optimistic people outperform all others in every measure of job success in other fields, except for lawyers. So why do pessimistic people make better lawyers?
That's the popular interpretation of Seligman's study. There's some validity to that, because lawyers look for the worst-case outcome and plan around it. Pessimism is useful in many types of law practice.

If being miserable makes you a better lawyer, why mess with that formula for success?
I'm not sure I totally buy that. There are lawyers who are happy and successful. . .

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If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail Vivia Chen at [email protected].

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