Our Parents – Our Depression

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Like all parents, my mom and dad were flawed people – as I am.  Yet, they were something more than that.

I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone.  The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.”  Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we really work hard to interpret the stories of our past.  I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.

The author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran like my dad, wrote:

“The most important thing I learned was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It’s just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Now that I’m 50, I still wonder what role mom and dad played in my depression.  Looking at the facts, I guess it’s all too obvious: drinking and mental health issues on both sides of the fence.  In my most self-absorbed moments, I blame them and feel justified in doing so.  In brighter moments of lucidity, I see that they, like me, were somebody’s children once.  They didn’t start out in life the way they ended up – nobody does.  They were, in a real sense, victims.  This fact doesn’t excuse what happened; the real pain they inflicted on their children. But it does help me to understand their plights in life.  And with that understanding comes some measure of peace, a peace of heart.

Turning the pages to our Past 

Jonathan Frazen, author of the best-selling book Freedom about a family that struggles with depression, writes:

“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed, you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”

Here’s Jonathan Frazen talking about his novel on PBS:

How much of our life is determined by our familial past?  How much of it is spun by choices we make apart from that past?  Apart from what happened to us at the hands of parents, can we really change?  I believe that shifting through our past helps us to become “unstuck.” And after all, depression is about being stuck.  We can’t go forward, if we can’t go backwards and to see the truth of about past.

There are some things we can change and some we can’t.  We can’t change our genetics and scientists now know that the genes we inherit play a significant role in our vulnerability to depression. There is a gene that regulates how much of a chemical called serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter.  The amount of serotonin that flows to your brain influences your mood, and emotional state.  Those whose serotonin transporters included a gene that was shorter than would be typically expected at a certain point had a harder time bouncing back after experiencing a stress event. Chronic stress and anxiety, as I’ve written about before, have a strong correlation to a vulnerability to clinical depression.

This bit of news makes me want to know my ancestors, these ghosts of my past.  These folks and I have something in common: irksome chromosomes that could flip off the happy switch in our brains from time to time.

I heard on National Public Radio that there have been 60 generations that have lived and died since the time of Jesus.  Since the extent of my knowledge about my family only goes back, at best, 100 years to the time of the birth of my grandparents, that leaves me about fifty-eight generations or 1900 years of emotional and genetic history unaccounted for.  I wish there was some kind of recorded history of their lives because I am a continuation of them even as my daughter is of me.

Dad’s Story

Dad was born in Buffalo in 1926, the oldest of five born to immigrants from Poland.  I never met my grandparents, but from family lore I’ve learned that they were tough people who lived even tougher lives: brute physical labor for their daily staple of meat and potatoes, playing pinochle while plumes of cigarette smoke wafted up to the ceiling and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked crossways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.

Alcohol played a big role my family’s drama through the generations.  Sometimes they drank at home, but more often in what my grandma called “Gin mills.”  Men would cash their checks in these Polish joints, throw their money on long wooden bars sip draught beer as they talked about all the scraps they’d been in that week just trying to get along in life.

My dad grew up in this world.  At 17, he went off to fight in the Pacific theater against the Japanese.  War must have deeply affected him, as it does all young men.  Robert E. Lee, writing of his experiences in the Civil War, wrote his wife in 1864:

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of the earth.”

Last year, I read a  New York Times review of a book out about J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye.  The article notes that Salinger, who served in the infantry during WWII in Europe, witnessed a lot of death and mayhem and struggled with depression his whole life:

“Salinger’s experiences during WWII heightened his sense of alienation.  The war left him with deep psychological scars, branding ‘every aspect’ of his personality and reverberating through his writings.  Salinger had suffered from depression for years, perhaps throughout his entire life, and was at times afflicted by episodes so intense that he could not relate to others.”

Ultimately, he stopped publishing, moved into a cabin in rural Connecticut and practiced Yoga and Zen meditation.

Dad clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression and PTSD, something that would, like Salinger, haunt him for the rest of his life.  But war can’t explain all misery, can’t explain the storms that would rage in his head.  His younger brother Roman, also a war veteran, became an alcoholic.  Dad’s younger sister suffered from depression and been treated for it with medication suggesting a possible genetic propensity in our family for the illness.

Mom’s Story

Mom, like dad, was also part of WWII generation. Her older brother Joe went off to war in the Pacific for three years.  As fate would have it, he met my future Dad aboard a ship in the Philippines and said, “If we ever get the hell out of this shithole, I’ve got this cute, blonde sister back in Buffalo.” They survived, my parents met, fell in love and married.

Mom had an alcoholic father, also an immigrant from Poland.  She recalled being asked by her mother to go find her dad on a regular basis when he didn’t return home after work.  Often, during the harsh Buffalo winters, she would find him passed out in a snow bank.  The only intimate moments she remembered sharing with him was when for her eighth birthday he took her to a Shirley Temple movie and bought her candy.

Mom and dad quickly had three kids.  Things went well the first ten years of their marriage, but the wheels began to fall off from there on out: dad drank too much, became a gambler, womanized and had unpredictable outbursts of high octane rage.  Mom collapsed back into herself and never really recovered.  She began to eat a lot, added lots of pounds to her slender frame and watched T.V. all the time.  Maybe the dopey sitcom narratives sliced through the quiet pain my mom carried – all the time – all of her life.

Dad died 32 years ago at the age of 56 (I was 19) from too much drinking and smoking. He died sort of unrepentant, never saying he was sorry for anything.  But, in my own mind at least, I think he was sorry.  I think he just couldn’t bring himself to say it because of the enormity of his sins.  But I have learned to forgive him, this enemy of my childhood who I had wished as a boy that he would just die.  The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

As for my mom, well, she died almost two years ago at the age of 82 of brain cancer.  I devoted a  blog to her passing, but didn’t say just how difficult it was to really know mom. She was always somehow distant, like a star in the sky. She never had any friends, her family was her circle. She loved us, but often did not connect with her children; maybe because she had never been cherished as a child.  She did, after all was said and done, the best she could and, in this sense, was so much easier to forgive and let go of than dad.

Walter – Second Edition

Walter, my oldest brother at age 59 and dad’s namesake, and I were walking back the other night to the parking lot after our hometown hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, had taken a real shellacking.  I asked him in the frosty, hidden darkness where men – – if they do at all – – share a sliver of their true inner lives: “Do you ever think of dad and what did he meant to you?” He replied, after a few huffing breaths: “Not really, just what a real asshole he was.”

My brother has never been in therapy, never taken antidepressants.  But he had heroically forged ahead “carving out a living” as he was prone to say.  Yet, I couldn’t help think about the profound effect dad’s abuse had had on him and my other three siblings.  I wonder if he sometimes thinks about it at night while lying in bed with the windows cracked open on a hot summer’s night.  Does he wonder why he can’t stop feeling bad about himself? Why he doesn’t feel more confidence?  And the toughest part of it all, the thing that keeps me up at night when I think of my burly, big-hearted brother, is that he probably blames himself for all of these feekings as adult children of alcoholics are prone to do.

My Coming Around

As for me, a real veteran of therapy and antidepressant medications, I know all too well that my parents are still tangled up with me long after their deaths.   My therapist once said that I had to work out the long buried grief of never having had the parents I needed.  Over the years, I have done a lot of grieving for the childhood I didn’t have. Yet, as I was to learn, it wasn’t only my grief about my childhood troubles that I was to deal with, but for my parents as well.  For the loss of their innocence, their difficult childhoods and all that they could have been.

Despite the pain in my family, there was love; fractured though it may have been. As he aged, I sensed that my dad knew that too much had gone wrong that he couldn’t fix.  But in small gestures here and there, he showed affection and love.  As my mom’s wake last May, I was privileged to give the eulogy.  What I said was my mom’s defining quality wasn’t success, intelligence or gardening, but kindness – that this is where she planted her flowers that continue to grow in the hearts of her children and grandchildren.  And what a gift that is.  One that’s always in bloom.

My parents were both hopeless in their own ways.  They were dealt a crummy hand in life.  They were born with certain genes, into a family and time in history that they didn’t choose.  The difference between them and me, the blessing that came out of my depression that didn’t for them, was that my pain forced me to finally confront my wounds and work hard to heal them – an ongoing project for us all.  It forced me to examine the long unexamined within me.  It gave me a choice: I could continue to live out my parents damaged views of life or embark on my own journey and discover what was real and true for me.

While it is true that none of us can avoid the pains and difficulties that come from living on this planet, what modulates the pain is love — pure and simple.  Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from depression for much of his adult life, captured this in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

“Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.  It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.  Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”

In the end, love really is the only thing that saves anybody.

The Trouble With Walter

If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in the moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people – Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Like all parents, my mom and dad were flawed people – as I am.  Yet, they were something more than that.  

I’ve struggled to understand them much of my adult life; maybe more so now that they’re both gone.  The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The first forty years of life furnish the text, while the remaining thirty supply the commentary.”  Maybe it isn’t till midlife that we really work hard to interpret the stories of our past.  I believe there’s a strong urge in all of us to make a comprehensible story of one’s life at this juncture. And our parents are a large part of that tale.

The author of “Slaughterhouse-Five“, Kurt Vonnegut, a WWII veteran like my dad, wrote:

“The most important thing I learned was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. It’s just an illusion we have here on earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Now on the doorsteps of 50, I still wonder what role mom and dad played in my depression.  Looking at the facts, I guess it’s all too obvious: drinking and mental health issues on both sides of the fence.  In my most self-absorbed moments, I blame them and feel justified in doing so.  In brighter moments of lucidity, I see that they, like me, were somebody’s children once.  They didn’t start out in life the way they ended up – nobody does.  They were, in a real sense, victims.  This fact doesn’t excuse what happened; the real pain they inflicted on their children. But it does help me to understand their plights in life.  And with that understanding comes some measure of peace, a peace of heart.

Turning the pages to our Past 

Jonathan Frazen, author of the best-selling book “Freedom” about a family that struggles with depression, writes:

“Depression, when it’s clinical, is not a metaphor. It runs in families, and it’s known to respond to medication and to counseling. However truly you believe there’s a sickness to existence that can never be cured, if you’re depressed, you will sooner or later surrender and say: I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.”

Here’s Jonathan Frazen talking about his novel on PBS:

How much of our life is determined by our familial past?  How much of it is spun by choices we make apart from that past?  Apart from what happened to us at the hands of parents, can we really change?  I believe that shifting through our past helps us to become “unstuck.” And after all, depression is about being stuck.  We can’t go forward, if we can’t go backwards and to see the truth of about past.

There are some things we can change and some we can’t.  We can’t change our genetics and scientists now know that the genes we inherit play a significant role in our vulnerability to depression. There is a gene that regulates how much of a chemical called serotonin is produced. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter.  The amount of serotonin that flows to your brain influences your mood, and emotional state.  Those whose serotonin transporters included a gene that was shorter than would be typically expected at a certain point had a harder time bouncing back after experiencing a stress event. Chronic stress and anxiety, as I’ve written about before, have a strong correlation to a vulnerability to clinical depression.

This bit of news makes me want to know my ancestors, these ghosts of my past.  These folks and I have something in common: irksome chromosomes that could flip off the happy switch in our brains from time to time.

I heard on National Public Radio that there have been 60 generations that have lived and died since the time of Jesus.  Since the extent of my knowledge about my family only goes back, at best, 100 years to the time of the birth of my grandparents, that leaves me about fifty-eight generations or 1900 years of emotional and genetic history unaccounted for.  I wish there was some kind of recorded history of their lives because I am a continuation of them even as my daughter is of me.

Dad’s Story

Dad was born in Buffalo in 1926, the oldest of five born to immigrants from Poland.  I never met my grandparents, but from family lore I’ve learned that they were tough people who lived even tougher lives: brute physical labor for their daily staple of meat and potatoes, playing pinochle while plumes of cigarette smoke wafted up to the ceiling and crates of cheap booze on the weekends. If you looked crossways at them, they’d likely belt you in the mouth.

Alcohol played a big role my family’s drama through the generations.  Sometimes they drank at home, but more often in what my grandma called “Gin mills.”  Men would cash their checks in these Polish joints, throw their money on long wooden bars sip draught beer as they talked about all the scraps they’d been in that week just trying to get along in life.

My dad grew up in this world.  At 17, he went off to fight in the Pacific theater against the Japanese.  War must have deeply affected him, as it does all young men.  Robert E. Lee, writing of his experiences in the Civil War, wrote his wife in 1864:

“What a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors and to devastate the fair face of the earth.”

In today’s New York Times, there’s a review of a new book out about J.D. Salinger author of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  The article notes that Salinger, who served in the infantry during WWII in Europe, witnessed a lot of death and mayhem and struggled with depression his whole life: 

“Salinger’s experiences during WWII heightened his sense of alienation.  The war left him with deep psychological scars, branding ‘every aspect’ of his personality and reverberating through his writings.  Salinger had suffered from depression for years, perhaps throughout his entire life, and was at times afflicted by episodes so intense that he could not relate to others.”

Ultimately, he stopped publishing, moved into a cabin in rural Connecticut and practiced Yoga and Zen meditation.

Dad clearly suffered from undiagnosed depression and PTSD, something that would, like Salinger, haunt him for the rest of his life.  But war can’t explain all misery, can’t explain the storms that would rage in his head.  His younger brother Roman, also a war veteran, became an alcoholic.  Dad’s younger sister suffered from depression and been treated for it with medication suggesting a possible genetic propensity in our family for the illness. 

Mom’s Story

Mom, like dad, was also part of WWII generation. Her older brother Joe went off to war in the Pacific for three years.  As fate would have it, he met my future Dad aboard a ship in the Philippines and said, “If we ever get the hell out of this shithole, I’ve got this cute, blonde sister back in Buffalo.” They survived, my parents met, fell in love and married.

Mom had an alcoholic father, also an immigrant from Poland.  She recalled being asked by her mother to go find her dad on a regular basis when he didn’t return home after work.  Often, during the harsh Buffalo winters, she would find him passed out in a snow bank.  The only intimate moments she remembered sharing with him was when for her eighth birthday he took her to a Shirley Temple movie and bought her candy.

Mom and dad quickly had three kids.  Things went well the first ten years of their marriage, but the wheels began to fall off from there on out: dad drank too much, became a gambler, womanized and had unpredictable outbursts of high octane rage.  Mom collapsed back into herself and never really recovered.  She began to eat a lot, added lots of pounds to her slender frame and watched T.V. all the time.  Maybe the dopey sitcom narratives sliced through the quiet pain my mom carried – all the time – all of her life.

Dad died 32 years ago at the age of 56 (I was 19) from too much drinking and smoking. He died sort of unrepentant, never saying he was sorry for anything.  But, in my own mind at least, I think he was sorry.  I think he just couldn’t bring himself to say it because of the enormity of his sins.  But I have learned to forgive him, this enemy of my childhood who I had wished as a boy that he would just die.  The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

As for my mom, well, she died last May at the age of 82 of brain cancer.  I wrote about her death in a recent blog, but I didn’t say just how difficult it was to really know mom. She was always somehow distant, like a star in the sky. She never had any friends, her family was her circle. She loved us, but often did not connect with her children; maybe because she had never been cherished as a child.  She did, after all was said and done, the best she could and, in this sense, was so much easier to forgive and let go of than dad.

Walter – Second Edition

Walter, my oldest brother at age 59 and dad’s namesake, and I were walking back the other night to the parking lot after our hometown hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, had taken a real shellacking.  I asked him in the frosty, hidden darkness where men – – if they do at all – – share a sliver of their true inner lives: “Do you ever think of dad and what did he meant to you?” He replied, after a few huffing breaths: “Not really, just what a real asshole he was.” 

My brother has never been in therapy, never taken antidepressants.  But he had heroically forged ahead “carving out a living” as he was prone to say.  Yet, I couldn’t help think about the profound effect dad’s abuse had had on him and my other three siblings.  I wonder if he sometimes thinks about it at night while lying in bed with the windows cracked open on a hot summer’s night.  Does he wonder why he can’t stop feeling bad about himself? Why he doesn’t feel more confidence?  And the toughest part of it all, the thing that keeps me up at night when I think of my burly, big-hearted brother, is that he probably blames himself for all of these feekings as adult children of alcoholics are prone to do.

My Coming Around

As for me, a real veteran of therapy and antidepressant medications, I know all too well that my parents are still tangled up with me long after their deaths.   My therapist once said that I had to work out the long buried grief of never having had the parents I needed.  Over the years, I have done a lot of grieving for the childhood I didn’t have. Yet, as I was to learn, it wasn’t only my grief about my childhood troubles that I was to deal with, but for my parents as well.  For the loss of their innocence, their difficult childhoods and all that they could have been.

Despite the pain in my family, there was love; fractured though it may have been. As he aged, I sensed that my dad knew that too much had gone wrong that he couldn’t fix.  But in small gestures here and there, he showed affection and love.  As my mom’s wake last May, I was privileged to give the eulogy.  What I said was my mom’s defining quality wasn’t success, intelligence or gardening, but kindness – that this is where she planted her flowers that continue to grow in the hearts of her children and grandchildren.  And what a gift that is.  One that’s always in bloom.

My parents were both hopeless in their own ways.  They were dealt a crummy hand in life.  They were born with certain genes, into a family and time in history that they didn’t choose.  The difference between them and me, the blessing that came out of my depression that didn’t for them, was that my pain forced me to finally confront my wounds and work hard to heal them – an ongoing project for us all.  It forced me to examine the long unexamined within me.  It gave me a choice: I could continue to live out my parents damaged views of life or embark on my own journey and discover what was real and true for me.

While it is true that none of us can avoid the pains and difficulties that come from living on this planet, what modulates the pain is love — pure and simple.  Andrew Solomon, who has suffered from depression for much of his adult life, captured this in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

“Depression is a flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of despair. When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection.  It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.  Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself.”

In the end, love really is the only thing that saves anybody.

Is It Lawyer Unhappiness or Depression?

Since you get more joy out of giving to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give – Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s a Difference

Is there a difference between discontent and depression, a lack of fulfillment and true melancholia? 

The lines between murky malaise and downright clinical depression are blurred in everyday conversation, the popular media and discourse amongst professionals and academics about what troubles the legal profession.   Two journal articles – which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely, “Stemming the Tide of Law School Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” and “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” took this approach by canvasing studies that have been done on law student and lawyer unhappiness, discontent, stress, anxiety, depression and wellness.

But unhappiness is not depression, not even close.  I am not saying that this was the authors’ intentions, or for that matter, even their suggestion.  Nor I am saying that these issues aren’t related to one another.  Yet, I don’t think this lumping-of-the-maladies approach is particularly productive because it plays into the popular myths that depression is just an amplification of everyday sadness or, worse, a banal self-absorption with all that’s wrong in one’s life.  Remarkably, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans think of depression as a failure of will.

Another problem with the lumping together approach is that sadness and depression call for radically different solutions.  In the two journal articles cited above, the first concentrates on positive psychology and how it can help alleviate distress and the later on living an ethical life and picking the right job — no doubt important considerations for everyone.  Yet I’m not sure that any of these approaches is a panacea to the epidemic of depression in the law.

To me, unhappiness and discontent are part of the human predicament.  It’s unavoidable that all of us will go through epochs in our lives when things unequivocally stink; we mope and wonder why meteorites always seem to pelt us when our car battery’s dead, our kids are in an uproar and the day at the office was survivable at best.  In the book Zorba the Greek, the larger than life Zorba was asked if he was married and replied with great gusto, “Me? Wife, kids, job — the full catastrophe!!”

But depression isn’t part of the human condition.  It’s a multifaceted illness, for some disabling and for many cruel. For many of its victims, the pain isn’t so much a feeling of sadness, but of nothingness.  There’s no air to breath, little room to escape this type of pain – until one, hopefully, gets treatment or it passes, mercifully, of its own inscrutable violation.  

How can nothingness be painful? Perhaps, it’s because it’s emotions that give life its vibrancy. These visceral forces energize us, heighten the intensity of our lives and make the human experience so rich.  The absence of this life force leaves us impoverished, longing and mourning for that richness in our being we once knew.

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a depressive, captured this experience when she wrote:

“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”

At least when the problem is one of discontent, we have our faculties (e.g. the ability to concentrate), are capable of making choices and bring focused energy to bear on changing matters in small or large ways.  For someone in the throes of depression, the power to choose is diminished if not extinguished.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his seminal book Undoing Depression, writes in his blog:

“Everyone knows what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

No, depression isn’t unhappiness.  But discontent in one’s vocation is a real problem and often very painful.  We feel like a jammed door that won’t let us open into a life that works on some fundamental level.  We know something is wrong, sense that we’re stuck like in the traffic of our lives.  Our happiness is trying to tell us something and we know it.  Our emotional core senses we’ve been living a life out of sync with who we really are.  And if we’re in the legal profession, we’re not alone in this experience – far, far from it. 

Drifting Towards Unhappiness in the Law

There has been much debate about whether lawyers are really unhappy, to what degree, why that is so and what can be done about it. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gretchen Rubin, a Yale Law School alumnus who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, about her book “The Happiness Project.”  Here’s her take on why so many lawyers find themselves in funks:

“There’s [this] whole notion of ‘drift’ that I think a lot of people fall into with law school.  They’d don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for a lack of a better idea.  And that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy.  They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me.  I drifted into it.”

Gretchen realized that she had never made any real choice about whether to go to law school, let alone join the legal profession.  Yet, how many lawyers really chose their jobs? Most of us stumble around. There is a steep learning curve to life and there are few instruction manuals.  It’s often through trial and error that most people find their way.  The discovery that you’ve invested lots of time and money into a career that you later find was a bad fit is troubling indeed.  Many aren’t willing or able to make the leap to change matters; hence, unhappiness and distress. 

Perhaps the notion of happiness depends on how long you’ve been in the profession.  Recently minted lawyers seem to expect something more from their jobs than their predecessors.  The New York Times article The Falling Down Professions notes:

“Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. ‘There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,’ notes Richard Florida, the author “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.”  ‘Now they just want to be themselves.  It’s almost as if they are interviewing places to see if they fit them.”

In a sense, it’s amazing that young lawyers are even taking into consideration flexibility and creativity; all the more so given the sour economy and the glut of law school graduates — currently about 150,000 per year.  But an increasing number of young lawyers seem willing to seek a job fit that jives with their desire for not only a decent paycheck, but a decent life.   Many middle-aged or older lawyers eventually get there, but often after a lot of struggle and pain.  Some switch jobs to find a better fit (the litigator who starts a real estate practice) or others chuck the whole profession and start life anew in other fields.

In the new book “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law,” the authors point out that six experiences that are critical to making a person satisfied with her life, including security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem.  Certainly, money can and should be part of the equation, but not to the exclusion of other intrinsic values. 

There’s nothing new here, but don’t we all need to be reminded of this message over and over again?  At the very least, it’s a counterweight to the popular and legal culture which puts way too much emphasis on money and deludes us into thinking that more of it will mean greater happiness.

According to psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling, “Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause. Another question about the research, he say, ‘and I think it’s a fair question is this one. ‘It’s the so-what question.  It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career sacrifice for clients. . . . Who said we’re supposed to be happy?’ Bowling has an answer: ‘I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.

A contrary view is offered in “Scholars Debate: Is Law a Picnic?” by Harvard Law Professor David B. Wilkins who reports that in a study of 4000 lawyers in the first decade of their careers:  “. . . contrary to what many believe, there is ‘no evidence’ of ‘any pervasive unhappiness in the profession,’ he says – at least not among those who began practicing in 2000. In that group, nearly three-quarters reported being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs.

Perhaps happiness is somewhat determined by the type of law we go into.  In The Happy Lawyer, the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in a solo practice, as well as those attorneys who work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.

In “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick Schlitz writes:

“This is the best advice I can give you: Right now, while you are still in law school, make the commitment—not just in your head, but in your heart—that, although you are willing to work hard and you would like to make a comfortable living, you are not going to let money dominate your life to the exclusion of all else. And don’t just structure your life around this negative; embrace a positive. Believe in something—care about something—so that when the culture of greed presses in on you from all sides, there will be something inside of you pushing back. Make the decision now that you will be the one who defines success for you—not your classmates, not big law firms, not clients of big law firms, not the National Law Journal. You will be a happier, healthier, and more ethical attorney as a result.”

We each have to take our own journey in life to find out what makes us happy.  Just don’t get stuck in negative rumination about what’s wrong in your life.  Think about what could be “right” in your life.  Believe, at the very least, in the possibilities and follow your passion.  Make no mistake about it, there will be a cost.  If one follows one’s passion there may be risk, the displeasure of our peers and family members and financial concerns.  But if one doesn’t take this journey, if money carries too much weight in what we’re willing to do to make a living, we will be unhappy; if this situation goes on to long, maybe depressed.

Further reading:

Chicken Little: Lawyer at Law” by Stephanie West Allen

The New York Times Dissects Lawyer Unhappiness with a Note on Following Your Dreams” by Victoria Pynchon

 

 

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

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“As to being happy, I fear that happiness isn’t in my line. Perhaps the happy days that Roosevelt promises will come to me along with others, but I fear that all trouble is in the disposition that was given to me at birth, and so far as I know, there is no necromancy in an act of Congress that can work a resolution there.” – Benjamin N. Cardozo, February 15, 1933

Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52% of practicing lawyers describe themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates at top firms could earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals. In addition to being disenchanted, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at John Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold. They are the best-paid professionals, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive Psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers.

Pessimism

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First is pessimism, defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.”). The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable, while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors: Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than do optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Pessimistic NBA teams lose to the point spread more often than optimistic teams.

Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990 with a variant of the optimism-pessimism test. These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast with the results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimist outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.

Sandra is a well-known East Coast psychotherapist who is, I think, a white witch. She has one skill that I have never seen in any other diagnostician: She can predict schizophrenia in preschoolers. Schizophrenia is a disorder that does not become manifest until after puberty, but since it is partly genetic, families who have experienced schizophrenia are very concerned about which of their children will come down with it. It would be enormously useful to know which children are particularly vulnerable because all manner of protective, social and cognitive skills might be tried to immunize the vulnerable child. Families from all over the eastern United States send Sandra their 4-year-olds; she spends an hour with each of them and makes an assessment of the child’s future likelihood of schizophrenia, an assessment that is widely thought of as uncannily accurate.

This skill of seeing the underside of innocent behavior is super for Sandra’s work, but not for the rest of her life. Going out to dinner with her is an ordeal. The only thing she can usually see is the underside of the meal – people chewing. Whatever witchy skill enables Sandra to see so acutely the underside of the innocent-looking behavior of a 4-year-old does not get turned off during dinner, and it prevents her from thoroughly enjoying normal adults in normal society. Lawyers, likewise, can not easily turn off their character trait of prudence (or pessimism) when they leave the office. Lawyers who can see clearly how badly things might turn out for their clients can also see clearly how badly things might turn out for themselves. Pessimistic lawyers are more likely to believe they will not make partner, that their profession is a racket, that their spouse is unfaithful, or that the economy is headed for disaster much more readily than will optimistic persons. In this manner, pessimism that is adaptive in the profession brings in its wake a very high risk of depression in personal life. The challenge, often unmet, is to remain prudent and yet contain this tendency outside the practice of law.

Low Decision Latitude

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A second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has – or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has – on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and moral: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in other three quadrants.

Nurses and secretaries are the usual occupations consigned to that unhealthy category, but in recent years, junior associates in major firms can be added to the list. These young lawyers often fall into this cusp of high pressure accompanied by low choice. Along with the shared load of law practice (“this firm is founded on broken marriages”), associates often have little voice about their work, only limited contact with their superiors, and virtually no client contact. Instead, for at least their first few years of practice, many remain isolated in a library, researching and drafting memos on topics of the partners’ choosing.

A Win-loss Game

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The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law is becoming increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal from free-market enterprises focused on profits. Amateur athletics, for instance, is a practice that has virtuosity as its good. Teaching is a practice that has learning as its good. Medicine is a practice that has healing as its good. Friendship is a practice that has intimacy as its good. When these practices brush up against the free market, their internal goods become subordinated to the bottom line. Night baseball sells more tickets, even though you cannot really see the ball at night. Teaching gives way to the academic star system, medicine to managed care, and friendship to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends.

Practices and their internal goods are almost always win-win-games: both teacher and student grow together, and successful healing benefits everyone. Bottom-line businesses are often, but not always, closer to win-loss games: managed care cuts mental health benefits to save dollars; star academics get giant raises from a fixed pool, keeping junior teachers at below-cost-of-living raises; and multi-billion dollar lawsuits for silicon implants put Dow-Corning out of business. There is an emotional cost to being part of a win-loss endeavor. In Chapter 3 of my book, I argue that positive emotions are the fuel of win-win (positive-sum) games, while negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness have evolved to switch in during win-loss games. To the extent that the job of lawyering now consists of more win-loss games, there is more negative emotion in the daily life of lawyers.

Win-loss games cannot simply be wished away in the legal profession, however, for the sake of more pleasant emotional life among its practitioners. The adversarial process lies at the heart of the American system of law because it is thought to be the royal road to truth, but it does embody a classic win-loss game: one side’s win equals exactly the other side’s loss. Competition is at its zenith. Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious and angry a lot of the time.

Countering Lawyer and Unhappiness

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As Positive Psychology diagnoses the problem of demoralization among lawyers, three factors emerge.Pessimism, low decision latitude, and being part of a giant win-loss enterprise. The first two each have an antidote. I discussed part of the antidote for depression in Chapter 6, in my book

Pessimism, low decision latitude, and being part of a giant win-loss enterprise. The first two each have an antidote. Chapter 6 of my book details a program for lastingly and effectively countering catastrophic thoughts. More important for lawyers is the pervasive dimension-generalizing pessimism beyond the law – and there are exercises in Chapter 12 of my book, Learned Optimism that can help lawyers who see the worst in every setting to be more discriminating in the other corners of their lives. The key move is credible disputation: treating the catastrophic thoughts (“I’ll never make partner,” “My husband is probably unfaithful”) as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable, and then marshaling evidence against the thoughts. These techniques can teach lawyers to use optimism in their personal lives, yet maintain the adaptable pessimism in their professional lives. It is well documented that flexible optimism can be taught in a group setting, such as a law firm or class. If firms and schools are willing to experiment, I believe the positive effects on the performance and moral of the young lawyers will be significant.

As to the high pressure-low decision latitude problem, there is a remedy as well. I recognize that grueling pressure is an inescapable aspect of law practice. Working under expanded decision latitude, however, will make young lawyers both more satisfied and more productive. One way to do this is to tailor the lawyer’s day so there is considerably more personal control over work. Volvo solved a similar problem on the assembly lines in the 1960’s by giving its workers the choice of building a whole car in a group, rather than repeatedly building the same part. Similarly, a junior associate can be given a better sense of the whole picture, introduced to clients, mentored by partners, and involved in transactional discussions. Many law firms have begun this process as they confront the unprecedented resignations of young associates.

The zero-sum nature of law has no easy antidote. For better or for worse, the adversarial process, confrontation, maximizing billable hours, and the “ethic” of getting as much as you possibly can for your clients are much too deeply entrenched. More pro bono activity, more mediation, more out-of-court settlements, and “therapeutic jurisprudence” are all in the spirit of countering the zero-sum mentality, but I expect these recommendations are not cures, but Band-Aids. I believe the idea of signature strengths, however, may allow law to have its cake and eat it too – both to retain the virtues of the adversarial system and to create happier lawyers.

When a young lawyer enters a firm, he or she comes equipped not only with the trait of prudence in lawyerly talents like high verbal intelligence, but with an additional set of unused signature strengths (for example, leadership, originality, fairness, enthusiasm, perseverance, or social intelligence). As lawyers’ jobs are crafted now, these strengths do not get much play. Even when situations do call for them, since the strengths are unmeasured, handling these situations does not necessarily fall to those who have the applicable strengths.

Every law firm should discover what the particular signature strengths of their associates are. Exploiting these strengths will make the difference between a demoralized colleague and an energized, productive one. Reserve five hours of the work week for “signature strength time,” a non-routine assignment that uses individual strengths in the service of the firm’s goals.

There is nothing particular to the field of law in the re-crafting of jobs. Rather, there are two basic points to keep in mind as you think about these examples and try to apply them to your work setting. The first is that the exercise of signature strengths is almost always a win-win game. When Stacy gathers the complaints and feelings of her peers, they feel increased respect for her. When she presents them to the partners, even if they don’t act, the partners learn more about the morale of their employees – and of course, Stacy herself derives authentic positive emotion from the exercise of her strengths. This leads to the second basic point: There is a clear relation between positive emotion at work, high productivity, low turnover and high loyalty. The exercise of a strength releases positive emotion. Most importantly, Stacy and her colleagues will likely stay longer with the firm if their strengths are recognized and used. Even though they spend five hours each week on non-billable activity, they will, in the long run, generate more billable hours.

Law is intended as but one rich illustration of how an institution (such as a law firm) can encourage its employees to re-craft the work they do, and how individuals within any setting can reshape their jobs to make them more gratifying. To know that a job is a win-loss in its ultimate goal – the bottom line of a quarterly report, or a favorable jury verdict – does not mean the job cannot be win-win in its means to obtaining that goal. Competitive sports and war are both eminently win-loss games, but both sides have many win-win options. Business and athletic competitions, or even war itself, can be won by individual heroics or by team building. There are clear benefits of choosing the win-win option by using signature strengths to better advantage. This approach makes work more fun, transforms the job or the career into a calling, increases flow, builds loyalty, and it its decidedly more profitable. Moreover, by filling work with gratification, it is a long stride on the road to the good life.

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the Director of the Positive Psychology Network, and former President of the American Psychological Association. Among his 20 books are Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child. Here, from his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, is his chapter entitled “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?”

© by Martin Seligman. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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