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

 

 

Where does the Rat Race Lead Us To?

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Lawyers are very busy people.  They multi-task like a short order cook flipping pancakes in a busy diner.  First or second gear is simply not an option.

Speed becomes a large problem for the depressed lawyer.  The murky bog of depression short circuits a lawyer’s capacity to move, think and act quickly; everything takes longer and is incredibly more difficult to accomplish. We see our work getting away from us, but are pinned down in a foxhole.  Depression is spraying bullets at us as we feel them whizzing by our heads.  So we stay stuck in this foxhole, unable to gain traction to meet our daily demands.

I think there’s a couple different ways to look at the lack of productivity in our work; whether it’s due to depression or not.  Since you’re reading this blog, your difficulty in pumping out the paperwork is likely due, at least in part, to depression.  It may also be that you just don’t like your job, the type of law you practice or are even dream of quitting the profession.  What the precise cause or causes are need to be sorted out with a good therapist and wise friends. 

For example, is the work slow down due to a neurochemical mix-up in your brain affecting your ability to concentrate?  Or, is it a general malaise which suggests that you’re just burnt out and tired of all the bullshit?  They’re really different animals.

Depression treatment, because it involves a real impairment in our ability to function as lawyers, must involve care which tries to return us to some normal or pre-depression levels of functioning.  I like to imagine it as the ascent of a diving bell to the ocean’s surface. 

Burnout, on the other hand, has been defined by experts as situational exhaustion and helplessness that’s usually specific to our job or burdensome task.  We’re asked to do work that’s beyond our capacity to get it done.  It’s not defined as a psychiatric “illness” per se like depression and usually demands a different kind of healing approach.

But what if we aren’t “technically” depressed, at least not in a clinical sense, or burned out?  What if the real spur in our saddle is that we’re just unhappy in our lives as lawyers?  We may find ourselves yearning for a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness in our daily lives, but it all seems so illusive.  As a result, we keep doing what we already know how to do:  put the old nose to the grindstone, try to just survive the blowtorch-like stress and drama and, hopefully, find some semblance of happiness. 

Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., a Harvard professor and author of the book “Happier,” says that how we go about searching for happiness is an important part of finding it.  He identifies four archetypes – or patterns of behaviors and attitudes – with which we pursue happiness.  One of the patterns he identifies is the “Rat Race Archetype.”  This pattern of behaviors and attitudes “. . .sacrifices present enjoyment in order to be happy in the future.”  

As applied to law students, lawyers and judges, we do well in law school to get that well paying job that requires an eighty-hour work week.  We’re supposed to be happy because that’s why we sacrificed so much of our time and energy to get to where we are or want to be.  But more often, we find that “the sense of fulfillment disappears, though the drudgery remains,” says Ben-Shehar.

Paradoxically, outsiders may regard the rat-racer as a paragon of success.  “Others may even see him/her as a role model for younger children, suggests Ben-Shehar:

“’See, if you work hard, you can be successful like [Bob] too.’” But Bob actually pities these children, but cannot imagine what alternatives there are to the rat race.  He does not even know what to tell his children:  Not to work hard in school?  Not to get good grades?  Not to get a good job?  Is being successful synonymous with being miserable?  Being a hard worker is not the same as being a rat racer; there are supremely happy people who work long hours and dedicate themselves to their schoolwork or to their profession.  What differentiates rat racers is their inability to enjoy what they are doing – and their persistent belief that once they reach a certain destination, they will be happy.”

There’s no easy remedy to counter the rat race archetype in the legal profession. Yet, I feel that offering some insight into the problem can lead us to think differently about our predicament.  After all, insight is one of the major goals of all psychotherapy.  Such insight may even result in our making small or large changes in how we structure our daily law practice.  We need to reassess the motivation that is running our lives; the “why” of what we do and not so much the “what.”  Lawyers complain about what they have to put up with:  the demanding clients, impatient judges, opposing counsel who (we swear!) has it in for us or the Himalayan-like stack of papers on our desk.  Yet, we don’t often ask ourselves where this “putting up with” approach is leading to.

Our society rewards doers, especially in the legal profession. 

“We learn to focus on the next goal,” say Ben-Shahar, “rather than our present experience and chase the ever-elusive future our entire lives.  We are not rewarded for enjoying the journey itself but for the successful completion of a journey.  Society rewards results, not processes; arrivals, not journeys. Once we have arrived at our destination, once we attain our goal, we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness.  The weightier the burden we carried on our journey, the more powerful and pleasant is our experience of relief.  When we mistake these moments of relief for happiness, we reinforce the illusion that simply reaching goals will make us happy.  While there is value in relief – it is a pleasant experience and it is real – it should not be mistaken for happiness.”

If our legal life is a series of moments of relief, we will not experience much happiness.  I had to learn this one the hard way.  I needed to reassess: why was I doing what I was doing?  When I was honest with myself, I found that I saw completing my work as, primarily, a source of relief.  I had become a very good lawyer, but much of my motivation was spurred on by this motivation; of flopping onto the sofa at the end of the day and thinking, “Thank God that’s over.”

Happiness, in some sense, seemed unrealistic to me before. I now believe that thinking of happiness as unrealistic is a small box view in a big box world of possibilities.  We can change our motivation from one of chasing cheese to one of seeing that life happens in the present moment and not some future success.  Our life is really a series of moments, isn’t it?  And if we bet the house on the American anthem of “no pain, no gain” to obtain some future level of success, we may find that we end up not where we really, truly want to be.

Managing Your Depressive Symptoms Is Not Enough

If you have been living with depression long enough, you will inevitably face the question of whether managing your depression is enough. Many lawyers dealing with depression (and there are 200,000 in America) are struggling to get rid of their symptoms of depression. I understand the value and necessity of this all too well. But once the symptoms seem manageable, what next?

In his book, What Happy People Know, psychologist, Dan Baker, offers his criticisms of much of modern day psychology: “Clinical psychology – the treatment in a clinical setting of people with mental disorders – was begun with great fanfare as an adjunct to modern medicine in the late 1800s. It was patterned after the conventional medical model of fighting pathology. Clinical psychology was based on the assumption that most people are mentally healthy – and happy- but some people contract mental pathologies that conform to neat diagnostic compartments, and require standardized treatments. The only problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It fails approximately two-thirds of the time.” As I write, let it be known that I attend therapy twice per month!

There is a great debate worldwide about the causes of depression. Most agree that it is a complex condition related to a combination of factors both genetic and environmental. While there is value in thinking about depression as a disease of sorts – say on par with diabetes or heart disease – there is a real danger to as well. That’s because it isn’t just a “disease;” it’s also a psychological and spiritual malady. If those aspects aren’t addressed, those who suffer from it may never taste the wonder and joy of life. They are left with the discontent of a life where they are only managing their depressive symptoms. Don’t we have the right to expect more?

Dr. Baker central point is that the approach of clinical psychology was not designed to help people find happiness. “It assumed that if mental illness were cured, happiness would naturally follow, as the normal human condition. But that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of people.” He continues, “I believe that even when people do not have diagnosable psychological illness, they still cannot be considered psychologically healthy unless they are happy. The absence of disease is not the same as health, just as the absence of poverty is not the same as wealth.” For a further exploration of the issue of happiness, see the interesting article in The Atlantic Magazine, “What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Interesting, Mr. Shenk is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

I believe Dr. Baker’s point is well taken. Yes, it is critically important to treat the symptoms of clinical depression. But we must stop and pause: is that enough? If it is, I can’t help but feel as though we have allowed ourselves to be victims on some level. Depression then has the danger of defining our identities as people. We are more than that. We must aspire to live a fuller life with times of joy, happiness and a sense of being alive. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let us endeavor to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

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