As a new year approaches or gets under way, many people ponder the meaning of their lives, and whether they are where they want to be. Depressed people, though, often avoid this pondering, because it brings up some really uncomfortable issues they are frankly not sure they can deal with.
For depressed lawyers, the stakes can seem very high indeed, if they suspect (or know) that their daily work and life has little meaning for them. The idea of a career change or life change can be deeply frightening, and act like a trigger or a multiplier to an existing depression.
Meaning is one of those things that depressed people usually feel they lack in their lives. “Feelings of worthlessness” is always on those checklists of depression symptoms. A life that feels meaningless, feels worthless. And while that feeling of a meaningless, worthless life is often the illusion that depression projects, with many lawyers, there’s some hard, cold reality behind it. The objective, logical, detached thinking that law demands often silences that need many of us have for meaning in our work and lives. Meaning lives in our emotions, not our logic.
What Meaningful Looks Like
Exactly what is meaningful differs for each person. Some of my clients find work more meaningful when they are out in the field working directly with clients or witnesses, rather than in the office enduring conference calls. Others find meaning by communicating an important message well in a brief. Many lawyers enjoy and find meaning in helping a client achieve a goal that feels worthy to them—keeping a client out of jail, helping an entrepreneur avoid a regulatory quagmire that would have doomed a really super business idea, or vindicating a client whose intellectual property was stolen by a competitor.
If your work doesn’t carry some inherent meaning for you, that lack can be the trigger for depression, rather than the symptom of it. If your work actually violates your values—those things that have the most meaning for you—it’s almost sure to send you into a funk eventually. I see that with my clients consistently. They are unhappy, or depressed, because their work lacks meaning for them.
If there exist pieces of a depressed lawyer’s life that hold meaning for them, that’s a relatively easy fix—find ways to increase the size of those pieces in their work or life. A lawyer who finds meaning in helping the underdog can add some pro bono work. Someone who values interacting and collaborating with people can volunteer to do training or mentoring. (The list of people who need mentoring is endless—less experienced lawyers, homeless or economically disadvantaged people who need basic job searching skills, at-risk youth, and college students trying to find their niche are just a few ideas.) Sometimes simply cutting back on hours and spending time with family and friends will add meaning.
Many times, though, it’s the work itself that lacks meaning, no matter how the unhappy lawyer slices it or tries to re-arrange his or her work life. Particularly when that lawyer is ignoring her or his creative side, routine legal work will never have enough meaning to combat unhappiness or depression.
Ignore Those Creative Urges at Your Peril
All humans are born with a great capacity for some type of creative work, whether that be problem-solving, developing innovative products or approaches to business, or some type of self-expression such as writing, painting or performance. We tend to see creativity as the making of art, but it’s much more than that. It’s seeing old problems with a new set of eyes, of wondering “what if we tried doing it this different way . . .? What could make this better . . . ?”
Law, in contrast, values applying the same old solutions to new problems. That’s the DNA of law. For those with a creative bent, that DNA can feel like a death knell to meaning in their lives.
Lawyers whose creative gifts are centered around problem-solving will find it easier to add meaning to their work life in law, but lawyers whose creative gifts revolves around self-expression or making new things will have a hard slog of it. The greater your creative gifts, the harder it is to endure work without creative meaning. Your soul protests vehemently and doesn’t really care about what society thinks about stable, large paychecks.
What does that vehement protest look like? Often, depression. I don’t for a moment think that every depressed lawyer is a blocked creative—but many are, if my clients are any indication. Once they start getting in touch with that creativity, their lives go from stuck to moving. When they start adding that thing that has deep meaning for them—creating in some form—their depression often lifts or lessens markedly.
The hardest thing, as anyone who suffers from depression knows, is getting started. So start small. Add meaning in tablespoons, and suddenly you will find it in your life by the gallon.
Here are a few ways you could start to add meaning to your life:
If you find meaning in problem-solving, get some Legos and figure out how to build a tree, a piano or whatever appeals to you. (Legos, incidentally, are now way cool. There are Harry Potter and Star War Legos sets, among many other brilliant ones. You could start with a kit and go from there.)
If you find meaning in beauty, add some to your life. Put some art on the walls, or find a lovely object you can put on your desk or a bookshelf you look at daily. You could even get some pretty paper and craft some origami. A pretty scarf or unusual tie could add a big lift to your life. Even colorful or unusual office supplies can boost to your creative spirit.
If making something new holds meaning for you, get some polymer clay, sold as Sculpey or Fimo, and comes in a cacophony of colors plus metallic and glittery version, and make a coaster. Or make some worry beads; or whatever else appeals. If you can’t seem to create something for yourself, then do it for a child. Children love presents, period, and they’ll love that you made something just for them.
If kindness and compassion top the meaning scale for you, start slipping a few dollars to a homeless person regularly. Or volunteer monthly at a soup kitchen. Or make it a practice to smile and greet people who look like they’re having a bad day.
Adding meaning to your life can be a lot cheaper than therapy and medication, and have some profound effects. Living a meaningful life can be a powerful part of your arsenal in fighting depression. And the downside? I can’t think of one.
This is a guest blog by Jennifer Alvey. Jennifer is a recovering lawyer and a professional life and career coach, as well as a published writer. She graduated from Duke Law School, where she served on the Duke Law Journal as Articles Editor. Following law school, Jennifer clerked for a federal appeals court and then moved into private practice with a large Washington, D.C. law firm. While at law firm #3, Jennifer began developing her creative talents, and left law to pursue one of her passions, writing. In 2007 she started a blog Leaving the Law.