Dec. 16, 2015 – If finding happiness was easy, “I’d be on midnight television selling it.”
But it’s not, says Dr. Gregory Van Rybroek, a psychologist at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin attorney, and a member of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) Committee.
“It’s really hard to actually hold in your hands something like happiness.”
We all struggle to define it for ourselves and just be happy. And that’s no surprise, says Van Rybroek.
Learn More About What Makes Lawyers Happy
More reading to help you determine what happiness means to you.
“What Makes Lawyers Happy?,” Wisconsin Lawyer, July/August 2014
A national study – including roughly 1,600 Wisconsin lawyers – investigated who in the legal profession is happy, or not, and why they feel that way. What makes lawyers happy? It’s not what many people may think.
“5 Strategies to Make Your Work More Meaningful,” Wisconsin Lawyer, December 2015
To find the true meaning of work, Paula Davis-Laack suggests looking within yourself. Try these five strategies to make your work more meaningful.
“Rethinking Lawyer Motivation and Well-being,” Wisconsin Lawyer, March 2015
Research points to very specific ways that lawyers and law students can build their well-being and stay motivated to practice at high levels. Paula Davis-Laack provides some strategies for doing just that.
“Beyond the Practice of Law: Don’t Lose Sight of Happiness,” InsideTrack, Oct. 13, 2013
Jeff Scott Olson took up the banjo in law school; he knew he needed to do something to relieve the pressure. That was nearly 40 years ago and he’s still strumming along. He discusses living a happy life, even if you are a lawyer.
“‘Happy Lawyer’: Not an Oxymoron,” Wisconsin Lawyer, August 2012
James McNeilly spent many years enduring the practice of law before finally learning how to actually enjoy it. He shares lessons learned over 30 years that might help other lawyers enjoy their practices, too.
“Human beings are about 4 million years old, and many millions of years have been trying to survive, just trying to have food and sustenance and protection.” It’s only now, after millions of years, that we “have the opportunity to talk about higher level things” like happiness.
Those seeking an easy answer or a quick fix will likely be disappointed.
“There really aren’t parts of the brain that actually can be pointed to that we can work on with happiness. It’s much more of an integrated and complex issue.”
And yet, says Van Rybroek, there are strategies that lawyers can implement in their own lives to help them be more mindful and focus on what happiness means to them.
Don’t Try to Out-think It
By nature, lawyers are intelligent and hard working. They have to be to succeed in their profession. However, working to be happy isn’t like working on a client’s brief, cautions Van Rybroek.
“When it comes to happiness, lawyers seem to go to whatever it is that works for them, which is working hard and trying to out-think it. Happiness is one of those slippery topics that just doesn’t work that way.”
“It’s hard for all humans to actually get their mind around what it is.”
Don’t ignore feelings of sadness, gloom, or anxiety, or if you are generally dissatisfied with your personal or professional life.
What’s Good for the Body, Is Good for the Mind
There’s no denying a connection between how we feel physically and our mental health.
Because the two are linked, Van Rybroek recommends exercise as a way to improve how you feel. Simply put, “our brains like that.”
Moreover, lawyer should work to avoid problematic substances like drugs and alcohol that are harmful to our bodies, and therefore our outlook on life.
Money Isn’t the Answer
Linking happiness to financial gain or material possessions is another distraction, says Van Rybroek. While money is important to securing our basic comforts, more money does not mean more happiness.
“The research says at about the $75,000 level, if you have that much money, you don’t really need more money, and if you want more money … you won’t get well-being from it. You have to move into other areas that have to do with personal interest.”
Happiness Starts with Fulfillment
OK, let’s say you acknowledge your feelings, exercise regularly, and earn enough to be reasonably comfortable. But you still aren’t happy. What can a lawyer do?
“What makes people happy generally is that they have an interest in something,” says Van Rybroek.
If “we don’t feel any kind of meaning in our life, even though it’s important in the eyes of somebody else,” we will still feel unhappy.
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“Lots of times [this feeling] has to do with contradictions and problems that we have with how we spend our time,” says Van Rybroek.
Therefore, lawyers who have an interest in something “ought to be spending more time on that because they have a greater sense of fulfillment.”
Help Yourself by Helping Someone Else
Lawyers seeking a higher degree of personal fulfillment will find it by helping someone else, says Van Rybroek.
“If you really want to get into the happy world at a deeper level, then we have to get outside of ourselves and think about other people … Say it any way you want, but let’s call it altruism.”
“Doing something meaningful that has to do with others, that is helpful to them, is actually helpful to us.”
In that way, happiness is tricky, says Van Rybroek.
“We like to think it can be chased and caught, but actually it isn’t anything that can be chased. Ecclesiastes says ‘happiness is like chasing the wind.’ The point is, you can’t catch the wind. It’s not something that we can chase around at all, it’s something that actually lands on us when we do things that mean something to us and really is the byproduct of how we spend our time.”
“And that’s really easy to say right now, difficult to pull off in the daily sense for all people.”
But it’s a struggle worth having knowing that you’ll be happier for it.
Dr. Gregory Van Rybroek presented, “The Slipperiness of Happiness: Can Attorneys Capture Well-being?” at the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® Health, Labor, and Employment Law Institute, Aug. 20-21, 2015.