Martin Seligman, the founder of "positive psychology"1, is the most influential psychologist of our day. Findings from his "happiness research" were prominently featured a recent Time magazine report. Seligman's views about the underlying causes of lawyer unhappiness may prove troubling.

Bing Crosby's 1945 hit song began with these Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen lyrics:
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene.

Over the next fifty years, this corny but vital message seemed all but forgotten by the mental health community.

Enter University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, the father of the "positive psychology" movement. Past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman was a principal contributor to the recent Time magazine report on "happiness"2. In a 2003 videotaped address3, Seligman outlined the basics of positive psychology:
  1. For the past fifty years, traditional psychotherapy has been preoccupied with healing brokenness. Like a lopsided parent, psychotherapy has focused primarily on correcting wrongs, rather than helping build positive strengths and happy lives.
  2. Psychotherapy has followed the money. Over the past fifty years, the Veterans Administration and the National Institute of Mental Health have targeted some $20 billion in research grants to alleviate mental illness. Consistent with its funding, modern psychotherapy has adhered to a "disease model" of negative emotional experience. Psychotherapists have become, in Seligman's words, largely "victimologists" and "pathologizers".
  3. Preoccupied with making miserable people less miserable, psychotherapists have neglected the role of positive emotions, passing up important opportunities to help relatively untroubled people build lives of authentic happiness.
  4. Negative emotions—fear, sadness and anger—are win-lose "firefighting" emotions, e.g. flee or fight. Fear signals danger; sadness signals loss; anger signals someone threatens us.
  5. Positive emotions— are win-win, motivating us to use our strengths enhance, create and build.
  6. Positive emotions can be stored as "psychological capital" and called upon later when needed.
  7. Positive emotions jolt us into a different mode of thought. For example, positive emotions have been shown to sharpen physicians' diagnostic skills.
  8. Extremely happy people aren't necessarily richer or healthier or smarter than others. Most extremely happy people are, like Goldie Hawn, are social, ebullient, and relational.
  9. Nevertheless, introverts can be happy. The surest experience of happiness is "flow"4 —when one becomes so completely absorbed that time stops. Flow occurs when our highest skills are closely matched to our highest challenges in work, love, parenting and friendship.
  10. Happy people live longer. In the 1930s, novitiates in a Wisconsin abbey were asked to write down why they wished to become nuns. Two-thirds listed mostly negative emotions, one-third largely positive emotions. The latter lived longer. Interestingly, citizens of Salt Lake City outlive citizens of Las Vegas.
  11. Seligman's research surveyed the major religions and cultures, discovering surprising agreement as to the highest valued virtues:
    • Wisdom and knowledge
    • Courage
    • Love and humanity
    • Justice
    • Transcendence, spirituality and religion
    • Temperance

    Notably missing from this list of highest valued virtues are:
    • Wealth and financial security
    • Business or professional attainment
    • Celebrity and social esteem
    • Personal power and influence.
  12. Though half of our capacity for happiness is hereditary and determined at conception, the other half is influenced by life experience. Seligman claims that lives can be "recrafted" by leveraging our "signature strengths"—there are 24 signature strengths—to reach for those highest valued virtues in the areas of work, love, leisure and parenting.
  13. Seligman's website offers a number of psychological instruments. His VIA Signature Strengths Survey—administered and scored on the Internet—undertakes to identify and measure one's signature strengths. I found the results most interesting.

In his book, Authentic Happiness 5, Seligman devotes several pages to lawyer happiness, or rather lawyer unhappiness—a topic I once explored6.

Seligman notes that lawyers, as a group, are the highest paid profession, but disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy—with unusually high instances of depression, substance abuse, and divorce. He cites three principal contributing factors to current lawyer malaise: pervasive pessimism, limited autonomy, and the win-lose environment.

"Real pessimism views bad events as pervasive, permanent and uncontrollable, while optimists see them as local, temporary, and changeable. Though pessimists under perform in most other callings, only in law, do pessimists seem to excel. Good lawyers try to foresee and forestall every conceivable snare and catastrophe that may occur. This prudent character trait—seeing clearly how badly things may turn out—spills over into their lives. They are more likely to believe they won't make partner, that their spouse is unfaithful, that the economy is headed for disaster, than optimistic persons. As a result, there is a high risk of depression."

A second demoralizing factor is high pressure but low choice. "Decision latitude" is the number of choices one has on the job—or believes one has. Where there are high job demands correlated with low decision latitude, there's a high correlation of coronary disease and depression. Traditionally, these were the hazards of being a secretary or nurse, but of late junior associates in major law firms have been added to the list. Junior associates may have little voice about their work, little or no client contact, and become isolated to the library to generate memos of the partners' choosing.

The third, and principal cause of lawyer unhappiness is the win-loss game.

"American law has… 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 principal ends." In the win-lose game, "lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences: he or she will be depressed, anxious, and angry a lot of the time."

Seligman proposes positive psychology interventions for reducing pessimism among lawyers and for increasing decision latitude in law firms. However, he seems somewhat stumped to suggest an antidote for emotional downside of the win-lose environment. He advocates early detection of young lawyers' "signature strengths" and engaging those positive character traits for the benefit of the firm. But he doesn't offer a remedy for the sometimes disabling side effects of the win-lose environment that is modern law practice. Perhaps lawyers should be consoled by Justice Cardozo's musing: "As to being happy, I fear that happiness is not my line."

Seligman's positive psychology reflects his world-view that evolution has provided our brains with both win-lose and win-win circuitry. Negative emotions protect us against danger—fight or flee. Positive emotions motivate us to build, create, enhance. Our "signature strengths" route us towards the highly valued virtues. In the very long run, far beyond our lifetimes, win-win will prevail. In spite of catastrophic setbacks at times, the net result is positive: witness humanity's evolution from savage, to barbarian, to civilization.

Agree or not, Martin Seligman is the most influential psychologist of our day. His work is worth your time and attention. Start with the VIA Signature Strengths Survey on his website

—Gerald Le Van, June 2005

1 Seligman's latest book is Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (Free Press 2004)

2 Time Magazine, January 17, 2005, pp. A1-A68, summarized by Le Van here.

3 Family Networker Conference 2003

4 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow, Harpers 1991 (pronounced "cheeks sent me high")

5 Chapter 10, pp 177-184

6 Le Van, Lawyers Lives Out of Control: A Quality of Life Handbook, WorldComm Press (1992).

Bookmark & Share