Lots of students are starting law school for the first time. Although they may not know it yet, they are heading into a set of experiences that many find extraordinarily toxic. Studies going back more than 15 years have repeatedly shown that law students suffer significant negative psychological changes during law school. Although they look much like other undergraduates coming in, by the end the first year 30% are depressed, and it goes to 40% by the end of law school. Drinking as a coping behavior goes up. Anxiety, hostility and paranoia increase. And, there is a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivations for practicing law. In other words, students go from wanting to do good to wanting to get the goods. And these trends continue into practice where lawyers lead the professions in the rate of depression.
However, beyond just avoiding bad things, recent research in positive psychology suggests reasons to maintain a positive emotional space. In general, we are more creative, better able to connect with others, more action oriented, more helpful, and better leaders when we are experiencing significantly more positive than negative emotions. This is Barb Fredrickson's "Broaden and Build" explanation of the results that have been found in positive psychology. Basically, this theory states that the evolutionary function of positive emotions is to help us broaden our thought/action repertoire and build psychological and social capital.
Here are some positive psychology suggestions to help navigate the experience:
#1. Other people matter.Pay attention to relationships. If you are in law school in the same area where you did your undergraduate work, stay plugged in with your friends, including those who aren’t in law school. If not, start looking for ways to build a set of friends both inside and beyond the law school. Friends are important to your health and success – and they help to make life worth living. If you are married, you are likely newly married. Work on the relationship. For ways to improve both friendships and marriages, I recommend the work of John Gottman. Also check out Tom Rath's Vital Friends.
#2. Sustain your positive emotional base (or, how to stay happy).I don't have the space here to go into all of the research findings that support Dr. Fredrickson's "Broaden and Build" work, but it is very clear that frequent and sustained positive emotions are important not only for well-being, but for health, relationships, and success in work and life. If you want a baseline for how happy you are now, take the “Authentic Happiness Index” at www.authentichappiness.org.
Several of the suggestions here will work to increase and sustain positive emotions, but one simple and pleasurable activity is called "Three Good Things." This activity has been proven to boost happiness and decrease depression in a large scale, placebo-controlled study. At the end of each day, take a few minutes to write down three good things that happened that day, why each one happened, and what you had to do with it. They can be big things or small; experiential, relational, or professional. Over time, your writings may become the source of some insight into how you approach life and the types of events you tend to notice, but don't overthink this one. Write ‘em down and go to bed!
#3. Remember your strengths – ALL your strengths. Law school has a tendency to focus on only a very limited range of strengths, mostly centered on verbal skills and analytical thinking. While important for legal analysis and reasoning, there are many other vitally important strengths for leadership, organizational and personal growth, building meaning, and other important tasks in life and in the law. Many of us don’t know our own strengths very well because they seem so, well, unexceptional. Within our strength patterns, we act effortlessly and almost flawlessly. We think very little about the excellence of our contributions and frequently assume such behavior carries little value. But positive psychology research has shown than utilizing our strengths in new ways can make us happier, healthier, and more successful. And by learning more about our strengths, we learn to see strengths in others, and that boosts #1 above.
To help you recognize some strengths you may have taken for granted, here are two resources:
The Values in Action Signature Strengths Survey www.authentichappiness.org. This is a 240-item questionnaire that will take you around 35 minutes to complete. This instrument produces a rank ordering of 24 character strengths that have been ubiquitously-valued around the world for 3000 years. Others will feel uplifted when you're acting from your strengths and therefore like you better, and you will be happier. Thus, using strengths works to build your well-being and that of those around you in multiple ways. From your top-listed strengths, pick the 3, 4, or 5 that seem really “you” and each week think of a new way to exercise one of them. This effort has been proven to reliably increase happiness for most individuals, and it is fun! Do it in combination with a friend to build the relationship. $0
Strengthsfinder 2.0.This tool focuses on a set of action strengths that matter in the workplace, as opposed to the strengths of being, or character, that are the focus of the VIA. The book provides background information on the development of Gallup's strengths survey instrument and an access code to take the online questionnaire. The book also provides a brief chapter on each of the 35 strengths of action. $12.
#4. Watch your explanatory style. Each of us tends to explain the good and bad things that happen to us throughout each day. Little things and big things, we explain them all. We are generally unaware of this running explanatory commentary in our heads, but it is there, and we tend to follow patterns. To learn your style, take the "Optimism Test" at www.authentichappiness.org.
Those with a positive explanatory style assign me/always/everything causal explanations to the good things that happen in their lives and out there/only that/over and done with (or “not me/not always/not everything”) explanations to bad events. This leads to greater resilience, greater productivity in business and sports, better marriages and other relationships, and other good things. Of course, accurate thinking is the goal, and for many of us that means seeing the causes that our primary explanatory style tends to hide from us. But, in ambiguous circumstances, go with the positive style – it tends to work better.
Because of the high incidence of depression in law school and the practice, explanatory style is especially important. Depression tends to return and multiple bouts can lead to long-term susceptibility and serious health consequences. Plus, frankly, depression sucks. Don’t go there if you can help it. And you can help it. Developing and maintaining a positive explanatory style (“optimism”) has been shown to drastically reduce the likelihood of depression. And optimism energizes and enables. If your Optimism Test shows you in the pessimistic range, buy a book and get started! You can change.
#5. Exercise.Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard, summarizes the research on the relationship of exercise to depression by saying, “Exercising is not like taking an anti-depressant. Not exercising is like taking a depressant." Extremes aren’t needed. Thirty minutes of brisk walking three times a week is enough.
#6. Do steps 1-5 with friends. Other people matter. All of these efforts are easier, more fun, and more productive with a friend or friends. Doesn’t have to be the same person or group in each area, but think about inviting others to join you. Maybe a reading group to read and work through The Resilience Factor. Maybe some friends to hike, run, play ball or otherwise exercise with. Doing Three Good Things with a significant other will build that relationship. Same for finding new ways to engage your strengths together. Ask someone!
#7. Remember (or find out) why you want to be a lawyer. I mentioned above that one of the effects of law school is that students (especially those who get better grades) tend to switch from intrinsic (internally valued and rewarded) to extrinsic (externally valued and rewarded) goals. This can mean a switch from wanting to go into public interest law to choosing to go to a large firm. It can mean a switch from wanting to practice in one's home town to going where you are offered the most money. Whatever the switch, if it is driven by values and rewards that come from the outside, not the deepest and most meaningful personal ones, be wary! This switch often comes back to haunt lawyers, sometimes within a few years of starting to practice, sometimes many years later. Either way, it is much harder to switch back once experience and responsibilities have shaped you to a particular position.
If you know why you went to law school, keep it in mind. Learn more about the opportunities in that type of practice. Seek out mentors in the field. Look for folks who are happy, positive, and satisfied with their practice and lives who have done what you want to do and connect with them.
If you don't know why you went to law school, i.e., "because I didn't get in medical school" or "because I couldn't think of anything else to do" or some other vague, unfocused reason that doen't give you a direction to the future, now is a good time to start finding your own vision. I have left this suggestion until last for a reason. You will be much better able to identify your personal values and see a path forward to a practice that is satisfying and sutainable if you are working from a base of positive emotions and relationships. Remember "Broaden and Build"? That's the emotional space you want to be in as you develop a vision for your first years out of law school.
There are other hints, tips, and techniques for building and sustaining well-being, but these are foundational and ongoing. They are offered with best wishes for a great law school experience!