The power of positive psychology: part one

The recession is lingering like an unwelcome house guest. The legal job market is improving, but slower than anyone wants. The honeymoon stage of the fall semester is over. Law school reading assignments are likely piling up. Days are getting shorter.

What’s a stressed out law student to do? How can you cope with pressures of law school while maintaining some semblance of a balanced life?

Psychologists in the field of Positive Psychology study exactly these questions and lucky for us, some have even turned their attention to the well being of lawyers and law students.

In a three-part blog series, we’ll hone in on some on the tenants of Positive Psychology, which is simply the study of conditions that lead to optimal functioning. Put another way, it’s a shift in focus from a traditional psychology model of bringing individuals from -5 to zero to getting them from zero to +5.

Last year, a law professor at George Washington and a psychology researcher from the University of Pennsylvania collaborated on an article called Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology (www.abajournal.com/uploads/2010/06/PetersonArticle.pdf).

What they discovered, and what other researchers in the field have confirmed, is that lawyers are almost four times more likely to suffer depression than employed persons in general. Law students are more anxious and depressed than the general population, and even when compared to medical students.

These levels of depression and anxiety appear to increase during law school, contrary to popular belief. And law students show a higher regular use of alcohol and drugs than high school and college graduates of the same age.

What’s going on? Is the Socratic method to blame? The famously strenuous workload? The competition?

The authors of Stemming the Tide theorize that none of these easy targets are actually to blame. They cite research that identifies the problem, at least in part, as a shift in the motivation and values of law students away from community service and values and toward a focus on appearance and things. Research suggests that many law students begin to pursue goals less for their own enjoyment (intrinsic motivation) and more to meet the expectations of others (extrinsic motivation).

Other Positive Psychology researchers have pointed to the prevalence of a pessimistic explanatory style in law students as the underlying factor in student depression. Such an explanatory style attributes the causes of negative events to stable, persistent, global factors rather than those that are temporary and changeable. In other words, a reaction of “It’s going to last forever and undermine everything” rather than “It’s not that bad, and it will get better.”

The question then becomes harder to answer—if law students are at risk of depression, what can they do to better set the table for happiness? What makes people happy?

In our next Career Services blog posting, I’ll suggest some specific, practical ways of coping with the rigors of law school that have nothing to do with taking good notes or preparing more diligently for class. And in our final posting in the series, we’ll tackle a trio of more theoretical but equally effective ways of moving from zero to plus five. Throughout these two postings, the focus will be on openly acknowledging and combating the two problems identified by the relevant research—(1) a shift in motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic and (2) a pessimistic explanatory style.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services

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