The Power of Positive Psychology: Part Three

In the first two postings about Positive Psychology on Sept. 24 and Oct. 8, we introduced its application to lawyers and law students and briefly discussed some relatively simple steps that can lead to more satisfaction and sustainable happiness in law school and life in general.

In addition to practicing gratitude, performing acts of kindness and taking care of your body, there are some additional, more theoretical ways to combat the anxiety that can potentially derail the best laid law school plans.

The two I’d like to focus on today are the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions, and Learned Optimism.

Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina developed Broaden and Build, which theorizes that while negative emotions like anxiety and anger focus the mind and body on very specific action, positive emotions broaden a person’s capability for creativity and better cognitive organization.

A simple, yet interesting study on Broaden and Build involved researchers asking three groups of expert doctors to perform a difficult diagnosis. One group was given a small gift before the diagnosis to induce a positive emotion, another group was given a statement to read about humanistic medicine, and the third was a control.

The group receiving the gift gave the correct diagnosis about twice as fast and displayed much more creativity and intellectually flexibility. Other similar studies have shown that positive emotions are powerful enough to undo the negative effects of anxiety-ridden situations quickly and at a cardiovascular level.

If positive emotions have the potential to improve your thinking and your ability to manage stress, what’s the specific application of Broaden and Build to law schools? Perhaps it’s this, as stated by researchers Todd Peterson and Elizabeth Peterson in Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression:

To put it bluntly, students who spend three years in law school focused solely on work, at the expense of time spent with family and friends, recreation, personal hobbies, and other activities that might induce positive emotion, seem to be putting their personal happiness at risk, decreasing their psychological resilience, and perhaps even limiting their cognitive ability.

Learned Optimism relates back to our discussion in part one of this series of the “pessimistic explanatory style” of law student research subjects. As you’ll recall, such a style attributes pervasive and permanent causes to negative events, while someone with an optimistic explanatory style views negatives happenings as short lived bumps in the road.

Pessimists typically cope worse in high stress situation, are in poorer health and are at higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders. Also, in the vast majority of studies pessimists perform worse then optimists. It’s true for insurance salesman, college students, military cadets, athletes, and the list goes on and on.

One glaring performance exception? Law students! In a study by Dr. Martin Seligman and his colleagues, the law students that displayed a pessimistic explanatory style outperformed their optimistic peers. In fact, in all of the studies conducted by psychologists on the link between explanatory style and academic performance, the only academic setting where a pessimistic explanatory style has been linked to improved performance is law school.

Why? The researchers theorized:

Perhaps under the more rigorous demands and specific intellectual requirements of law school, diligent students who develop a sense of healthy skepticism are the highest achievers. In fact, careful attention to detail, considering all sides of an argument, seeing all potential pitfalls or catastrophes, attention to precedent rather than salutatory creativity, and thoroughness are typically seen as important traits for the successful lawyer.

So what’s a law student to do? Does teaching optimism to law student adversely affect the development of their ability to “think like a lawyer?” The application of this research probably relates more to the challenge of encouraging law students to turn off, or at least dial down, a pessimistic explanatory style during time away from law school.

As Seligman states, “The challenge, often unmet, is to remain prudent and yet contain this [pessimistic] tendency outside the practice of law.” After all, a pervasive pessimistic explanatory style—even in the face of improved academic performance—is still associated with all of the increased risks described above.

As Todd Peterson and Elizabeth Peterson summarize:

It is a truism in the legal world that lawyers have a hard time turning off their legal skills when they come home from work. Most litigators have had the experience of being told they were “deposing” their children as they asked them about their day around the dinner table. Personal disputes and interactions do not go well when carried out with lawyerly analytical precision. Law students find out quickly that their relationships with people outside of law school suffer when they identify a tort or breach of contract in every interaction.

Learned Optimism is a life skill that should be employed to ward off anxiety and depression. In his book Authentic Happiness, Dr. Seligman discusses a number of techniques through which an individual can develop an optimistic explanatory style. He labels them “Learning to Argue with Yourself.”

One example that should appeal to law students and lawyers is disputing a negative belief by proving through evidence that it’s factually incorrect. So if you perform poorly on an exam, rather than assuming you’ll never prosper in law school, ask what you could have done differently to prepare for that particular test. Think about other instances in which you performed well. Ask what factors were unique to the poor exam and understand that one grade will not mean the difference between success and failure in law school.

As Seligman notes, Learned Optimism is about accuracy. It’s about searching for solid evidence that disputes notions of catastrophe and permanent negativity.