The power of positive psychology: part two

In our last Career Services blog posting, we introduced the field of positive psychology and its potential impact on law students and lawyers. To review, positive psychology is the science of exceptional human performance. Researchers in the field consider a number of questions, and one of the most important and fundamental is – what makes us happy?

Is it money? Prestige in the form of good grades? Status from wealth or material possessions? Education level? Youth?

Positive psychology research would answer in the negative to each of these.

Research by positive psychology pioneers Dr. Edward Diener—aka Dr. Happiness—and Dr. Martin Seligman has shown that once your basic needs are met, additional income does little to raise your sense of satisfaction with life. Neither education nor a high IQ is consistently linked by research to happiness.

According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older people tend to be more satisfied with life than the young and less likely to fall into dark moods.

In an oft-cited study of law students, there was no significant correlation between a lack of distress and age, undergraduate GPA or law school GPA.

So what makes the average law student happy?

Professor Lawrence Kreiger of the Florida State University College of Law and Professor Ken Sheldon of the Department of Psychology of the University of Missouri concluded in their research that law students thrive when the things they value most relate to (1) understanding or improving oneself; (2) being closely connected to other people; (3) helping others; and (4) building community.

Kreiger and Sheldon identified a shift in law students away from activities and behaviors that are inherently enjoyable, meaningful or important and towards extrinsic motivations. As students progress through law school they increasingly report pursing goals to please others. Examples may include impressing others through wealth accumulation, status or prestige, or doing things out of guilt, fear or compulsion. Students who emphasize extrinsic motivation or values tend to experience persistent stress and anxiety and are unlikely to experience sustainable happiness.

Based on positive psychology research, what then are some practical steps law students can take that fit into the intrinsic motivation model that has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and to promote sustainable happiness?

Here are a few suggestions that consistently pop up in the research:

Practice gratitude

  • Write in a gratitude journal, a diary in which you express what you are grateful for every day or week.
  • Write a letter to or visit with someone who has made a difference in your life.

Perform acts of kindness

  • Studies have shown that people receive a greater happiness “boost” by doing good things for others rather than themselves.
  • The acts should be both random (holding a door open for a stranger with an armful of packages) and systematic (participating in a Big Brothers Big Sisters program once a week).
  • These acts make you feel generous and capable and help build connections with others. They also tend to result in reciprocated kindness.

Take care of your body

  • Sleep—7 to 8 hours a night.
  • Exercise—Take a look at KU psychology professor Steve Ilardi’s groundbreaking research about depression, which has shown that of the six factors tracked by Ilardi, exercise has the biggest effect on treating depression.
  • Stretch
  • Smile and Laugh (really)

Law schools are increasing warming to the tenants of positive psychology. In addition to the work of Prof. Lawrence Kreiger at FSU Law, important research into the potential for positive psychology to improve the lives of law students has been completed by Prof. Todd Peterson at the George Washington Law School, and Dan Bowling at Duke University School of Law School has recently begun teaching a for-credit elective called Well-Being and the Practice of Law.

In our final posting in the series, we’ll tackle some additional, more theoretical ways to combat depression and improve the potential for happiness.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services