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Another Thing About Happiness

I'm a big fan of Arthur C. Brooks-- he writes a column for The Atlantic magazine about happiness and teaches classes at Harvard on the subject. He's also a great writer. In a recent article Mr. Brooks observed, after a lengthy discussion about neurobiology, that "our natural state is dissatisfaction" (which is where Mick Jagger comes in) -- in other words, we're not exactly hard-wired to be happy.

So, what's the answer? Can we ever be truly happy? The secret (according to Brooks) is to manage our wants. By focusing what we want, instead of what we have, we can give ourselves a chance to lead a more satisfied life. Which is a challenge-- especially for lawyers. We exist to want what our clients want and are trained to fight for what they want. You might say that for most of us lawyers, unhappiness has been institutionalized.

Short-term wins and a shot of dopamine (as well as the praise of our clients and work peers), seem to be the only thing we recognize as happiness. But what about long-term satisfaction? What about long-term happiness? In a profession that consumes many of its own and perversely becomes the very thing that we identify as being (professionally), happiness has become a rare-to-nonexistent commodity. How bizarre. Surely, there must be something we can do-- Mr. Brooks offers three suggestions.

Go from Prince to Sage. Brooks models this particular suggestion around the lives of Thomas Aquinas and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). He concludes his brief explanation with the following advice" I've tried to take a lesson from their lives-- that satisfaction lies not in attaining high status and holding onto it for dear life, but in helping other people-- including by sharing whatever knowledge and wisdom I've acquired".

Make a Reverse Bucket List. This is my favorite bit of advice but it's also the most challenging: "Inevitably, the sources of happiness are 'intrinsic'-- they come from within and revolve around love, relationships and deep purpose. They have little to do with the admiration of strangers. I contrast them with the things on the first list, which are generally 'extrinsic'-- the outside rewards associated with Thomas's list of idols. Most research has shown that intrinsic rewards lead to more enduring happiness than extrinsic rewards".

Get smaller. Brooks tells a wonderful story in sharing this piece of advice and sums it up with the following note: "Each day, I have an item on my to-do list that involves being truly present for an ordinary occurrence". They're all tremendous ideas, but that one really resonates, for me.

His final conclusion eloquently says it all: "Each of us can ride the waves of attachments and urges, hoping futilely that someday, somehow, we will get and keep that satisfaction we crave. Or we can take a shot at free will and self-mastery. It's a lifelong battle against our inner caveman. Often, he wins. But with determination and practice, we can find respite from that chronic dissatisfaction and experience the joy that is true human freedom".



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