Lawyer-Leadership through Happiness: Harnessing Each Moment

A leader’s happiness alone may serve as an inspiration to others.

Joan MacLeod Heminway

Interim Director of the Institute for Professional Leadership

Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law

University of Tennessee College of Law

Leadership, like mindfulness practices, involves understanding that each moment is unique.  Each moment offers a new opportunity to develop a new and powerfully positive habit, to reach out to someone and form a new human bond, to refocus energy and attention on what is good and what is right.  Each moment offers a new opportunity to lead and be happy—and the two are related.

A few years ago, Rajeev Peshawaria authored a piece in Forbes entitled Happiness: The Most Important Pre-condition for Powerful Leadership.  In that article, he notes that “research now shows  . . . the happiest people make the best leaders . . . .  In fact, the best leaders put their own interest ahead of others and are happy as a result of doing so.”  He offers that effective leadership is not, then, about sacrifice, but instead about choice.  Each moment offers an opportunity to choose happiness—to choose what to emphasize or de-emphasize to make us happy.  How do we make these choices?

It turns out there is a host of learning around happiness that provides key insights.  I have been exposed in the past to happiness principles from positive psychology.  Specifically, through a colleague (hat tip to Candice Reed), I have been enlightened about Dr. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (PERMA being an acronym for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment)—five factors important to human flourishing (i.e., happiness and well-being).  I am learning that the PERMA framework exists among other, similar constructs that also have utility in expounding on and contextualizing happiness.

A recent experience offered me a window on one of these additional formulations.  I had occasion to listen to a brief talk given by Harvard University Professor Arthur Brooks.  In that talk, he outlined the three “macronutrients” of happiness: enjoyment (a cognitive processing of pleasure), satisfaction (the joy associated with a job well done), and purpose (a life with meaning—a meaning that is bigger than oneself).  Each of these macronutrients is created in part by the thoughtful use of individual, unique moments (the rest—about 50%–is genetic, according to research cited by Professor Brooks).

In “Choose Enjoyment Over Pleasure,” published in March 2022 in The Atlantic, Professor Brooks explains that enjoyment is a choice by exploring its relationship with pleasure.

Enjoyment and pleasure are terms often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.  Pleasure happens to you; enjoyment is something that you create through your own effort. Pleasure is the lightheadedness you get from a bit of grain alcohol; enjoyment is the satisfaction of a good wine, properly understood. Pleasure is addictive and animal; enjoyment is elective and human.

To cultivate enjoyment, then, a leader can take those unique moments of pleasure and process them to achieve enjoyment as a building block of happiness.

Professor Brooks clarifies that satisfaction also involves choices made in individual moments.  Satisfaction essentially involves getting what one wants.  Accordingly, a key way to achieve greater satisfaction, according to Professor Brooks, is to decrease one’s wants (rather than increasing one’s haves).  He explains this in a February 2022 column in The Atlantic, “How to Want Less.”

The secret to satisfaction is not to increase our haves—that will never work (or at least, it will never last). That is the treadmill formula, not the satisfaction formula. The secret is to manage our wants. By managing what we want instead of what we have, we give ourselves a chance to lead more satisfied lives.

Managing wants involves re-evaluating and controlling what we desire from moment to moment.  The blind pursuit of wants is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Finally, Professor Brooks suggested in his talk that finding one’s purpose results from knowing why one is here on the Earth and what one is willing to die for.  For me, these are uncomfortable questions to answer.  Among other things, a response requires admitting one is unsure of their true purpose on Earth and facing one’s own actual mortality.  On the positive side, however, I sense that answering these two questions involves considering, in each relevant moment, two highly relevant things that define each of is: who we are (including our individual core character strengths and personality attributes and an appreciation of what I offer to the world) and what we believe (what our values are—especially those that we are unwilling to compromise).  I also sense that there is great benefit in life and leadership to working through both questions.

One can posit many reasons why a happy leader is an effective leader. 

A leader’s happiness alone may serve as an inspiration to others. A leader’s positivity can be contextually transformational.  A happy leader may be a motivational asset in marriage, parenting, community service, and other work.  In a profession plagued by substance abuse,mental and emotional health concerns, and burnout, a lawyer-leader’s happiness may create a more positive, healthy professional work environment. To achieve these objectives, however, it is imperative that a lawyer-leader’s happiness be genuine.  False or fleeting happiness is easily noticeable and can ruin credibility.

A happy leader may even serve as a model for their team, generating happiness in others.  This is significant not only because happy families and other personal relationships are desirable, but also because happiness has the capacity to increase team performance in the workplace.  Researchers from Saïd Business School at Oxford University identified a positive relationship between worker happiness and productivity—finding that “workers are 13% more productive when happy.”  Leading as a happy lawyer is a laudatory goal, a gift we can give ourselves and others in this holiday season filled with joy and promise for the coming new year.  If we understand more about the science of happiness, we can take meaningful strides to achieve it in our personal and professional lives, making us more effective, more sustainable personal and professional leaders.  By taking advantage of each inimitable moment to consciously establish the three core building blocks of happiness identified by Professor Brooks (enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose), we can better lead as lawyers.

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