Happiness is a Currency

... or at least it should be


Happiness is a Currency

What if there were small, simple steps you could take to make your life, and the lives of those around you, longer, healthier, more enjoyable, and more productive? It turns out you can, just by being happier. You can also take steps to create happiness directly. We’ve also learned that much of what western, capitalist, colonial social norms tell us will lead to happiness, is wrong.

The science of happiness is emerging, and despite being a relatively young area of study, a number of prescriptive recommendations are being developed. Progress in the science of happiness is led in part by the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. A PSA for us lawyers who, as a profession, have long struggled with substance use and mental health issues: there are courses available on the online learning platform EdX, right now, one for free, where you can learn about the science of happiness from world-leading experts (CPD approved). Berkeley says these courses have led to lasting increases in happiness for students while decreasing stress.

In the remainder of this article, I am going to summarize some of the broad-strokes learning available in those courses, and discuss what we, as a profession, and as actors in the justice system, might do with those lessons.

What you may or may not realize while reading this, is that there are two largely accepted, very different, and likely dichotomous philosophies of happiness. On one end is the sort of happiness with which many common-law lawyers are most likely familiar. This idea of happiness has to do with immediate, hedonistic gratification (or, equivalently, the desire to achieve what in western society we often call “success”): more money, bigger house, more esteem, awards, recognition, etc. The other, which is more frequently epitomized by eastern philosophy, has to do with living a “good life.” At the extreme, this latter philosophy says that “happiness” can only be achieved at the end of life, by looking back at a life well lived.

Lawyers, one might argue, are very often type-A, success-oriented people. That is generally a positive trait in folks interconnected with a foundational social institution — it makes us (hopefully) conscientious, hard-working and accountable. The problem might be our definition of “success.”

Let me share with you some antecedents of happiness. Determine for yourself how many of these are present in your archetype of success: moderate-intensity exercise, enough sleep, achievement socially and professionally, meaningful social connection, giving and receiving kindness, mindfulness, gratitude, and prosocial behaviour (compassion, empathy, altruism, etc.).

When I look at that list, I don’t see making the most money, having the most Twitter followers, or having the nicest house. What I do see are a number of qualities and attitudes that are not only devalued or deemed irrelevant in capitalist society generally, but especially in the adversarial duties into which we as a profession are pushed.

Perhaps the substance use and mental health issues we deal with are a reflection of the system and the professional culture in which we work. Perhaps we, as a profession, need to be learning more about happiness. Should we be looking toward happiness-focused dispute-resolution, instead of the type of dispute resolution shown in “Marriage Story” (Netflix), which is unfortunately reminiscent of British Columbia.

Maybe happiness is the currency we should be chasing. And maybe if we focus on happiness, the money and other resources will take care of themselves. Maybe we should insist on behaviour from our colleagues that is compassionate and kind. Perhaps we should refuse to take instructions from clients that violate those ethics. What would happen if, as lawyers, we all, collectively, insisted? How would our world change? How quickly?

Maybe money really can’t buy happiness. Maybe we should value the things that bring happiness over money.

Just a thought.