The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Jonathan Rauch on Happiness: Why Life Gets Better After 50

Rauch is one of my favorite writers -- plus I just turned 50, so I suppose I want to believe ....


From Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 (just released by St. Martin's press):

Eugene suggested I post here about my new book, The Happiness Curve. My reaction: sure, but there is not one word about jurisprudence in the book.

On reflection, though, it occurs to me that much in the book is relevant to lawyers. Let me mention a few potentially helpful insights.

The central insight of the book is a recent scientific discovery: for happiness, time matters—but not in the way you probably think.

We generally assume that time is an emotionally neutral background to life: that the clock just ticks along and our circumstances and personalities determine our satisfaction with life. (By happiness, I mean not cheerfulness or any such positive mood, but the larger, more important concept of well-being—feeling satisfied and fulfilled by our lives as a whole.)

The reality turns out to be quite different. Data from millions of people in countries and cultures around the world shows that time is not neutral at all. It is more like a river current, with an independent effect on happiness all its own.

Hearing this, our next assumption may be that time works against happiness. As we age, we have fewer years of life to look forward to, and more years of decline and disability. Wrong again. When researchers factor out all the circumstantial vagaries of life—everything from income and employment to marriage and education—time's independent effect on life satisfaction turns out to be U-shaped, with the nadir (in the U.S.) at roughly age 50. In other words, time fights life satisfaction through midlife, but then it then turns around, helping us feel grateful and fulfilled right through the end of life.

Message to lawyers: high-achieving professionals like you are under a lot of social pressure to seem masterly and invulnerable, especially in your forties and fifties, supposedly at or near the peak of your career. If you are feeling restless, dissatisfied, or trapped, you may be telling no one, not even your spouse. But isolation only makes the problem worse. Reaching out to friends, mentors, and coaches does not come naturally, but it can really help.

Also relevant: when people feel dissatisfied or trapped, they naturally seek a reason. Often, professionals who invest heavily in their careers blame their jobs. But human beings turn out to be quite poor at attributing our unhappiness, and we face a special challenge with midlife malaise, because it is often literally about nothing.

Why? High achievers are wired to be dissatisfied when they meet goals—that is the evolutionary motivation to do the next big thing—but the result is often cumulating disappointment. Year after year of finding success less fulfilling than expected makes us pessimistic about ever finding satisfaction. So we are simultaneously miserable about the past and gloomy about the future. Flailing for an explanation, we fantasize about throwing away our jobs and starting life anew.

Usually, however, disruptive change is a bad idea, because midlife malaise simply accompanies us to the next place. A better strategy is to step, not leap. Change often is warranted, in midlife or any other time, but make it logical and incremental, building on proven strengths and accumulated connections.

Also, be patient. Passage through the bottom of the U is no fun (as I can attest), but the curve tends to turn upward when we least expect it to (there's a scientific explanation, which I'll skip). Often, then, the best thing to do is the simplest. Wait it out.

Finally, another useful finding, one especially relevant to lawyers. Society and genetics conspire to send us chasing status, especially in the first four decades of adulthood. Make partner, earn a lot, win big cases—all of that. But the status chase is self-defeating. It puts us on a hamster wheel, continually craving more: what researchers call the hedonic treadmill.

By contrast, building social capital by fostering friendships, building communities, and helping others gives lasting satisfaction. Researchers find that six factors account for three-fourths of reported wellbeing: social support, generosity, trust, freedom to make important decisions, per capita income, and healthy life expectancy. Notice that four of the six have to do with social interaction.

Unfortunately, law is not very conducive to trusting, positive social interaction. According to the psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, lawyers are more than three times more likely to suffer from depression than the average for employed persons, they suffer from more alcoholism and drug abuse, and more than half describe themselves as dissatisfied.

Why? Happiness depends significantly on optimism, autonomy, and cooperation to solve problems. Law requires its practitioners to imagine and plan for the worst; it subjects them to constant stressful demands from clients and senior colleagues (especially in the early years of practice); and its model is adversarial, what Seligman calls "increasingly a win-loss game."

Of course, your mileage will vary. The takeaway here is not "Don't be a lawyer" (well, at least not necessarily). It is: recognize the toxic elements of legal culture and look for opportunities to supplement or circumvent them.

My father was a lawyer who came home every worn down by stress. "That's why they call it work," he would say. Early in his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, he prided himself on phoning other attorneys (many of whom he knew personally) and finding solutions that saved their clients time and money. As time passed, he said, he said, big firms with aggressive business models steadily diminished the space for cooperative, low-friction lawyering. He quit at the first moment he could.

I don't know exactly what the practice of law is like today, and I suspect generalizing is perilous. But I do know that some environments and assumptions are better for life satisfaction than others, and in law, as elsewhere, there is ample room for improvement.