Why it’s so hard to keep people happy, including in-house lawyers

Humans just aren’t built to be happy, according to the Wall St. J., May 2, 2007 at D1. Evolutionists say we are built to survive and reproduce, with “the promise of happiness … just a trick to jolly us along.” Sociologists say our beliefs on happiness are personal codes that keep society functioning. Even if happiness is somewhat in our control, there are limits (See my posts of March 23, 2006 on neurophysiology; April 15, 2007 on unhappiness in law departments; and three on our inherited “happiness set points” – April 15, 2007; March 8, 2006; and Jan. 13, 2006 #2.)

Whatever the reasons, we have problems staying happy. Here are four of them. (1) “People emphasize differences that are easy to observe ahead of time and forget about the similarities.” So, for example, people in a law department may think that a business casual policy will give them joy, in part because they forget that they still have to choose what to wear and will compare themselves to others. (2) “We fail to anticipate how quickly we will adapt to improvements in our lives.” The pleasure of the assigned, in-door parking spot wears off quickly and we take the privilege for granted (See my post of Dec. 22, 2005 on the hedonic treadmill of income.).

(3) We don’t accurately recall how the last change really felt. “We work devilishly hard to get that next promotion, because we’re sure it will leave us elated. We forget that, when we last got promoted, it was a bit of a letdown.” Finally, (4) we rely too much on the opinions of others, yet they justify their own decisions (See my post of April 5, 2007 on cognitive dissonance), instead of watching their actual behavior. The general counsel talks about being fulfilled, but watch how often he or she is grumpy, harassed, or despondent (See my post of Nov. 16, 2005 on experience sampling and episode reconstruction.).

Setting aside faith, the secular drivers of what happiness there is are largely predictable (See my posts of Nov. 25, 2006 and Dec. 9, 2005 on pay, pride and pals and 5 references cited; and Nov. 19, 2005 on morale in Reuters’ law department.).

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