Since early November, I have been giving a series of positive-psychology-based continuing legal education (CLE) seminars across Tennessee. Starting last month, I was also advertising for and interviewing candidates for Associate Director for the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization. Like peanut-butter-and-jelly, these two endeavors mixed deliciously.
In the seminar, Lawyering and the Good Life, one of the points I make is that we have an anti-positivity bias. We can see it in quotations such as:
- “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Ernest Hemingway
- “One of the indictments of civilizations is that happiness and intelligence are so rarely found in the same person.” William Feather, author & publisher 1896-1981
- “To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.” Gustave Flaubert
We don’t give much credence to the importance of happiness. It is viewed as not serious, trivial, ephemeral, and generally just too darn “fluffy” for sophisticated, intelligent folks. Think this overstates the case? Then consider this: a recent Google search for the phrase “fat, dumb, and” came up with 220,000 hits. A search for “fat, dumb, and happy” returned 212,000 hits. So, 97% of the time we fill in the blank for “fat, dumb, and ________”, we fill it in with “happy.” Not a rousing endorsement of happiness, is it?
Not only do we equate “happy” with “airhead”, but we also equate negativity with intelligence. A Harvard Business School Researcher recently found that subjects who read book reviews that were critical of the book reviewed tended to rate the authors of those reviews as more intelligent and more expert than did subjects who read reviews that were positive, even though the positive reviews were rated by independent judges as having higher quality and greater forcefulness. Probably as a result of this bias, many managers and other professionals utilize criticism, problem-finding, and general netativity as an approach to leadership. Put that way, it doesn’t sound all that smart, does it?Positive psychology researchers have shown that happy, optimistic, hopeful individuals, in addition to living longer and healthier lives and having better relationships, also are more successful. Put them in an organization that supports and channels that positivity into engaging, meaningful work, and the effects are multiplied. Attracting talented, capable, productive individuals is key in any organization. Larry Bossidy, who served as CEO of Honeywell International, Allied Signal, and GE Credit, has written that he ordinarily spent 20% of his time on people processes when things were going well, and as much as 40% when re-building. So, what attracts talented, productive people? That’s where my seminar experience comes back in.
In the seminar, I get to spend several hours explaining the benefits of positivity and providing information on how the participants can build positive emotions, positive thought patterns, and positive relationships. Apparently, participants associate the message with the messenger. One participant asked me, “Were you this happy when you were practicing law?” And, although we may think that being negative is a good way to show “smarts”, being positive seems be a better way to attract talent. I received many applications for the Associate Director’s job — not surprising when you consider that over 5,000 attorneys received emails about their CLE status shortly after the position opened that also contained a notice of our search. But one I received shortly after a seminar was from an applicant whose experience and credentials were less than my finalists. When I emailed back that I would be interviewing these applicants first, I received this response:
“Thank you for the update. In all honesty, I am very happy with ________. I attended your CLE program, “Lawyering and the Good Life,” and came away thinking that if I ever had the chance to work with you, I’d have to go for it. So, when I saw the AD announcement, I had to take the chance.”
The common wisdom is right. Negativity can make us look smart. But, ultimately, the effort and discipline of focusing on the positives in ourselves, others, and the situation gets more done. And, it attracts others to us and our efforts.