We are in the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression. Many more people have lost “wealth” from the stock market declines than did so during the Great Depression, and, like that seminal event, this downturn seems to be affecting many nations simultaneously.Several months ago, I committed to lead a session on “Beyond Money” at a Tennessee Bar Association continuing legal education seminar in April. The seminar is aimed at managing partners for some of the larger law firms in the state. So, I have been thinking about this topic for a while.
Of course, I also think about the other profession with which I often work: K-12 educators. Though, on average, public school teachers make more per week than public lawyers (district attorneys, public defenders, legal services lawyers, etc.), they do not have the chance of incomes like top end attorneys. My older son is just completing his second year in the Teach Kentucky program and is strongly considering a career in public education, but he could still go a different route. So I also think about how this profession is affected by the current situation.
For both areas, I think that this downturn may offer a real opportunity for gains in well-being. Here is why. First, let’s consider the effect of money on happiness. Drawing from the excellent chapter on this topic in Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas Diener, here seem to be the basics from the rather extensive body of research:
- Happiness broadens and builds the capacities and connections for success (Fredrickson). So, we should not assume wealth is the cause when we look at correlations between wealth and well-being.
- That said, wealth does seem to correlate with happiness, with increases in annual income being highly correlated with increased well-being up to a middle class life-style. After that, some studies have shown a leveling off; others indicate a continuing increase. This is, however, a tricky area.
- However, “materialists” who value income and wealth above things such as relationships, competence, and autonomy are generally less happy than those for whom wealth is a lesser value. Diener and Biswas Diener write, “That’s right: although having money proves to be a boon to happiness, wanting money too much can detract from it!” (p. 102.)
While I was traveling last week, two front-page stories in USA Today caught my eye. One commented on how some individuals are responding to the troubles with acts of kindness. The other was on how the tough times are inspiring increased interest in community service. Perhaps times of great economic gains make us focus on not getting left behind. When everyone talks about gains in the stock market or when the most-in-demand lawyer salaries are hitting a $1,000 an hour, it can seem risky not to focus on increasing wealth. There’s too much to be lost. For those who have chosen careers without great earning potential, it is hard for them not to look at those getting wealthy and feel they have given up too much.
This downturn, however, can be an opportunity to reconsider the priority of goals for financial gain. Law firms tend to be managed solely based on some metric like “Profits per Partner.” Certainly few (if any) large firms measure the well-being or the morale of partners, much less of associates, paralegals, secretaries and other support staff. Some years ago, it might have been possible to argue that such things were “unmeasurable”, but not today. The tools of positive psychology make it possible to measure such critically important sources of psychological wealth. The question I pose to leaders of firms is this: Would you like to leave behind a firm where you’d be glad to see your grandchildren start to work? I have written before about the psychological suffering of lawyers, including the highest depression rates of any profession, high levels of drinking as a coping behavior, anxiety, hostility, etc. Now might be a great time to make gains in these areas — and, yes, those gains CAN be made while still practicing law
This downturn may also be an opportunity for teachers to re-think any envy of those who have been pursuing wealth. Beyond that, the world of education might well learn some of the same lessons I have suggested for lawyers. Even though the relationships between adults have been shown to be critically important to student learning, there is often too little concern for well-being, morale and engagement. In talking to young teachers (and to the parents of young teachers) it is usually not the demands of learning to teach nor the financial aspects of the job that bother them. It is how they are treated by school and district administrators, and the way they see others treated. These experiences and observations can leave them uncertain about teaching as a desirable profession.
Of course, public education today feels “under the gun” of test-based accountability. Just as some law firm administrators cannot imagine taking their eyes off profits-per-partner to think about community and well-being, some school administrators ignore hope, optimism, relationships, and strengths to focus solely on test scores. Neither is a sustainable approach. Profits-per-partner does not make for the best lawyering, and test-score obsession does not make for the best teaching.
Given the huge gains in income that upper-level private lawyers have experienced over the past two decades, a leadership approach that took a positive psychology view of “wealth” probably would not result in greater profits-per-partner. Today’s levels are based on management practices and personal work/life balance decisions that are probably incompatible with well-being. But I suspect such an approach would result in more partners, associates, paralegals, secretaries and support staff achieving a greater sense of overall well-being, even if, for some of the lawyers, it meant a drop in income.
For schools, however, this is to me a no-brainer. Great schools are great places for people. They are places where adults and students find engagement, valued relationships, a sense of control over their own lives (autonomy), and frequent experiences of competence. For school leaders, the current path of focusing on test scores is lose-lose; they don’t get the test score gains they seek and they lose out on these greater factors of success. School leaders have a real opportunity for a win-win solution — focusing on optimism, resilience, energy, strengths and relationships can also mean getting better test scores!
So, is it possible that our current economic troubles might help two professions improve? Two that I care about and that are critically important to our society? That is my audacity of hope!
Diener, E. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive . New York: Crown.