“Don’t Worry, Be Grateful”
I wish that I could take credit for the title of today’s blog, but they aren’t my words (although I added the comma!). I found them in an article on Anxiety Canada’s website by registered psychologist Dr. Melanie Badali titled “Don’t Worry Be Grateful: Why Being Thankful Isn’t Just for Thanksgiving Day”. We know that practicing gratitude reaps well-being rewards, but have we, as lawyers, considered the role gratitude can play in taming anxiety and enhancing our well-being?
Anxiety is common among lawyers. According to the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants for Legal Professionals, more than one-third of Canadian lawyers and almost half of Canadian articling students experience generalized anxiety. This is not reflective of the Canadian population generally where about 13% experience generalized anxiety. Whether it is nature (the innate characteristics of individuals who choose to attend law school) or nurture (the way we are trained to be), anxiety is a tidal wave looming over many of us.
Dr. Badali is clear that expressing gratitude is not a panacea for anxiety—there is no panacea for anxiety—but her model that anxiety focuses us on the future (worrying about things that might happen) and the past (things that you did that you regret) while expressing gratitude frames us on the present is helpful.
How many lawyers spend their time travelling from work to home—ruminating about their files and interactions that day—and home to work—worrying about what may happen that day? And how often do we recreate situations in our mind where we were less than perfect, reliving moments of disappointment, hurt or humiliation? Sometimes, it feels like we alternate between feeling like masters of the universe, which we sometimes need so that we can stand up for our clients, and feeling woefully inadequate. We worry about which sort of a day we are going to have, with both the past and the future being sources of angst.
Many lawyers descend into negativity as a protective measure—if your expectations are low, you don’t get disappointed. But this may not be a healthy way to live. Researcher Robert Emmons tells us that expressing gratitude affirms that there is good around us. When we express gratitude even though life isn’t perfect, we recognize that good things do happen to us, and health benefits flow from this. But gratitude can also involve sources of the goodness around us that do not come from our own selves and actions—there is an aspect of humility to it.
Here are some of the positive benefits physically, psychologically and socially identified by Dr. Emmons:
- Stronger immune system
- Less bothered by aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- Longer and more refreshed sleep
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- More helpful, generous and compassionate
- More forgiving
- More outgoing
- Feeling less lonely and isolate
Who doesn’t want to be healthier?
And who doesn’t want to be happier?
Research also shows that expressing gratitude causes immediate increases in happiness by 10% and decreases depressive symptoms by 35%. These effects can be triggered quickly but are not permanent, lasting up three to six months, so practicing gratitude once is not the solution—it takes a regular gratitude practice for us to reap gratitude’s benefits on a long-term basis.
Practicing gratitude does not have to take a particular form. You can count your blessings quietly in your head, you can share your list with someone else orally, or you can express it in writing. Some people use gratitude journals and try to outline five (or any other number) of things they are grateful for each day. It is not a rigid practice, and it gets easier the more you do it.
Is a picture worth a thousand words? Here is a wonderful graphic of the relationship between expressing gratitude and happiness:
Not only are the benefits of gratitude internal—our work environments are improved by gratitude, too:
- Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and trigger feelings of closeness and bonding.
- Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more assignments, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team. Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity.
- [Employees who practice gratitude] recognize good work, gives everyone their due importance in the group and actively communicates with the team members.
- Gratitude makes a leader compassionate, considerate, empathetic, and loved among others.
When I was practising law, both in law firms and in corporate legal departments, we didn’t express gratitude much (other than corporate counsel’s ever grateful assertion that not having to bill time was a new lease on life!) We complained a lot, were negative, made cynical comments, speculated on bad things that were likely to happen, and we fed off each other. I now talk to many lawyers and law firms who have turned the corner from this style of negative, cynical lawyering and who are committed to having workplaces with more positive patterns. But these are still the exception and not the norm because we know that old habits die hard.
Our brains can be rewired to notice positives and to practice gratitude—just the same way that working in a negative workplace can cause us to create negative thinking patterns. It doesn’t help that lawyering involves identifying risks and developing plans to minimize risk for our clients. But steeping in potential negative outcomes can become a pattern of thinking for us. Have you ever had a good thing happen—say, your client is really happy with an outcome—and you immediately shift to a potential negative outcome. Your client congratulates you on the excellent work you have accomplished for them, and you immediately think “but they won’t be so happy when they get my bill” because we have conditioned ourselves to go to what could go wrong next.
Celebrating small wins is an aspect of gratitude practice. Just as we may need to learn how to accept a compliment gracefully, we may need to learn to celebrate good things without descending into “yeah, but”, discounting the positive experience. Celebrating small wins won’t turn you into an arrogant jerk, unless you let it. When someone says that you did well today, do you say, “I was lucky that the judge liked my argument” or can you say, using your internal voice, “I did a good job today.” Express gratitude that your hard work paid off—don’t attribute it to luck.
Here are ten sample gratitude statements for lawyers that you can customize to reflect your reality:
- I am grateful that I have a law degree which allows me to work in a law firm, an inhouse or government role, or to set up on my own and that I don’t have to stay in a role that doesn’t work for me because I have options.
- I am grateful that I have an assistant (or access to support resources as needed) who can help me.
- I am grateful that I am making a living practicing law, working in a physically safe environment.
- I am grateful that I am part of a community (however defined) of lawyers who accept me for who I am.
- I am grateful that I have enough computer skills to muddle my way through document-based tasks.
- I am grateful that I have access to a set of robes for court appearances or that I can borrow robes from the Iris Yake Robe Bank. Or: I am grateful that I donated robes I don’t need or use anymore to the Iris Yake Robe Bank.
- I am grateful that I have a trusted colleague with whom I can bat ideas around.
- I am grateful that I have access to mentorship programs, either as a mentee or as a mentor.
- I am grateful that I am able to work from my office/continue to work from home/work on a hybrid basis.
- I am grateful for colleagues and friends who make me laugh or smile, and that I can choose to say and do kind things as well.
If my draft gratitude statements do not resonate with and you want to rip them to shreds with a red pen, please change them to what you feel grateful for! And if you are struggling to identify anything that you are grateful for in your life, please consider talking to your family doctor or an Assist counsellor.
And here is what may be a more realistic list of gratitude statements for all of us whose lives are not perfect:
- I am grateful that this is a three-day weekend and that I only have to spend six hours of it with relatives that I don’t like.
- I am grateful that I can offer to do the dishes and escape the dinner table if I need a break.
- I am grateful that I am not hosting the big dinner this year and that I can enjoy quiet on my drive home.
- I am grateful that I have worked with my counsellor to develop strategies in advance (a personal “In case of emergency, break glass” toolkit) to utilize when a particular person tries to get under my skin.
- I am grateful that I don’t have to go celebrate Thanksgiving formally this year.
Thanksgiving isn’t always joyful for everyone. This is my first Thanksgiving since my dad passed away. I don’t think I will be feeling a new sense of loss because I hadn’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my dad for many years, but grief, loneliness and isolation do not always follow predictable patterns, and holidays can be stressful and triggering. If your Thanksgiving descends into crisis, please remember that Assist’s crisis counselling service is available over the weekend. Call 1-877-498-6898 and follow the prompts.
Please try expressing gratitude this weekend or at a convenient time. If you find that gratitude displaces anxious thinking, you can learn more about mindfulness practices that also focus on being present (and not in the past or future.) Please consider attending Assist’s weekly online mindfulness sessions, from 12 to 12:15 pm on Tuesdays to explore more forms of mindfulness.
Don’t worry, be grateful—it works.