In Pursuit of Happiness

In Pursuit of Happiness

I invite you to think about and answer the following three questions. Would you describe yourself as someone who is generally happy as an attorney? Are you proud of and satisfied with your professional accomplishments? Is a sense of purpose present in your professional life? A negative response to any of these questions is perfectly normal from time to time; but a negative response that is indicative of the norm day after day suggests something is amiss.

Note that my shortlist of questions didn’t ask about stress. Part of the reason why is that for many attorneys, stress simply comes with the territory. Another reason is that stress really isn’t the problem I’m wanting to focus on. Here’s a story that helps explain why: Some time ago I was visiting with an attorney who had reached a point in his career where he could choose to significantly reduce his caseload and he had recently made just such a decision. He went on to share that this was when he finally began to realize how much stress he had been under for years working to stay on top of everything going on in his practice. He suspected he simply failed to recognize it at the time because he so thoroughly enjoyed practicing law. To me, this suggests that the presence or absence of stress isn’t necessarily a good indicator of how happy and satisfied one might be.

The concern I really am wanting to focus on is depression, which is how some respond to excessive stresses in life. Depression often leads to fatigue, feeling worthless or helpless, excessive irritability, or even overwhelming feelings of grief and sadness. In some, depression can also lead to impaired concentration, indecisiveness, a loss of interest and pleasure in activities formally enjoyed (such as practicing law or participating in a favorite hobby or pastime), insomnia, and even poor judgment, all of which bodes ill for the practicing attorney.

Although this list does not include all the symptoms a depressed individual may display, it does begin to underscore the seriousness of the issue. The good news is depression can be overcome. Depending upon the root cause, there are a number of treatment options that can be highly effective. Unfortunately, many who struggle with depressive disorders decide to never pursue treatment or are never accurately diagnosed and fail to receive proper treatment.

Given this, there is value in being aware of what can cause depression and in learning how to recognize it. Beyond stressful events such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, one’s genetics can play a role as can general medical illness. The use of certain medications and drug or alcohol abuse can also bring about depression. There are a number of warning signs. Depressed individuals often become isolated, sarcastic, or withdrawn. There may be sudden changes in behavior such as absenteeism, loss of interest in family and friends, an increased need for sleep, the onset of insomnia, and/or self-destructive behavior. Changes in appearance are also common. There may be a significant change in weight or a loss of interest in personal appearance. When quite severe, depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts. As a brief aside, should someone ever express a suicidal thought always take it seriously and seek help immediately. This would be especially true if the person has expressed a specific plan or begun to give away possessions.

Depression is a serious illness that can wreak havoc on an attorney’s personal and professional life if left untreated. If you are depressed or know of a colleague who is, don’t ignore the problem hoping it will go away. Usually it doesn’t, and if left untreated the illness can quickly deteriorate, especially if a crisis arises in the interim. When trying to help someone who is depressed, be direct and show that you are genuinely concerned. Listen attentively and be careful to never dismiss their feelings by saying something like “you’ll feel better tomorrow.” They’re not going to. Most importantly, do not try to handle the problem yourself. Contact a doctor, a crisis hot-line, a member of the clergy, a social worker, or a psychologist. The goal is to help the individual obtain whatever professional help they might need so that they can start the recovery process.

Depression should never be left untreated, but beyond seeking professional care there are many things that an individual can do to help relieve their own depression or avoid ever becoming depressed. It starts with prioritizing self care. Exercise regularly, eat a varied and healthy diet, avoid alcohol, learn to take breaks and relax, get plenty of quality rest, practice time management skills, reach out to friends and family, and build a support network of persons with whom thoughts and concerns can be shared. In short, it’s about working to develop and maintain physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health in every aspect of your life. Of course, do all that you can to support all those around you who try to do the same, including your colleagues.

In the end, spending an extended period of life in the absence of happiness and satisfaction colors the world gray. It’s not a pleasant experience. If you know someone who may be struggling with depression or perhaps are yourself, I hope you can muster enough courage and energy to do something about it. Choose to pursue happiness and encourage others to make a similar choice if and when you see the need. Doing so will start to bring the missing color back into the world in so many ways.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.