Helpful Tips For New Law Students on Optimizing Happiness


Law school is a privilege. It changes the way you see the world. It gives you the tools to “spot issues” (or in layman’s terms – to see danger at every corner). While “spotting issues” within the world helps make great lawyers, it does not always produce happy people. Issue spotting trains our brains to look for threats in our environment. But our brains become what we practice. So if we are looking for threats, our brain sees more and more in our society.

Happiness expert Shawn Anchor outlines how we can find ways to build up our brain’s emotional immune system and to bring our levels of happiness beyond our genetic set point and our environment. Anchor defines “happiness” as the joy you feel moving towards your potential. Happiness is not an individual sport. It is linked to the people around us in a powerful way.

Happiness is an interconnected trait because of the mirror system in our brain. Mirror neurons in our brains fire both when we do something and when we observe the same action in another. For example, when we smile and when we see someone else smile, mirror neurons fire. Because of this mirror system in our brain, brains are designed to be wirelessly connected. This means negativity, stress, and anxiety can be picked up like second hand smoke. It mimics a flu outbreak.

Anchor recommends these three concrete steps to deal with stress:

  1. Acknowledge the stress you are experiencing,
  2. Reconnect to the meaning of the stress (why do you care about this in the first place), and
  3. Channel your stress towards why you care about the activity.

Research shows that our brain at “positive” works better than a brain under stress. It impacts our sleep, our health, our energy levels, and how well we do in school.

We can improve our levels of happiness beyond our genetic set point and environment by implementing daily two minute patterns. 90% of our happiness is determined by how we process our external world. “If you view the world through the same pattern for too long, then your brain keeps it. Even if it is not working for you.” We can change the way we process our external world by scanning for things we are grateful, looking for meaning in our lives, finding ways our behaviour matters, and linking our behaviour to the people around us as well.

Anchor recommends these 5 daily happiness hygiene habits:

  1. Think of three new things you are grateful for each day and why, for 21 days in a row. If you think of the same 3 things each time, it does not change your genetic baseline of happiness. We need to scan the world for things that are going right. People have the tendency to change the goal post of success every time we have a success. The real problem occurs if we tell ourselves that happiness exists on the other side of success.  For example, constantly changing the goal post of success and telling ourselves “I will feel happy when I get into law school” to “I will feel happy when I get good grades in law school” to “I will feel happy when I get an articling job”, to “I will feel happy when I get a job as an associate”, and so on.
  2. Journaling. Take 2 minutes per day to think of one positive experience that day. Bullet point three details about the experience. For example, what you are wearing. By thinking of the details, our brains visualize the experience. This journaling exercise forces our brains to scan our lives for something meaningful. We can then see a trajectory of meaning running through our lives. Our reality is whatever our brain attends to first. If our brains attend to the negative first, then that means our reality gets distorted towards the negative. It steals resources from the part of the brain that sees meaning and helps us feel grateful.
  3. Exercise. 15 minutes of cardio activity per day is the equivalent for taking an antidepressant. Exercise is the gateway drug. People see that their behaviour matters and so they change their behaviour across the board.
  4. Meditate for 2 minutes per day. If you do this for 21 days in a row, then stress levels drop.
  5. Change the ecosystem around you. Happiness is a team sport. Take two minutes per day and write a positive email or text message to a new person each day.  Social connection is the breadth, depth, and meaning of our social relationships. The greatest predictor of long-term happiness is how deeply and meaningfully we feel connected to other people in our lives. Social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness and longevity.

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)

FN: Shawn Anchor defines rational optimism as the belief that our behaviour impacts other people. He states that 75% of long-term job success is predicted by optimism, social connection, and the way we perceive stress.