DR. LYNN JOHNSON
Jacob owes school loans amounting to $155,000. He does have a law degree, though and, with associates in good firms earning $135,000 to start, he wasn’t worried. Two years later and earning substantially less than predicted, he has learned that he hates being an attorney.
I help a bar association coach attorneys experiencing an emotional crisis. Hearing “I hate my job” is not uncommon, since law is a very high stress profession. Frequently, young attorneys ask themselves what they were thinking to imagine the bar would provide a quality life. Nearly all attorneys who are desperately unhappy with their work think there is only one answer—finding a job outside of the legal profession.
A few years ago, we had a booming economy and it was much easier for people to quit a bad job and find a better it. There are certainly bad jobs, bad bosses, and bad co- workers. Why wouldn’t you quit and find something better? In better times you would, but these are not better times.
There is another option, thanks to a hint from 1960s rocker Stephen Stills. When you can’t be with the job you love . . . you actually can love the job you are with, or at least greatly improve your emotional resiliency. If you can’t love the obnoxious boss or irritating coworker, at least you can energize yourself so the stress cannot take such a toll on you.
Jacob (a composite example) was skeptical about becoming more resilient. He was pressured at work to put in sixty hours a week or more. Two of the firm’s partners were critical of his work, even dismissive. Sleep was difficult to achieve. He was edgy, nervous, and images of failure ran through his head.
He was losing weight and came down with a nasty cold. His wife was sullen and withdrawn. He asked for help through the bar association. We sat down for a talk, and he told me about having the worst job in the world. I had heard it all before.
I mentally predicted his desired solution would be the impossible hope of quitting his job to do something, anything as long as it was far from the practice of law. When I asked him what he wanted, that was about it. “How can I help?” is the question all coaches and counselors need to pose. In this case, Jacob didn’t see how I could. Would I be able to get him a job that would let him pay off his loans and still cover rent, car payments, and insurance? Jacob couldn’t see how a job coach / psychologist could help. It looked hopeless to him.
We spend more time at work than any other part of our lives, certainly more time than with our spouses. Yet, we put far more energy and thought into picking a great husband or wife than picking a job that really fits us. Jacob was hoping for a great firm. His timing was off. Currently there are relatively few firms looking to add associates. One report found about twice as many lawyers graduating than openings. Pay rates have also suffered with tough times allowing firms to hire associates at much less than just a few years ago. Jacob was being squeezed pretty dry.
Unhappy people make unhappy co-workers. Other associates were unhappy, complained, and offered Jacob little or no support. Jacob’s uncle, who served in the Navy, told him the unofficial motto: “Floggings will continue until morale improves.” Jacob should have laughed. He didn’t.
An appreciative and supportive supervisor can go a long way toward helping the stressed worker cope. Two partners worked with Jacob, one of them very critical. A carefully researched brief brought only a grunt. After a contract was late and dumped in his lap, Jacob felt the assignment was impossible but he scrambled and finished it. The partner gave Jacob a tongue lashing, insisting there was no excuse for completing it late. “Find out who is to blame, and punish him,” seemed to be the firm’s culture.
Work stress can take many forms. The incompetent supervisor grinds subordinates with poor communication, inappropriate demands, and being absent when needed. Angry supervisors bully and intimidate, destroying morale and cohesiveness. Resentful or dispirited co-workers suck life out of daily work. These all combined to reinforce Jacob’s notion that only escape would redeem him.
Yet jobs were scarce, and numerous classmates of his envied anyone who even had a job. Like a cornered animal, he searched wildly for an escape. I tried in vain to sooth him. His wife had no interest in attending a coaching session, perhaps surmising that I might challenge her to be warmer and more supportive. A darkness at noonday, Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” tugged at my ear.
Between 25 and 30 % of workers report they feel seriously stressed at work. Pressure to produce, bad leadership, and stressful co-workers all contribute. Stressed workers produce inferior work. They go to the doctor too often. Distracted by their emotional pain, they justifiably blame the boss, the structure of the job, and even co-workers. Yet, when we focus on those factors, we are missing perhaps the most important factor of all; what is inside is more important that what happens outside.
I was speaking to over 100 educators and I held out my arms, my hands holding basketballs. Reaching up, I dropped them both. One bounced. It had resilience. The other, lacking the inner resource of air pressure, laid on the stage. I told the teachers about Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist who investigated reactions of college students following 9/11.
She found just what you’d think. Some people developed depressive or angry feelings. However, Dr. Fredrickson learned something very helpful. Not all of them developed symptoms and some bounced back from that horrible day. Others were damaged. Like basketballs, what was inside of some students allowed them to bounce back.
We know a good deal more about what makes resilience so natural, thanks to her and other researchers. People who are naturally resilient are optimistic and have a general expectation that things get better over time. They take credit when it’s due, seeing themselves as active agents to create positive outcomes. Bad things seem temporary to them, conversely believing good things will last a long time. Often having a tendency to look for something redeeming in the bad events, they say “maybe this can be a blessing in disguise.”
Frankly, much of this seems to be innate. Some people are born resilient. As children they are more curious, smile often, and laugh easily—expressing feelings rather than holding them inside. Such a child will have a hopeful outlook, and seems to be practically immune to depression. Other children are sensitive, moody, and easily upset. Instead of talking out feelings, they keep them bottled up. They are the ones who don’t do well. But there is good news; even those born with a moody and sensitive nature can train to find optimism and happiness.
Going over this with Jacob, I pointed out that ten people in the same environment, with the same resentment at being underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked, and the same self-centered and insensitive boss, would have ten different reactions. Jacob was already adequate in resiliency. He showed up for work and tried to reach his best. He attempted to be kind to co-workers and encouraged his wife. If he could continue with that and expand his strengths, I wondered how his life would improve. The question interested him.
Resiliency may be innate, but like any other skill, people who aren’t naturally good at it can develop it. Years ago I attended the workshop of a famous sports psychologist. He demonstrated that talent actually accounted for almost nothing in terms of who achieved Olympic level ability. How hard and how skillfully athletes work constitutes most of the story. Research into sports and musical performance has shown that, with directed practice from a good coach, all people can achieve excellent performance. It is simply a matter of practice. Correct practice under the direction of a skilled teacher yields superior results in other areas, such as medicine, engineering, and even law.
The Happiness Edge
While we often think happiness is the result of success, but research tells us it is the cause. In other words, happy people outperform unhappy people. Except at the University, where being unhappy is prized as a sign of intelligence, we find that happy people get promoted, are better leaders are more creative, and better at problem solving. Happy people are healthier and live longer, take better care of themselves by eating wisely and exercising, and spend less on doctors and medicine.
In researching a review article, Sonya Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener assembled over 200 studies involving 25,000 subjects.
Their conclusion? Happiness leads to success.
So instead of trying to fix what is wrong, positive psychologists help people find a better quality of life that naturally raises happiness— assisting their clients in finding solutions they had not previously seen.
You see, when we are unhappy, our frontal lobe, the high-speed problem solving part of our brain, turns off. Instead, the middle part of the brain, the limbic system, takes the lead. This more primitive part of the brain may make us do things that aren’t really wise.
After all, haven’t you seen someone angry do rather dumb or foolish things? Haven’t you done something stupid when you were angry? It is how our brains are made. Anger and despair rob our brains of the frontal lobe problem solving that we need. So start with happiness, and the solutions will follow.
I offered Jacob three assignments. The first one was based on the idea that we all have innate strengths, and it is easier and more natural to work through those strengths to solve any problem. There are several ways to do this.
Robert Biswas-Diener is a positive psychology coach who practices “strengths spotting.” When he interviews clients, he listens for something that seems to come easily, some theme of being able to do things well. He abstracts that into a theme, or strength. Naming the strength makes it more vivid. I asked Jacob about times he felt things were going easily. When one hates one’s job, it is hard to think in terms of when things have gone well, but Jacob and I combed through his life. In law school, Jacob was the first to create study groups. He organized wine-and-cheese parties on Saturday nights. He introduced people to each other. We called this strength, “Connector.” Jacob flourished when he created teams, but in his new firm he hadn’t done that.
Using strengths will automatically raise one’s resiliency. The notion here is that we are all born with certain talents or skills. But, bear in mind that talents don’t predict much at all. Only how much and how well we use those talents. I challenged Jacob to renew his Connector role, to start being the person who raises morale and forms work teams. There were other associates at the firm, and Jacob started reaching out to them, inviting them over to his house on Sunday afternoon. He encouraged them to remember law school and the study groups that had helped them survive those three harrowing years.
He reported that associates were smiling at each other more, talking to each other, asking each other for ideas and help. He felt warmer towards his colleagues. He could lean on them; they could lean on him. While he still felt anxiety, he was much better.
GRATITUDE CREATES RESILIENCY
With Jacob building on his Connector strength, he was ready for the next assignment. I started our conversation mentioning things I feel grateful about. I am unusual for a psychologist in that I am still married to my original wife. Our four children are very close and loving, there is a lot of laughter when the family gets together. I like how the garden is turning out this year. My wife and I took a biking trip through Tuscany last year, and I enjoy recalling that.
Then I challenged Jacob to jot down several things that made him grateful. The first one took some time, but once underway he thought of others. He was grateful he had a job and that his Connector strength was helping. The Gratitude Diary takes some effort, but it pays some rich dividends. Research into the Gratitude Diary indicates that it dramatically reduces depression and improves resiliency.
I have added a reframing component to my version of the gratitude diary. I asked Jacob to write down one irritating thing, and then brainstorm how that could actually be a blessing in disguise. I have found that naturally resilient people look at problems as potential advantages, something they can build on. Jacob found many annoying things but the reframing part was a challenge to him. He tended to think, “this is just a bad thing and there is nothing good about it.”
I pointed out that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done much good and came about because of a great tragedy when thirteen year old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. While our hearts break because of Candice Lightner’s loss, the good the organization has achieved helps in some small way to redeem that tragedy. I didn’t want Jacob to focus on big catastrophes like that, but rather on small ones like someone parking in his parking place.
In other words, Jacob’s assignment was to actively deal with irritations by looking for a hidden benefit. If someone took his parking spot, he could consciously park farther away and enjoy a brisk walk to work.
Jacob found the Gratitude Diary worked well to raise his spirits and left him less upset. Gratitude makes his Connector strength even easier. It helped him bring out the best in his frightened and stressed-out wife. When they ate together, he began to report to her the results of his gratitude and reframing diary. She started to report her own events that she was grateful for. Life was getting better.
I have realized I was wrong about food. For years I scoffed at the idea that eating right would improve mental health. But in the past few years, research on food and mood has changed my mind.
Fast food is rich in omega-6, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Corn, the basis for most fast food, is rich in omega-6 PUFAs, and contains no omega-3 PUFAs. This is significant because omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. On the other hand, the omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and you cannot find them in fast foods. Inflamatory diseases include arthritis, heart disease, allergies, and acne. Some psychiatrists now view depression as an inflammatory illness. Better eating can improve mental health, I admit. So I coached him toward healthier eating.
We all know that Alaskan salmon, mackerel, and sardines are the best sources of omega-3. In Alaska, it is illegal to farm salmon, so they are all wild-caught. Other sources of omega-3 include grass-fed beef, pastured chickens, and green vegetables. Jacob sprinkled ground flax, which is a great source, into his cereal. We now see high omega-3 eggs, from chickens fed flax instead of corn.
I coached him on the rainbow diet. Your plate, I told him, should be about half fruits and vegetables, a small carb source, and about three ounces of protein. He was able to boost his colorful food intake with salads and double orders of vegetables. It turned out that his wife was interested in healthier eating and got behind this assignment.
Vitamin D is critical to treating depression, and with our obsession about sun protection, many of us are deficient. Jacob’s blood level was 49, which is on the low side of normal. His doctor told him it was nothing to worry about, but we would like to see it higher. I suggested either he supplement with Vitamin D3 or walk for twenty minutes in the middle of the day.
Wearing a short-sleeved shirt on his walk would provide a good boost to his vitamin D and, in addition, lift his mood from the exercise. Twenty or thirty minutes of brisk activity benefits mood as much as taking an antidepressant, without negative side effects. He trumped me by committing to a noontime run, while wearing shorts and a tee shirt. I told him of all the evidence that working more than forty hours was foolish since all studies show a steep decline in productivity beyond the usual workweek. After, Jacob convinced the partner he worked for that he’d be much more productive all afternoon if he could run. After a quick shower and a healthy bag lunch, he would be alert and energetic. He got the buy-in he wanted.
MEASUREMENT ELIMINATES ARGUMENT
Using a standard mood checklist gives us real-time feedback about how clients are doing in their work. There is a great public-domain instrument called the CES-D that is widely available. You can download a copy from my website, drlynnjohnson.com. You want to keep improving your quality of life until your scores are consistently below ten.
Jacob tested as quite depressed when we began our coaching. He moved from an initial CES-D score of 24 down to 13 within about six weeks. I asked him to continue the three activities, using his strengths each day—keeping a gratitude diary at least once a week, eating well, and exercising. I saw him three weeks later and he was at 8, a very healthy score. He reported the job hadn’t changed much, but he felt much better about it. His boss’s criticisms didn’t seem to bother him. When he had read articles about job stress, they covered the same issues he ran into every day. But it turns out that stress isn’t what happens to you, it is what you do with it.
I reminded him of Stephen Still’s song. He didn’t think he loved his job, but at least he could go on pleasant dates with it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Lynn Johnson has written several books, including Enjoy Life: Healing with Happiness and others which are available on drlynnjohnson.com, or Amazon.com. This article is based on his Amazon Kindle book “I Hate My Job,” He Said. His book, The Happiness Checklist, is free for subscribers to his newsletter via his website. He truly wants you to be happier. Dr. Lynn Johnson is married with four children, which he and his wife raised at home in their spare time. In spite of being raised by a psychologist, they are all happy and well-adjusted.