Why Lawyers Should Prioritize Joy and Practices to Help Them Start

I admit it. The word “joy” used to make me cringe a little bit inside. For a while, it was plastered on the walls of so many homes along with signs reading “Live. Laugh. Love.” and showed up in the titles of countless self-help books. The frequency with which I saw that term used, often inaccurately, gave me the distinct and bizarre impression that “joy” was somehow omnipresent, yet also mythical and unattainable. After all, how could conflict, unhappiness, and social problems be so prevalent when everyone seemed hellbent on praising joy?

More recently, though, I have come around to the “joy” camp. The transition had nothing to do with all those signs and books. Instead, it happened when I started to study suffering and the response to it. When I learned about compassion practices and saw their impact in my life, I realized something I had previously overlooked: joy is powerful. The overuse of the word had made joy seem frivolous and meaningless, but when I feel it—especially in response to suffering—it is nothing short of magic. Joy has a potential to connect us in good times and to bind us, to ourselves and others, in hard times.

Many of us may think that joy is an emotion that simply arises without warning and lasts only a moment. This is true but also incomplete. We can cultivate joy and in so doing, cultivate compassion and a greater sense of well-being. For many of us, joy may seem like a temporary and elusive state because we aren’t accustomed to staying present with the experience of strong emotions. Regardless of the type, emotions are sensory experiences in the body. Even positive emotions like joy can feel uncomfortable, if not overwhelming, so we may unconsciously register them as stress that induces a mental flight reaction. For this reason, many of us may need to learn to sit with and savor even positive emotions. This is just one of the reasons why meditation practice can be so powerful, because it may provide a rare opportunity to experience emotions in the body.

Whether in meditation or otherwise, sensing emotions as they are cultivates a capacity to accept the true and full experience of life. This can mean greater courage to accept the hard parts of life, as well as welcoming in those joyful emotions that provide a respite from our struggles and energize us to keep going. As a result, savoring the good aspects of life and taking the time to celebrate can be some of the most powerful things that lawyers can do to improve our mental health for the long-term.

Despite this, many lawyers and other professionals may worry that savoring victories and positive experiences may lead to resting on one’s laurels, apathy, or cause a reduction in drive. Leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, has found that, while this is a common fear, it isn’t true. Self-compassion is not an impediment to a good work ethic; it is positively correlated with attainment of goals. Far from causing people to lack ambition, self-compassion practices, including savoring joy, result in higher motivation, more courage in taking risks, and increased stamina to persist through difficulty.

Some simple ways to savor joy in life are to remind yourself to mentally “check in” during a good time. Notice what you hear, feel, taste, smell, and see and notice what that experience causes you to feel in your body. For instance, if you are playing with your kids, hear them laugh, see them smile, and notice what reaction those things elicit in you. You can also be on the lookout for joy in your daily activities. One of my favorite savoring activities is to watch the kids run to the parents at daycare pickup time. Watching their love and excitement turns what might have been wasted time into a joy break for myself and it prepares me to greet my own kids with love.

In the work setting, one simple way to savor experiences is to acknowledge a win and congratulate your team. When the praise is directed to you, you could practice savoring joy by learning to simply say “thank you” when you receive a compliment and allowing the warm feelings just wash over you, instead of deflecting or talking to hide your embarrassment. If you struggle with paying or giving compliments, a simpler place is to establish a habit of internally congratulating yourself for a job well done. For example, after a difficult deposition, you might reflect on how you handled yourself and appreciate the discipline, organization, and restraint you showed in hard circumstances. These practices generally don’t take much time, but research suggests that the cumulative effect over time can yield major benefits for your motivation, outlook, stamina, and capacity to handle difficult moments. 

So, does this mean that I am telling you to go put a big “joy” sign on your wall? Not quite, unless hanging a sign like that reminds you to cultivate joy in your own life. The object here isn’t the performance of joy or convincing others that you feel joyful. Instead, the power of joy comes in when we fully experience it and prioritize it in our lives. Because when we open to joy, in all its overwhelming glory, we’ll find courage, energy, and strength care for our families and ourselves, serve clients, and make more joy for the rest of the world. So, I don’t care if you put a big “joy” sign on your wall, as a long as you make space for it in your heart.

Rethinking Self-Care: It’s a Practice

I used to roll my eyes every time I saw an article with “self-care” in the title. I was always ready with a snarky comment about the consumerism of the wellness industry and how it’s only for entitled women with endless time and money. I mean, Gwyneth Paltrow may have an entire evening to devote to a bath, a book, and a cocktail, but us real working moms are lucky to pee in private. 

It’s hard not to feel jaded about self-care because as working moms we’re bombarded with marketing campaigns in the health and wellness industry telling us we’re just not taking care of ourselves unless we buy those expensive yoga pants, luxury candles, or take a long bath with essential oils. These messages tell us to treat ourselves because we deserve it.

It can also feel like yet another thing I should be doing. If I had that $65 essential oils or $55 calming vapors I would be more productive and less stressed. Or maybe I’d have time for Gwyneth Paltrow’s evening routine if I were a little more organized.

 But, having a busy law practice and three kids (one of which is immunocompromised and has ADHD and anxiety) during a global pandemic has me re-thinking my ideas around the word self-care.

In a recent Ten Percent Happier podcast episode, the researcher and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson talked about how so many people have had to learn how to take care of ourselves during COVID-19. Yes, self-care has become a commercialized product driven industry, but at its most fundamental level it’s about learning how to meet our most basic needs and truly taking care of ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level.

Sounds easy, right? The truth is it’s really hard, but my mindfulness meditation practice has helped me figure out how to take better care of myself.

Feel your Feelings.

When I first started a regular meditation practice the first step was just slowing my mind down enough to the just figure out how I actually felt. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t even know what I needed. If I had a nickel for every time I was feeling impatient and cranky only to realize I was just hungry. I would eat a cheese stick and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so on edge.

A mindfulness meditation practice is all about slowing down, taking a breath, and feeling emotions. When we bring awareness to how we feel we can begin the process of figuring out what we need.

What Do I Need Right Now?

This is a simple question I often ask myself in a moment of feeling overwhelmed or stressed. It gets me in the headspace of taking care of myself. Sometimes the answer is a drink of water, sometimes the answer is working for 15 more minutes, or cancelling that meeting.

Which brings me to my next question I like to ask myself.

How Can I Let Go?

As a busy mom of three running her own law practice, this is usually the most important question I can ask myself. Sometimes what I need to do is let something go.

For me this usually looks like eating out instead of cooking dinner, not doing a load of laundry, not squeezing in that meeting, leaving the dishes in the sink until tomorrow, not responding to that text or email, letting my kids have more screen time so I can talk to my sister on the phone.

You get the picture. We are pulled in a million directions every single day – work, family obligations, friends, etc. So sometimes what we really need is to just let something go.

Build Healthy Habits.

Self-care isn’t just about coping with the day-to-day. It’s also about taking care of ourselves in the long term. As Claire and I recently discussed, sometimes this may mean sticking the healthy habits you created or acknowledging when your habits may need to change (you can check out our blog posts on habit change here and here, or our Instagram Live chat here).

Practice Self-Compassion.

This is mindfulness language for cutting yourself some slack. And, it’s probably one of (if not the) most important things we can do to take care of ourselves. It’s the key to combatting mom guilt and that ever-present feeling in the pits of our stomach that we just didn’t do enough today.

It’s also what I’m working hardest on right now by focusing on self-compassion (check out Claire’s blog post on self-compassion and mom guilt).

If you treat yourself, enjoy it.

While sometimes the self-care industry can feel like it’s encouraging escape and indulgence, that doesn’t mean it isn’t ok to treat ourselves once in a while.  Sometimes life is a little extra hard and we need a treat to get ourselves out of a slump. Eat that ice cream, get that manicure, or let your kids watch extra TV so you can chat with a friend. As long as the treat isn’t triggering your unwanted habit, just enjoy it avoid beating yourself up later. 

The thing I’ve learned over the last year is this: self-care is just about learning how to take care of ourselves. It might look different to different people and it will change over time, but it is absolutely necessary.