We all read this in the fifth grade, right? Again in high school History and Civics, one more time in college history, philosophy or political science and, if we took the sparsely attended jurisprudence course in law school, we read it again there.
I have to admit, however, that I never knew what it meant until I listened to one of those Teaching Company courses on American History.
We know that the founders didn’t have week-end spa retreats, golfing getaways, or new BMW’s in mind when they included in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence the right of all “men” to pursue happiness.
So what did these men of the American Enlightenment mean?
They meant eudaimonia, an Aristotelian concept defined “not by honor, or wealth, or power, but by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. This type of activity manifests the virtues of character, including, honesty, pride, friendliness, and wittiness; the intellectual virtues, such as rationality in judgment; and non-sacrificial (i.e. mutually beneficial) friendships and scientific knowledge (knowledge of things that are fundamental and/or unchanging is the best).
This is amazingly similar to what social scientists have demonstrated motivates most people, as described in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive.
Autonomy, purpose and mastery.
You can pay people all the money the world has to offer and they will not achieve true happiness in the absence of friends, family and right occupation. In light of the fact that “right occupation” for attorneys does not eliminate the considerable physical, emotional and moral stress of practicing law, it’s not surprising that most of us report a significant degree of unhappiness in our chosen field.
But is that a necessary component to legal practice?
You don’t need to be a workaholic or stress adrenaline addict to understand the concept of “good stress.” The term eustress was coined by the neuroimmune biologist Hans Selye in the early 1970’s.
This type of stress is a happily adaptive response to what some people call “problems” and others call “challenges.” In response to “challenging” problems — difficulties or barriers people believe they have the freedom and power to address — the body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline. Both of these hormones result in heightened perception, increased motivation and even increased physical strength. Eustress extends the person’s capacity to function (intellectually, physically, emotionally and behaviourally).
This “good stress” acts both as a motivator to creative problem-solving and as its bio-chemical reward. Eustress is simply the scientific-biological explanation for the Aristotelian value and goal of “eudaimonia,” which the founding fathers wrote into the Declaration of Independence.
At least one pundit whose website I can no longer find has written,
If we can rediscover the concept of eudaimonia, and adapt it to suit our modern values, perhaps we can find a way to achieve longer-term happiness. A modern concept of eudaimonia, for example, might include the need to take account of the effect of one’s actions on the environment, as well as on other people in one’s community. It might take the form of political engagement, or artistic creativity, or volunteer work. By focussing on the effect of our actions on those around us and on the world in general, rather than on our own happiness, perhaps we can learn to be eudaimon, and to be happy.
if you’re understandably anxious about any of the following, you are about to experience eudaimonia because you will be meeting and managing a great challenge
- answering, by way of legal research and strategic thinking, a difficult legal question that will benefit your client
- drafting your first motion asking a Judge to make the other side do something that will achieve a greater degree of justice for your client
- standing in front of a Judge (or panel of Justices!) delivering your first oral argument in pursuit of something your client needs or in opposition to something that will impede your client’s progress toward a just resolution of his dispute
- taking your first deposition in an effort to learn what you need to know to further your client’s interests
- defending your first deposition in an effort to prevent your client from being brow-beaten, manipulated, or, misunderstood
- advising your first client (or mom or dad or sister) about their legal rights knowing that without your advice they could easily be taken advantage of or prevented from doing something that they are entitled — indeed, have a right — to do
When you experience the following, you will also be experiencing eudaiomonia.
- providing pro bono legal services to someone who has never had access to the American system of justice; never experienced the feeling of protection and support that a legal advocate can provide
- pursuing a moral or political cause of great importance to you and millions of others by using your knowledge of the legal system to accomplish a small or large objective on the path toward the vindication of, say, universal human rights
- being called “counselor” for the first time by people in positions of power, at which point you may well realize that you have been placed in a privileged position in human society and political life whereby you will automatically be accorded respect both by your peers and by anyone who presumes to be better than you
- hearing a client say “thank you so much, I wouldn’t have known what to do or what my future might be or how badly I might have been harmed without you”
The happy activities that are latticed into legal practice provide satisfaction and sometimes even serenity every bit as much as they produce fear and frustration. Among those activities are:
- the pure sport of the legal research treasure hunt — an endeavor that allows you to exercise your god-given intelligence and creativity to solve the puzzle, detect the crime, negotiate the deal, or actually win the entire case
- the moment the factual and legal strategy finally comes together
- the thrill of victory — which would be no thrill at all unless there was a genuine chance of failure
- the privilege of spending your working life among people who are bright, talented, creative, vital, ambitious, seemingly fearless and therefore a lot of fun to be around
- the opportunity to match your wits against those of the smartest guys in the room
- the opportunity to exercise nearly every strength and overcome almost every weakness of character you have — including the challenges of speaking up for yourself and your clients; adhering to your principles when your clients or superiors ask you to engage in activities you believe to be unprofessional, unethical, or even illegal; finding the balance between fearful and over-bearing; learning grace under pressure; developing leadership skills; exercising your inner-entrepreneur; negotiating the best deal available with some of the most powerful companies and prestigious attorneys in the land
- ending your working day tired but knowing you’ve done a good to great job in a profession never lets you sleep on your laurels or turn in less than your best effort
- And perhaps last but not least, never being bored for long.