The eudaimonic turn: How we can help lawyers flourish

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The humanities encompass domains such as music, art, literature, culture, religion, languages, philosophy, history and law. Each represents rich opportunities for individuals and communities to explore and nurture positive ideas, feelings and behaviors that contribute to human flourishing. To that end, an interesting initiative called the “positive humanities,” an interdisciplinary collaboration between the field of positive psychology and the humanities, is evolving.

Positive humanities scholars, including professor James Pawelski, director of education at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, are heralding an endeavor called the “eudaimonic turn,” i.e., a shift in attention from an intent focus on brokenness toward the study of individual and collective well-being. Eudaimonia is a Greek word (“eu” for good and “daimon” for soul or self) representing the array of things that foster human flourishing.

Can we lawyers step into the eudaimonic turn? What if, instead of thoroughly exhausting ourselves unearthing or stirring up problems around every corner, we also invested (and replenished) energy in fostering good?

I sometimes wrestle with law’s inclusion in the definition of the humanities. Law is a field of words; yet roots and derivations of the term humanities—human, humanity, humaneness—often appear to be neglected in the legal profession. Humanity, or the state of being human, can get lost in a morass of seemingly all-or-nothing rules, winners and losers, systemic injustices, ossified hierarchies and intellectual elitism.

Synonyms of humanity—kindness, graciousness, politeness, consideration, philanthropy—likewise can seem absent in many layers of our legal system. Toxic competition and cancel culture persist. Incivility and bullying abound. Notwithstanding ambitious well-being initiatives, rampant mental health and addiction issues continue to plague attorneys.

Our state bars require character and fitness evaluations of applicants. We, however, often seem to regard character and fitness as assets a person either has or doesn’t have, rather than virtues one can cultivate. The field of positive psychology offers two starting points for steering the legal profession into the humanities’ eudaimonic turn: a deeper consideration of what it means to have and cultivate character; and a more holistic definition of fitness to practice law.

Identifying and nurturing our character strengths

Often, for our new generation of lawyers, it can feel like our profession pushes one cookie-cutter pathway to “success” in lawyering: top grades in law school, law review and moot court accolades, BigLaw job. Along the way, many of us downplay natural gifts and personal interests that infuse our lives with meaning, trying to fit the mold of what we believe the “successful lawyer” looks like.

Originator of the Socratic method, Socrates, offers a motivating maxim: “Know thyself.” By channeling Socrates and getting to know our character strengths (an illuminating exercise encouraged by positive psychology practitioners), we can champion a healthier approach: myriad individualized pathways toward long careers in lawyering.

The field of positive psychology invites us to explore our character strengths using an assessment tool called the VIA Survey. Developed by the founder of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, his collaborator and friend Dr. Christopher Peterson, and 55 scientists, the survey situates 24 character strengths within six virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.

The assessment helps us identify different groupings of our strengths, first highlighting our “signature strengths,” and then ranking our middle and lower strengths. Education director at the VIA Institute on Character, Dr. Ryan Niemiec, explains that lower strengths do not signify personal weaknesses; lower strengths just don’t energize, excite or come as easily for us as our signature strengths do.

According to Niemiec, similar to our unique handwritten signature, 5.1 million constellations of the Top 5 signature strengths exist. Thus, each of us possesses a configuration of strengths that make us distinctively situated to contribute to the legal profession in a particularly impactful way. Notably, one scientific study indicated that people highly aware of their strengths were nine times more likely to be flourishing, and people who used their strengths were 18 times more likely to be thriving.

Importantly, positive psychologists indicate that character strengths are not set in stone but can be cultivated, through enhancing our knowledge about how they function, noticing moments when we use them and commending others when they use their strengths. The VIA Institute on Character provides a wealth of resources for learning about and practicing these techniques. Through getting to know our character strengths and pointing out when our colleagues use theirs, we can practice law more authentically and tap into what gives our life and work meaning.

Cultivating somatic intelligence as a component of fitness to practice law

The field of positive psychology offers another on-ramp toward the eudaimonic turn: cultivating our fitness to practice law. In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a report identifying six dimensions of lawyer well-being: occupational, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social and physical. Many of us have focused primarily on intellectual and occupational development, deprioritizing our other dimensions. One avenue for stepping into the eudaimonic turn is to cultivate our physical well-being dimension through enhancing our somatic intelligence. Let’s broaden our understanding of how our physicality can drive healthier mental and emotional aspects of our performance.

As I’ve shared in previous articles, throughout my professional journey from law student to lawyer to law professor, I have grappled with extreme performance anxiety and fear. Still today, in certain public speaking performances, I blush, tremble, and my heart thumps against my ribs like a caged animal. For decades, I resented my body for betraying me. It took me a long while to realize it was trying to help.

Somatic intelligence invites us to reframe our relationships with our bodies by increasing our awareness of how our physical systems function in stressful moments and how we can recalibrate them to enhance our performance. Instead of leaping from stress to distress, we can learn physical, mental and emotional techniques for toggling into a productive state called “eustress,” a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. Like the “eu” in eudaimonia, the “eu” in eustress stands for good.

I love the sports/medical concept of prehabilitation: preemptive strategies that prevent injuries and harms from occurring. Instead of waiting until legal community crises occur (burnout-related ethical lapses, addiction, the tragedy of suicide), we can, and should, focus on individual and collective prehabilitation. In prehabilitation, we deter problems rather than waiting to retroactively treat them. Let’s become somatically intelligent lawyers, learn how to step into the eustress zone and take a proactive, eudaimonic approach toward multidimensional fitness to practice law.

In conclusion

Viewing our character and fitness to practice law through positive lenses, we can become healthier practitioners, individually and collectively. While obviously our profession wrestles with myriad problems and challenges, instead of solely ruminating about brokenness, harm and damage, let’s also cultivate the good that each of us can bring to our legal system, society and humanity. Let’s steer into law’s eudaimonic turn.

Heidi K. Brown is a law professor and director of legal writing at Brooklyn Law School. She is the author of The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy (ABA 2017) and Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy (ABA 2019).

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