November 2013 Bar Bulletin
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November 2013 Bar Bulletin

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Finding Happiness



This past year has been the most challenging, stressful and unpleasant year of my career. For over two decades, I have loved being a lawyer, being a public defender, being a problem solver and a voice for others. While there have been bumps in the road and certainly many challenges along the way, I've always felt pride in the work I've done and the work done by all in the office.

My current and ongoing struggle to be happy stems from the decision by the county to take public defense in-house. As a result, the nonprofit where I've worked for 24 years and operated for the past 14 years is being dismantled.

While the work I've done has been meaningful and contributed to my happiness, I have tried to leave work at work and not have it impact my home life. Recently, I learned how miserably I have failed at this task.

My 15-year-old daughters attend a Catholic high school. For a recent prayer service, students were asked to write something that their classmates could pray for on their behalf. Most of these teenagers asked what one would expect: for good grades; good friends; a good car; good experiences with their athletics.

When one of my daughters' prayers was read aloud, it was less typical. It read: "I pray that my mom's job isn't so stressful and that it doesn't make her sad. I pray that my mom is happy again." My heart sank and tears sprang to my eyes. So much for my attempt to compartmentalize work so that it didn't impact my home life!

While I grieve the loss of a quality system, my office and all that the incredible people here have accomplished, I am working hard to feel hopeful and inspired in my work. It is not easy and it is not often. But it does happen.

I've come to realize that happiness is a choice. Happiness cannot be compartmentalized - we either are happy or not happy. We all know someone who can be described as "one unhappy individual" or "only sees the negative in things and not the positive." I am also learning that it takes effort to be happy, while being unhappy can be pretty effortless. After hearing my daughter's words, I made the very concrete decision to be happy and it is working.

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching - a time when we often reflect on the blessings we each have been given. I have much to be thankful and grateful for. I have much that makes me happy: my husband and three daughters; my home; my health; the health of those I love, especially as I've watched my mother, a dear friend and a much-loved colleague all successfully battle cancer; and, yes, a job.

For these things and so much more, I am abundantly and truly thankful. Despite my many blessings, I've realized that work is such a significant part of my life that unhappiness in my job tarnishes the happiness I feel in the other aspects of my life.

In choosing to be happy, each day I actively seek out something amidst the uncertainty in my office to feel good about. Each day I am able to find things: a grateful client; interviewing new, enthusiastic attorneys; reading new case law that rights a wrong; laughing with a colleague about something funny that happened in court; hearing of the great work that all in the office are doing for our clients. It is the focus on the day-to-day things, rather than getting lost in the big pictures of change and loss, that keep me grounded and keep me content.

Finding happiness is not a sprint; not a do it one time and be done with it type of thing. It is a constant pursuit, an ongoing effort. It is something that seems to be more difficult for lawyers than for others, if one looks at suicide, divorce or alcoholism rates.

There are studies that say circumstances and genetics make up about 60 percent of a person's happiness quotient - a happiness set point that is pretty consistent in all of us. The remaining 40 percent is up to each individual.

Some expect happiness to find them. Some expect to acquire happiness through possessions. Some believe happiness only comes to them when they sacrifice for others. Some find happiness in the happiness of others and some find happiness in the misfortunes of others. These expectations of happiness are all accurate and present to varying degrees in each of us.

Happiness does come to each of us. It does find us. We may overlook it or fail to see it staring us in the face more times than we should. We all refuse at times to allow ourselves to be happy. When I am unhappy, I know that I am my own biggest obstacle.

Happiness comes from the smallest of things in ways and places we do not expect. To find happiness, we have to choose to notice the good in life, in our work, in ourselves. We have to want happiness and we have to allow happiness to be part of us.

We have to choose to be happy. It makes a difference. It's made a difference for me.


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