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Attorneys and Positivity

 By Tatiana Pavlova-Coleman

Contemporary positive psychology research presents happiness as a pie chart where 10% of what determines the level of happiness in people’s lives are life circumstances, 50% are predisposed character traits, and 40% represent what individuals can change and improve. An important ingredient in this process is the self-realization that humans are capable through their actions and/or the practice of particular positive interventions to directly influence their happiness.

As attorneys we are trained to analyze and foresee worst-case scenarios. Furthermore, by dealing with typically adversarial situations, we often focus on finding fault in the potential opposition's position or try to minimize the weaknesses in our own positions. Most legal research involves analyzing what is wrong with a particular argument, case, statute, or position. When you also add the stress and competitiveness associated with the law profession, it is not a surprise that studies have found that as women attorneys we often experience decrease in our psychological and emotional well-being, physical health, and we also do not spend much time focusing on positive thinking. 

Positivity is not simply thinking happy thoughts and being mindlessly optimistic, but a complex emotion. Positive thinking, if given minimal attention, can make a powerful difference in our personal and professional lives.

Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina is a world-leading expert on the subjects of positive emotions and positivity. Her “broaden-and-build theory” suggests that positive emotions are more than just indicators that a person is flourishing. Positive emotions can also create psychological well-being and physical health. The theory states that positive and negative emotions have their own distinctive characteristics and function differently. Fredrickson (2009) argues that negative emotions narrowly focus the mind and direct the body to a very specific action, while positive emotions broaden a person’s possibilities for attention span, thought and action. 

Because of the broadening effect of positive emotions, individuals are able to think more creatively and come up with new and original solutions. In an empirical study, doctors primed to experience positive emotion were found to be more efficient when diagnosing patients. This and other research show that even small affect interventions are able to induce positive emotion (whether induced by receiving a small gift, reading positive words, or watching a humorous video) and significantly improve decision-making and cognitive flexibility. 

In addition to the broadening effect, positive emotions build a person’s intellectual, emotional, and physical resilience by “undoing” what negative emotions do Experiencing positive emotions can reduce stress and anxiety at the physical level, and can permit people to recover faster from stressful events, to build resilience, and to improve coping skills, which in turn predicts more positive emotions.

How do we increase our positivity? We can start by searching for positive meaning in our lives, by trying to savor goodness and recognize the good within the bad in everyday situations. We could also add the practice of the simple yet powerful intervention of writing “three good things” that happened at the end of each day. We can be mindful and put effort into being kind and open hearted. We must follow our passions, be grateful and compassionate towards ourselves and towards others, and build and nourish positive relationships and high quality connections. There are millions of ways in which we can evoke positive emotions (as long as we focus on it) and be better and healthier humans and professionals.

Tatiana Pavolva-Coleman is WLALA's UCLA Student Liaison.  Ms. Pavlova-Coleman has a law degree from Bulgaria and  has a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from UPenn.