The Happiness Project

A Lawyer’s Guide to Happiness: Give Subway Directions, Cook Healthy Food

One of my favorite people with whom to discuss happiness is Michael Melcher . Michael is a career coach who has an incredible breadth of personal experience from which to draw: While in college, under the name Jane Harvard, he wrote a novel with three friends, The Student Body ; he has a JD/MBA from Stanford and has worked as a lawyer; he served in Calcutta, India, and Taipei, Taiwan, in the Foreign Service; he has a blog with a lot of great material, at the  Creative Lawyer .

One of his most recent accomplishments is the publication of the book The Creative Lawyer . It’s described as “a practical guide to authentic professional satisfaction” and is aimed at helping lawyers be happier in their work. For my happiness project, I’ve read a lot of books about career satisfaction, and this is absolutely one of the best (and I’m not just saying that because Michael is a friend!). In fact, I think that the book isn’t helpful for lawyers only but for anyone who is thinking about ways to be happier at work.

Michael has not only done a lot of thinking about happiness, he’s also done a lot of thinking about what practical changes actually can help boost career happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Michael: Giving someone directions on the subway or helping them carry a bag up a flight of subterranean stairs makes me almost bizarrely happy.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18?
Whatever issues you have at 18 related to self-acceptance, moodiness, need for validation, and desire to be special (to name a few) will most likely still be present when you are 30, 40, or 50. They probably will never go away. But you can learn ways to manage them. So I guess I would say that a big part of happiness is recognizing who you actually are and finding ways to bring out the best in that person and manage the less wonderful parts.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Comparing myself with others is something that I do consistently, and it is always an impediment to happiness. See my answer to question no. 2 above.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Every single time I exercise, I feel better. Even though I know this, it does take some effort to get myself out the door. I have also discovered over the years that eating quality, healthful food has a huge impact on my overall happiness, especially if I cook it myself. One happiness learning is that the physical and emotional components of happiness are completely intertwined.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to or detracts a lot from their happiness?
People confuse “I can’t” with “I won’t.” I see this especially in my line of work, which involves working with people to take action to improve their careers and lives. It’s so automatic for people to say they can’t do things: They can’t move, they can’t get by on less money, they can’t send their kids to public schools, they can’t find a good partner, they can’t pursue their passions. In most cases the truth is that they can, but don’t want to accept the consequences of those choices. It’s fine to choose to do or not to do things, so long as we acknowledge that we are choosing. But when people speak in a way that eliminates agency over their lives, they end up frustrating, angering, and depressing themselves. And they seem inauthentic to others. This is why we never want to listen to someone complain about all the things they can’t do in life.

Aside from raising children, our careers are usually the most direct creative expression we have. Yet most people I know live in a state of uncertainty and anxiety about their careers. The old paradigms don’t work, but we don’t have any new ones to replace them. There’s a kind of pressure to stand for finer things, but one’s own creative expression in the world is one of life’s important things. Bright, conscientious people today are incredibly frustrated because they aren’t sure how to go along this unknown path, feel embarrassed that they’re making a big deal about it, and are also terrified that they’ll get things wrong.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy—if so, why?
At my current point in life, I feel closer to who I was as a little boy than I felt for much of my life. I was a creative, positive, curious kid, but at a certain point I fell into a preprofessional kind of track that was not very satisfying to me. It took me a long time to unlearn that.

I think that I have always had a rich range of feelings—I have a lot of zest for life but at the same time have a lot of feelings that can go negative. For instance, I can’t watch nature shows or anything that shows animals or fish or birds being hurt or killed. Nature actually kind of freaks me out. I love it, but it is so Hobbesian. So I guess for me a full life includes both happy and dark moments, feelings of great satisfaction along with unquenchable yearnings.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
All the time. I am like that character in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections who is constantly monitoring his serotonin level and wondering which factors are leading to which results.

Having followed your blog for some time (and having read your awesome manuscript) [thanks, Michael!], I think that you are really onto something: creating and following a set of specific habits is probably the best thing we can do to keep happiness alive in our lives.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy didn’t—or vice versa?
I’m surprised that selling makes me happy.

* A thoughtful reader e-mailed me the link to a fabulous post, Abstract City , by Christoph Niemann. Anyone can enjoy these, but they are particularly charming when you live in New York City.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click here . Or just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line.