Monday, January 28, 2008


Bliss, by Eric Weiner, is the title of a book about happiness. It is the pop psychology version of the much more serious work being done by economists, psychologists and neurologists.

Reading it reminds me of the recent discussion about unhappy law professors. There were several comments but no unhappy professors weighed in and the discussion ended. Maybe the discussion would have been longer if it had been about unhappy law schools. It's one think to love your job but another to work in a happy place. I know of many law professors who tell me they work in unhappy places. And I suspect many of those who claim to work in happy places are affected by some kind of relative deprivation that has led them to begin viewing what they have has happy.

In Bliss, the author visits some of the happiest and unhappiest places on earth. It is not entirely useful to generalize, but happy places are places where people trust each other, where there is a lack of envy, cooperation is common, and the people have meaningful control over their lives. Putting aside the problem of whether these factors cause happiness or are caused by happiness, the question is whether you can apply the generalizations to law schools? I think so.

Trust is big, no doubt. Administrator and colleagues should say what they mean and, if they change their minds say, so rather than reconstructing the past or claiming to have been misunderstood. This means saying "I got that wrong," or "I've thought more about that and changed my mind." When is the last time you heard a Dean or colleague say either of those?

As for envy, I am not sure. Does unhappiness lead to envy or does envy lead to unhappiness. In any case, to the extent envy undermines law faculty happiness, I am not sure how it can be addressed. "Hey, everyone, stop that envy stuff," somehow seems unlikely to make a dent. Of course, if no one has anything there would be little to be envious about. I do not like that solution either.

Cooperation is important and the lack of it probably feeds into distrust and unhappiness. Members of some faculties seem to go out of their was to encourage a lack of cooperation. New faculty are recruited when they arrive to be with one faction or another. They get an earful about who is not to be trusted and who should not be a mentor or a draft reader. The people who thrive on decreasing cooperation are like polluting factories.

The control point makes sense to me. In the context of the book it means being part of a community or country that is small enough to actually undergo change. All other things constant, does this mean that smaller faculties are happier? "All other things" swallows quite a bit. For example, I like the free-flowing nature, diversity, and relative anonymity of a large faculty and will happily accept some dysfunctionality to have that. Still, I would think that having a sense that institutional change could take place and one might be a part of it means greater happiness.

Oh yea, some of the happy places do quite a bit of drinking. This would favor a requirement that all faculty have a couple of shots of vodka before being allowed in the building. Unfortunately, unhappy places also do a fair amount of drinking. So, on this one, I suggest experimenting before committing either way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished the book. I am a recovering lawyer working at the law school where I took my degree (I am staff, not faculty). I couldn't help but think how one makes a law school more like Iceland and less like Moldova. At the end of the day overcoming envy is probably the biggest hurdle (intra and interschool envy -- darn those USNWR rankings!) for a discipline/profession that worships at the alter of elitism.

The drinking, if in moderation (a moderation that would certainly include faculty meetings) can only help.

1/31/2008 9:36 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I prefer ruminations from philosophers, East and West, on the subject of happiness or, better, eudaimonia. So too for work on the emotions, although I think psychologists on occasion make meaningful contributions here as well. I don't think neurologists have much to tell us about happiness or our emotional lives in general.

1/31/2008 10:34 AM  
Blogger lblidsky said...

Wasn't it Tolstoy who said that all happy faculties are alike, but all unhappy faculties are unique in their dysfunctions? The problem with law faculties,and with academia generally, is that it is full of relentlessly competitive overachievers who are looking for someone to recognize their genius. Yet they are seeking validation in precisely the realm where they are least likely to get it. (Reminds me of the song, Lookin' for Validation In All the Wrong Places)

2/08/2008 7:23 PM  

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