Success Without Happiness is Failure

In the eyes of the world, most lawyers would be seen as successful. They are well educated and do important work and, at least by mid or late career, most are well off financially. In terms of the actual reality of their lives, it is a vastly different story. The research is clear and unequivocal, and so is the anecdotal evidence: lawyers live very stressful lives, exhibiting double the rate of anxiety and depression of the general population. They have high rates of addiction and score very poorly on almost all measures of mental health that relate to happiness.

LAPBC has a number of courses designed to increase fulfillment, happiness and resilience in lawyers. In several of them we focus on a very basic element of happiness: having a workable, life-affirming definition of success and living in accordance with your own personal values. This personal philosophy of life will assist you in making choices that improve your level of fulfillment and happiness.

Your own definition of success

It is critical to have a workable definition of success that is personal and specific to you. Otherwise, in default, you may unconsciously adopt society's definition, which will be some version of "When I get, achieve, or accomplish x, then I will be happy and fulfilled." For lawyers, this often becomes "When I graduate from law school, my life can begin." After that, it is "When I am finished articling, I will have it made." Then it will be "When I make partner, life will be perfect." And when that doesn't work, it will be "When I make over $X per year, I know I will have truly arrived."

As your career goes along, it will eventually be "I was wrong about my earlier expectations, but I now know I will be happy when I retire." This is a very problematic way to live. You will achieve a lot and people will admire you, but inside you will know the truth: your life is a joyless treadmill. The metaphor I often use is the dog race. A dog race has a cute mechanical bunny that goes around the track about 20 feet in front of the dogs. No matter how fast they run, how good they are or how clever they are, the dogs never, ever catch the bunny.

It is a mistake to think of being forever in the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. I am not interested in pursuing happiness or fulfillment; I am interested in being happy and fulfilled. This requires a different internal context and a different definition of success. A definition I like is: "Success for me is being in the process of creating that which is most important to me." This is the definition used by the Excellence Seminars International. It is much more effective than a "when I get" definition, for several reasons. First of all, it focuses on process, not just on the end result. Due to the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation, we quickly adapt to any new situation or new possession, and the happiness derived from it is short-lived. I once lived in a house in Victoria with a spectacular ocean view; within a few months, I barely noticed it.

Knowing your own values

The second part of this definition requires that I put some time and effort into getting a very clear idea about what is very important to me. These are my core values. When I ask the distressed lawyers I see about this, most say they have given the concept little thought, and even when they have, the answer is usually too vague to be useful. To be useful, your conception of your values must be precise and accurate. This is much more difficult than you would expect.

It is complicated for several reasons, one of which is that it is hard to separate your own values from those of society and those of your family. You may have some values in common, but your own values are like your DNA: the pattern is unique. Values are what drive your behaviours; they are "very basic needs" or "drivers". Most of the time they can be described in one or two words. We use several values tests and compare results, since people often fool themselves about what their real values are. If something is a value it will appear throughout your life in many forms, since your behaviour is driven by your values. If "prestige or being noticed" is a value, you will have had the coolest bike in elementary school, the flashiest BMW as a lawyer and an awesome walker in the seniors home. The value hasn't changed, but the form that it takes has.

Another complication is that many people have "should" values; these are values they think they "should have", but there is no evidence of those values in their real life. For example, who doesn't value good health? If you are overweight, out of shape, eat poorly and drink too much, you don't value your health--if you value something, you live it, and it will manifest itself in many aspects of your life. Or if you have a value and don't live it, you will suffer from cognitive dissonance and experience heightened stress.

People have many values, but most of their life behaviours have been driven by their top five values. Hence we focus on discovering these. In one test, we ask: "What are the top three things you are most proud of in your life?" Some lawyers will say "Getting my law degree" or "Having my children." These are behaviours, not values, but no one goes to law school by accident. They may value prestige, sense of accomplishment, intellectual stimulation, helping people, making a difference, or security We ask questions like "What experience were you looking for?" or "What was your driving need behind that behaviour?" It is more subtle than "Why did you do that?" because the answer to the question will be a series of thoughts. If the reply takes more than three words, it is a thought, but the value may be deduced from that thought.


Happiness is not something you pursue; it is a byproduct of living a life in congruence with your values. For example, "achievement" is a common value for lawyers, and as a lawyer you will get joy from being in the process of achieving. What you achieve really doesn't matter, as long as you love doing it and are aware that one goal will simply be replaced by another as life goes on.

Values tell a lot about a person. I did a values-clarification process many years ago that turned out to be life-changing. My core values are beauty, compassion, teaching and learning, spiritual and personal growth and inner peace. If that was all you knew about me, you could still give me excellent and accurate advice about such things as my lifestyle and career. As it turns out, I now live my life in a manner that is congruent with my values. It was a difficult process that took many years, including going back to school in my 40's and several career changes.