Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are approaching, but with final exams on the horizon, you might be feeling anything but grateful. The idea of taking time off to fly or drive home to cook and “enjoy” a long meal with family—particularly if Thanksgiving falls during the law school’s reading period—can trigger anxious thoughts. Law students recently shared some of their worries with me:
“Being around family is stressful for me. These days, I find myself worrying non-stop about everything I need to get done for law school in the next couple of weeks and the stress of having to be around my parents and siblings.”
“On an intellectual level, I get that it’s good for me to spend time with family and celebrate a holiday that means a lot to me, but I can’t shake my concerns about having less time to study.”
“I used to love this holiday. But the anxiety I feel about having to study is all-consuming—I even notice it when I’m lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. And I’m not even studying or learning when I’m having these spiraling thoughts, so what’s the point?”
Sound familiar? Let’s notice what’s going on here.
Humans are hardwired for negativity. We are evolutionarily wired to attend to and dwell on the negative rather than the positive. Consider: a professor offers feedback on a paper you wrote. Some of the professor’s comments point out what you did well; other comments identify areas for improvement. Your negativity bias causes you to discount the positive comments and dwell on the constructive or “negative” ones. From an evolutionary perspective, our negativity bias helped our species survive; because we were attuned to threats and danger, we were more likely stay safe and pass on genes that scanned for negative stimuli. This negativity bias may serve us well when we are in the jungle and need to be vigilant of our surroundings. (Lions? Tigers?) But it’s less helpful when we are trying to make progress on an outline for torts or civil procedure.
What we practice grows stronger. When we constantly worry and engage with negative thought patterns, such as “there aren’t enough hours in the day” or “I’m never going to get these outlines done,” what happens? Well, we end up worrying even more, engaging even more negative thought patterns. In neuroscientific jargon, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Translation: negative thought patterns, repeated over time, will reinforce neural pathways that make additional negative thoughts likely. As a result, any tendency to default to negative thinking will become even stronger.
Legal training can make us pessimists. And the plot thickens. Legal training sharpens our ability to identify anything that could possibly go wrong. Day in and day out, lawyers spot issues and problems that may or may not arise in a client’s situation. Of course, professors expect us to deftly anticipate potential problems and to find legal and ethical ways to avoid them. One day, clients will expect the same. But, without an antidote, this legal training can turn us into hard core pessimists. Merriam Webster defines pessimism as “an inclination to emphasize adverse aspects, conditions, and possibilities, or to expect the worst possible outcome.” Does this sound like you?
Let’s recap, the human negativity bias, our legal training, and our reinforcement of both can make it difficult to appreciate or even notice any of the good in our lives. Is there a way out? Introducing . . . an essential power skill for law students: Gratitude (a.k.a. “issue-spotting for the good”).
Cultivate gratitude. Much like we are trained to spot legal issues and risks, we can train our brains to “issue-spot” for the good in our lives. A leading scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, reports that people who practice gratitude experience a host of benefits. Improved psychological and physical health. More restful sleep. Higher self-esteem. Greater optimism and generosity. Stronger positive relationships. Increased mental strength. In fact, a few years ago, a law student reflected on this site that gratitude and a jar of Post-Its got her though law school.
Gratitude is not about denial. The goal of a gratitude practice isn’t to deny the challenges or the pain that we might be experiencing. Illness and loss, troubling jury verdicts, rocky relationships, and feelings of overwhelm are real. Rather, through gratitude, we can develop the capacity to also notice and appreciate at least some of what is going well in our lives: the presence of a loyal friend, an opportunity to learn, a hot meal, a warm jacket, the love of another human being (or of a beloved furry creature).
Let’s give the practice a try.
Keep it simple and specific. Right now, think of one, two, or three aspects of your life that are going well. Get granular. A friend texted you a kind or encouraging message that made you smile. Your computer is working. (E.g. the multi-color wheel of doom has not appeared in weeks.) A friend shared her sandwich and chips with you at lunchtime. Your dog is curled up next to you.
Pick up a pen and write. Use an index card, a journal, a post-it note, or a piece of scrap paper to write down some of the things or people for which you are grateful. Incomplete sentences are encouraged. Punctuation is optional. Misspelling is allowed. Invest no more than three minutes of your time to do this.
Make it a habit. Try doing this once a day for three weeks. You might find it helpful to do this at the beginning or at end of your day. Set a reminder on your phone so that you remember to reflect on “what went well.” Enlist a friend who can nudge you to practice daily. (Do them a favor: nudge them back.)
Begin again. You will miss a day from time to time. No matter. This is a practice; perfection is not the goal. You can always begin again.
The takeaway? Because “neurons that fire together wire together,” your gratitude practice will gradually enhance your ability to notice and celebrate the good.
What we look for determines what we see.