Mission Happiness or Mission Impossible?:  Can Law Schools Create Happy Law Students?  Should They?


[7 minutes from Nancy on studies, definitions, etc.]


 “Can Law Schools Create Happy Lawyers?”  Creation, as God could tell you, is hard business.  It’s a lot easier to buy something off the rack.  So it is when it comes to happy law students.  The easiest and quickest way to have a happy student body is to find a bunch of happy applicants and enroll them.  Forget the LSAT.  Forget GPAs.  Rely instead on the MMPIs.  Chances are, if a school brings in a happy entering class, they’ll remain mostly so for three years unless you really mess things up.

Levels of happiness are, for the most part (estimates range from about 50% to 80% or more), genetically determined.  Identical twins report happiness levels that are much closer to each other than is the case with fraternal twins.  Identical twins raised apart in very different environments tend to have similar levels of happiness. [geneticscartoon]

We all have happiness “set-points” that influence our happiness.  The highs and lows of our relationships, our changing financial situation, our good health (or lack of it)—all these things move us up or down from our set-points—but over the long run we tend to move back towards our setpoints. [setptgraph] Most of us think things will be rosier down the road, but the reality is that the best predictor of how happy you will be a decade from now is how happy you are today.

(A footnote: a study this year by a Dartmouth professor concluded that happiness levels in American adults follow something of a U-shaped pattern: highest in the 20's and 60's and lowest in middle-age, bottoming out around age 45.)

Happiness set-points are related to a set of personality traits that have a genetic basis.  Persons born with a predisposition to risk-taking and extroversion tend to be happier than persons born with a predisposition to wariness, introversion, and introspection.   Those traits, in turn, seem to correlate with relative levels of activity in the right versus the left prefrontal cortex.  Persons that experience more left prefrontal cortex activity are happier than persons who experience more right prefrontal cortex activity.  [cortex] These levels of activity in the two sections of the cortex are biochemically determined, with the stress hormone cortisol being the key controlling chemical.

(By the way, the Dalai Lama seems to be on to something and perhaps we should all try sitting in a lotus position and chanting "omm."  Experienced practicioners of meditation seem able to regulate their cortisol levels and shift activity more to the left prefrontal cortex.  When you build that new addition to your law school, think of adding a meditation room.)

Natural selection has left us with roughly equal populations of risk-takers and danger-watchers.  Societies have needed those who would venture out to bring home the hairy mammoths and fight off the warriors from the next valley over—but it has also needed people to worry about the fires going out and the kids staying warm.  [happyqualities]


Want a happy student body? We cannot directly measure happiness set-points of applicants.  But here's what we could do:  Admit a disproportionate number of students whose applications show signs of risk-taking (e.g., skiing as a hobby) or extroversion (e.g., membership in debate club or cheerleading).  [extroversiontable] Admit disproportionately few people who seem anxious or shy.  If an applicant calls up worrying about whether you got his or her application, throw the application away. 

Should we do this?  Should we discriminate against people on the basis of personality?  We discriminate on the basis of intelligence, which also is strongly influenced by genetics--no law school would long exist if it were to scrupulously disregard in the admissions process all indications of intelligence.  Why not discriminate in favor of happier students?  Is there some value in having a relatively equal mix of extroverted risk-takers and introverted worriers?  

Extroverts are more likely to be more successful and have a larger impact on their communities than introverts—and don’t law schools want to produce successful lawyers and have an impact?  Happier people tend to be more successful; success is less likely to bring happiness.  That is, happiness is more a cause of success than it is a consequence of success.

If we strive to admit a happier student body, we most likely will produce a more successful group of alumni who will contribute more to the school.  One caution, however: The skills that make happier people more successful—their ability to network, their contagious optimism, their risk-taking, their greater abilities to achieve rapport with clients—none of these skills is particularly helpful in passing the bar exam.


 There are four general ways to approach the issue of happiness in the admission process.  Quickly, they are:  [admitoptions]

1.  We could focus like a laser on happiness; we could try to produce a maximally happy student body.  We could require applicants to submit to psychological tests designed to measure their happiness level.  Enough said: No law school is going to adopt this approach.

 2.  We could disregard our applicants’ happiness levels much as we do--to pick another genetically influenced trait--physical attractiveness.  We could require applicants to submit photos and then award points for upturned noses, big eyes, or luxuriant hair.  We don’t.  And we properly don’t do this even though—and the social science data is quite clear on this—physically attractive people tend overall to achieve more success than people who aren’t considered as physically attractive. 

 3.  With the help of a psychologist or two, it would be possible to design an admission process that tilts decisions in favor of happier students.  We could give “pluses” to information on applications that positively correlate with happiness.  When a letter of recommendation describes an applicant as “outgoing” or “gregarious,” we could give that applicant an extra point.  On the other hand, when an application essay shows strong evidence of angst or introspection, we could subtract points.  (Of course, if it became known by applicants we were doing this, essays and letters of recommendation would change accordingly—so it would be best to keep this under our hats.)  We could give more positive weight to experiences ranging from student government to social clubs to debate to participation in theater productions.  If a student indicates his or her favorite hobby is hang gliding, give the students extra points for that evidence of risk taking.  If the student expresses a fondness for stamp collecting, dock him.  

4.  We could choose to pay attention to factors correlating with happiness, but consciously strive to create a student body roughly evenly divided with students with above average and below average happiness set-points.  Happiness diversity, if you will.  Let’s make sure that for every risk-taking gregarious student we have an anxious introvert.  Maybe the mix—a mix we see in most populations--is important in ways we don’t fully understand. 

Happy students in, happy students out.  Should we give happy students "an in"?  I don't have the answer, I just pose the question.

For purposes of the next short segments of our presentation, we'll assume that we don’t change the admission process.  Is it still possible to create happier law students—happier within the specific domain of law school, if not in the rest of their lives? 

If, taking a cue from Bhutan’s leader, we identified maximizing gross student body happiness as our primary goal, what would we do? Nancy will offer a set of suggestions, then I’ll conclude with a second set.  [Nancy]


[7 minutes from Nancy on (1) Connections and (2) Flow]



  1. Giving Students More Control.

Nothing is more important to happiness than a sense of control.  [control] It cuts across all domains, from relationships to jobs.  If you think you’re losing control, you’re unhappy.  

Dozens of studies with subjects ranging from college students to British civil servants to elderly nursing home residents consistently show that control is closely related to happiness.  In one study, for example, nursing home residents put in control of watering and tending a plant reported higher levels of happiness (and, remarkably, half the death rate) of residents in a low-control group who were told that a staff person would take care of the plant.  In another study, happiness levels among British civil servants turned out not to depend on salary levels but on the degree to which the various jobs allowed the workers to exercise control.  In short, “mattering makes us happy.” 
If mattering makes us happy, then making students feel that they matter should be one of the highest priorities for any school aspiring to be a happier place.  How can that be done?

There are some obvious, but not always easy, ways to make students feel that they matter:

We should learn students' names and use them--as challenging as that might be to some of our middle-aged brains after we've watched 10,000 students with 10,000 names walk our halls and take those final walks across the stage.

We should make students feel that their answers and work product are important, by praising good work and expressing disappointment when the effort is not what it should be.

We should accept students as full participants in the decision-making processes of the school by giving them voting positions on all law school committees affecting student life--including appointment committees.

We should give students more control over their studying conditions—provide work spaces in the law school where they control lighting, can play music, store food, and display personal items.

Although it creates tension with our educational goals, we should allow students to feel that they are capable of achieving their desired balance between work and play.  A student without time for family and friends will not be a happy student.

If control is so important perhaps we could make students happiest by turning the farm over to them--make all courses elective, make grades and homework optional, let students decide what day and time classes meet?  I went to a high school where they really did let us inmates run the asylum.  We could create our own courses, recruit our own teachers, or--if we wished--spend entire days in the student lounge playing cards and eating donuts.  It was the most radical experiment in the history of public education—and I can tell you, as a guinea pig in that experiment, that I was never happier and I never learned more.

Not all students, however, have my tolerance for chaos, ambiguity, and choice.  Some students (probably by virtue of their genetic programming) suffer when too many choices are offered.  These students, instead, thrive in more structured and ordered settings.  If all our students were positioned the same along the chaos-to-structure continuum, our task would be much easier.  But they are not.

Radical educational freedom for students would make some students happier and others less happy.  In his wonderfully insightful book, The Paradox of Choice, Bernard Schwartz explains that most people in the modern world suffer from too much choice, not too little.  Being able to select from 90 different brands of toothpaste or 110 types of cereal causes many people--especially those Schwartz calls "maximizers" (persons determined to make the perfect choice)--to feel overwhelmed.  They simply are unable to digest all the information necessary to make the best possible choice from such a staggering array of options--and they feel frustration and a sense of lost control.

Schwartz suggests that people feel most in control of their lives when they are given choices--but not TOO MANY choices.  Any professor who has watched students paralyzed with indecision on a writing topic understands this.  Many of us have come to appreciate that letting students choose from a defined list of options (perhaps 3 to 5) is likely to allow students to find a good topic fit without the time expense and regret that usually accompanies selection from among the infinite or near infinite....

The notion that choice should be available, but not unlimited in scope, has many applications.  We should have fewer required courses and more distributional requirements.  Isn't it obvious that for some students their happiness levels would be higher if they didn't have that required 9 AM appointment every Tuesday and every Thursday with that annoying Professor Smith in that Commercial Transactions course they could care less about? Give them a choice from a set of related courses.  Or we might have a "default set" of courses that students take--take unless they care strongly enough about the issue to petition for an exemption (and we should be generous in our grants of exemptions). 

One of the most important ways to make students feel that they matter is to make them feel as though in entering and proceeding through law school that they have embarked on a noble journey.  This is no easy task in an era of lawyer jokes and references to ambulance-chasers, and when public opinion polls show respect for lawyers ranking only ahead of used car salespersons.  We need to honor our students' choice of law as a career by offering courses, and content within courses, that show lawyers as justice seekers, justice givers, and problem solvers.  History has provided us examples of hero-lawyers, lawyers who have served their clients and their communities well:  We need to tell their stories.  We need to inspire.  We need to emphatically reject the notion of lawyering as an amoral profession. 


None of us believe that it is possible to be a truly great teacher without caring deeply about the welfare of students; how can we expect our students to be great lawyers if there is nothing that they care deeply about?  Ultimately, the control essential to our students' happiness is the ability to choose what they shall value; it is not, as commonly believed, the freedom to chase their ever-changing wants.

We should encourage students to make downward, rather than upward, comparisons  [downwardcartoon]

Sometimes, it turns out, finishing worse is actually better.  Researchers evaluating the happiness of Olympic medal winners discovered that bronze medalists generally were happier with their finishes than were silver medalists.  Why?  The silver medalists tended to compare themselves with gold medalists, the athletes who achieved the goal they had long sought; bronze medalists, on the other hand, were just happy to be on the medal stand, thinking about how close they came to joining all those other hard-working athletes who failed to medal at all.

The acerbic social commentator H. L. Mencken observed, “A wealthy man is one who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”  We seem to understand that happiness depends less on income than how we’re doing compared to the Jones’s.  Asked whether they would prefer to have an income of $50,000 when the average is $25,000 or and income of $100,000 when the average is $250,000, most persons polled chose the first condition.  Everyone knows that $100,000 will buy a better standard of living than half that much, but being relatively well-off is seen as clearly superior to being relatively poor.  We are okay without that 60-inch plasma screen so long as most of our neighbors don’t have one either.

It is human nature to compare our situation with those around us.  If we find our fate better than our comparison group we tend to be happier.  So happiness turns in part on the group we choose for comparison.

 What does this mean for law schools that want to increase student happiness?  [downwardcomps]

We should offer clinics for the poor, the disabled, and the elderly--clinics that remind students that their own lots are better than those of much of the world’s population.  Happiness research is unambiguous in showing that students who volunteer to help people in need are generally made happier by the experience.  Volunteering brings with it downward comparisons--and an increased sense of mattering.

One experiment suggests that class projects that pair students--especially if we have relatively happy students to begin with--might increase happiness levels.  In one study, subjects were assigned a task which they did sitting next to an associate who was doing the same thing.  Not surprisingly, the subjects who did better than the associate were made happier.  Interestingly, however, only people with low happiness set-points (generally a more anxious, introspective group) were less happy when they performed more poorly than the associate.  Happier people, it seems, are less inclined to make upward comparisons than downward comparisons.  Happy people don't try to keep up with the Jones's--in fact, happy people could give a rat's ass how the Jones's are doing.  (I might note that this study suggests, if we really wanted to fine-tune our admissions process to produce a happy law school, we'd be especially focused, when filling in the bottom of the class, on selecting happier applicants.)

Another way to encourage more downward comparisons would be to change our grading curves to give more “--” grades and fewer “+” grades.  Students who receive an A- instead of a B+ are likely to get more of a happiness jolt out of that promotion than would be lost when a student gets a “B” instead of a B+.  A student who received an A- is likely to think, “Boy, I’m glad that just snuck into the A range” instead of falling into the B’s (the downward comparison group) whereas a student who receives a B+ is less likely to grateful than narrowly escaping a B than she is to think of how close she came to that sought-after A.  More minuses, fewer pluses—it all comes out in the wash and (with minor adjustments) doesn’t have to significantly affect overall GPAs.

We should encourage students, when job hunting, to think about becoming bigger fish in smaller pools, becoming brighter stars in a dimmer constellations--pick your favorite metaphor here.  The evidence is compelling that students will be happier with their career choices if they are local heroes rather than marginal contributers to a more powerful enterprise.  This approach, needless to say, runs counter to that adopted by most law schools.  Law school faculties seem to feel that placing their alums in the most prestigious of big city firms reflects well on their school's reputation. 

This suggests a very basic question: Should we value our school's reputation over our graduates' happiness?  We have tended to think of these as complementary goals.  They aren't, always.   We have to make a choice which we value more.