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The Legal Burnout Solution: How to Improve Well-Being Through Gratitude

By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp


When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree. —Vietnamese Proverb


Have you ever had something happen that you immediately deemed as terrible, but later on, you recognized it as a “blessing in disguise”? Indeed, whether something is “good” or “bad” is a judgment; we don’t have a choice in what life throws our way, but we do have a choice in how we perceive what happens to us.


Gratitude is a state of being where we have thankful appreciation for the way things are. Practicing gratitude can help us actively reframe our typically negative thoughts and choose to see the “good” in our lives now. For example, we have heard from many attorneys that they feel overwhelmed with their workload. Instead of framing this as a negative situation, we can consciously choose to see the positive—these lawyers are blessed to have a thriving law practice and an abundance of work!


Research shows a strong correlation between practicing gratitude and positive effects on our overall well-being, including improved health, better life satisfaction, and stronger relationships. Indeed, gratitude practices are gaining favor at prestigious institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, where prospective students are now being asked to pen a thank-you note as part of the admissions process. Applicants are then encouraged to send or deliver the note of appreciation, which presents an opportunity to benefit both the writer and the recipient. We are hopeful that we’ll continue to see gratitude exercises encouraged more broadly throughout our society and especially in the legal field.


The co-authors firmly believe in the power of gratitude to improve our health and well-being. Recently, Becky and Cindy met in person only for the second time since launching The Legal Burnout Solution at the height of the pandemic. We visited a local restaurant in Kansas City—aptly named Café Gratitude—which incorporates positive affirmations and contemplation into the meal experience. When we got our meal, we were asked to consider the question of the day, “What are you proud of?” Without missing a beat, we both responded that we were proud of ourselves and the lawyer wellness initiative we have created together. Although the pandemic upended life as we knew it, we turned lockdown into a unique opportunity to help others and now were blessed with a strong business partnership and deep friendship.


Below we explore the power of gratitude, why it’s an essential tool to promote attorney well-being, and simple ways to incorporate it into your everyday life.


The Power of Gratitude


When we demonstrate that we are grateful through words or actions, most of us feel a bit happier as our mood lightens in response. Over the past several decades, research has established a scientific basis for these feelings. Furthermore, having a gratitude practice can have a positive impact on many aspects of our lives on a long-term basis.


According to Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California Davis and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude, “The practice of gratitude . . . can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep. Gratitude reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, and is a key resiliency factor in the prevention of suicide” (Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)).


Below we explore several realms in which scientists have shown the correlation between a gratitude practice and positive outcomes on our physical and mental health:


Decrease Your Body’s Stress Response


Those working in a legal setting are most likely exposed to stressful situations on a frequent basis. The body of someone under persistent and unrelenting pressure is constantly barraged by adrenaline and cortisol, which can lead to physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, such as high blood pressure, headaches, depression, angry outbursts, and more.

Stress is probably here to stay. However, the adverse consequences can be minimized by having a range of “anti-stress” tools at hand, including gratitude.


According to a study reported in Psychology Today, the cortisol levels in someone engaging in a regular gratitude practice can be decreased by about 23 percent. Another group of scientists found that keeping a gratitude journal can improve diastolic blood pressure, while a 2012 study conducted by Thnx4 determined that gratitude journaling can reduce headaches, congestion, stomach pain, cough, or sore throat. Since cultivating gratitude is free and relatively simple (as described below), why not give the practice a try? You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain!


Improve Sleep Quality

If you are faced with a sleepless night, we recommend taking the advice of Irving Berlin as expressed in his song “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep).” A 2009 study that included 400 adults (40 percent with sleep disorders) supports his advice. In concluding that the participants’ quality of sleep was greatly improved by gratitude, the researchers explained, “When falling asleep, grateful people are less likely to think negative and worrying thoughts, and more likely to think positive thoughts.” Although you probably already know whether or not you have sleep issues, if you have any doubt, check out the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, which assesses sleep quality and disturbances.


Improve Workplace Culture


A step toward preventing burnout is to establish gratitude as a core value of a work environment. Recent research confirms that people who feel underappreciated at work are more likely to experience burnout symptoms. The Mayo Clinic reports that those suffering from burnout may feel disillusioned, find it hard to concentrate, and lack the energy to be consistently productive. Needless to say, an organization is not well served by people exhibiting symptoms of burnout.


Overall, creating a culture of gratitude improves organizational outcomes. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that “Almost all employees (93 percent) who reported feeling valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work and 88 percent reported feeling engaged.” Motivated and engaged employees are more productive, miss work less frequently, and tend to take on responsibilities that lead to their own growth.

This means that you can improve workplace efficiency by expressing sincere appreciation to colleagues and staff. All that it takes is a simple verbal thank you, a note of appreciation for a job well done, an inexpensive gift, or recognition at a staff meeting. These small efforts can generate monumental results and serve as the foundation for a culture of gratitude.


Tips for Cultivating Gratitude


Below we outline a few tried-and-true strategies to help foster gratitude in your life today. Experiment with multiple gratitude exercises and find what works for you personally. To reap the most benefit, regularly incorporate these practices into your everyday routine. For example, you may find it especially helpful to incorporate some of these exercises before bed, which can help you fall asleep and further improve your sleep quality:


Gratitude journaling. Keep a gratitude notebook and spend several minutes each day writing down and focusing on the things you are grateful for in your life. You can write about three to five things that went well for you that day or simply focus on one thing you are thankful for and include as many details as possible. Try this exercise first thing when you wake up to set the tone of your day or right before bedtime to positively reframe your thoughts before falling asleep.


Breathwork and visualization. Sitting in a comfortable position or lying down, close your eyes and tune your awareness in to your breath. Focus on taking long, slow deep breaths, allowing your belly and chest to expand gently as you inhale and soften and relax as you exhale. As you breathe in, call to mind things that you are thankful for (you can even visualize white or golden light or the specific things you are grateful for filling you up); as you breathe out, visualize yourself letting go of anything that no longer serves you, whether it’s negativity, tension, or stress.


Write a thank-you note. Set aside time on your calendar each month to write a thank-you letter to someone who has helped or supported you and whom you never got a chance to formally thank; perhaps this person did or said something that truly changed your life for the better. We then challenge you to send or deliver the letter in person. As we referenced earlier, expressing appreciation can translate into positive effects for all involved. (Indeed, one study found that writing a letter of gratitude immediately led to increased happiness, with the positive effects lasting for a month!) You can even do this exercise for someone who has passed on or whom you don’t have contact with anymore, which can help us heal and cultivate gratitude in the face of challenging circumstances.


Prayer and meditation. Prayer and meditation can be helpful vehicles to connect with something larger than yourself and amplify the power of gratitude beyond our individual selves into the world at large. If you believe in a higher power, connect through prayer or meditation and express thankfulness for the many blessings in your life.


As you do these gratitude practices, notice how your body and mind feel and focus on feelings of appreciation and thankfulness for all the blessings and abundance in your life. Strive to take this feeling and state of being with you as you go on with your day or drift off to sleep. Even instituting one of these practices on a consistent basis can lead to significant, positive effects on your overall health and well-being.


Moving Forward


At legalburnout.com, we are particularly grateful to GPSolo eReport readers for giving us the opportunity to share our message for more than two years! We appreciate the feedback received from many of you. Another way to connect is to join us in a journey of gratitude for the next month. Send an email to cindy@legalburnout.com, and we’ll forward our Mindfulness Resource Guide, which includes a 30-day gratitude exercise.


In our next column, we will explore practice, mindset, and ethical issues faced by attorneys suffering from long-term health challenges.


Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers. Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, December 2022 Issue (Vol. 12, No. 5) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

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