January 2021

The genius of gratitude

By Joseph P. Beckman

Recently, I helped settle an incredibly contentious, emotionally charged family dispute. It took, as predicted, a proverbial “courthouse steps” event to finally convince one psychologically cruel family member to abandon his bullying to avoid seeing his abusive house of cards disassembled under oath. 

My clients were understandably shaken up over the trauma this dispute visited on multiple generations of an extended family. Although big dollars were at stake, it was as much about an end to the near-constant drama. When the settlement papers were signed, my client said wistfully, “I’m not going to mind that we’re stopping the legal expense, but I’m actually going to miss our therapy sessions.”

This remark was telling. To be honest, I probably relied more on my psychology degree than on my law degree to keep the client centered, while also pacifying the sometimes tightly wound rainmaker on the case, and occasionally others on the team who were tempted to stage a mutiny or two against a well-intentioned but difficult client.

Looking back, I realize that I managed the stress and emotions swirling around that case so well because I had integrated three simple daily habits into my life:

  • regular exercise: I love my 6:00 a.m. hoops game (when pandemic rules are not in effect). It is physical, competitive, and social, and comes with a fantastic level of good-natured trash talking;
  • daily meditation: I get five minutes (and try for at least 15) with my Muse headband within 10 minutes of rising; and 
  • keeping up with my nightly written “gratitude journal”: It takes just five minutes to make three entries.

These little habits, which require no more than a 20-minute investment each day, kept me centered. During stressful moments, they helped me keep a healthy perspective and a sense of humor. They reminded me of how much I was grateful for, which in turn helped me keep my cool when my client began to overheat. My inner strength transferred to the client, whose meltdowns dwindled from twice a week to once a month. The change was so powerful that during the last two months of the case, my client began showing up at each meeting with homemade baked goods for the team—no joke!

Gratitude journal: The five-minute miracle cure?

Studies have shown that, typically within 21 days, a nightly “gratitude journal” can be as effective as commonly prescribed antidepressants. Moreover, these studies suggest that the effects of journaling are not tempered by side effects or plateau. Keep journaling, and soon that attitude of gratitude infuses most everything in your day!

Journaling requires putting the blue screens away about 30 to 60 minutes before getting in bed for the evening and writing down in detail three things in your day that went well. Most people who do this keep a small bound journal. Having prior entries in front of you each night extends their positive effect, particularly on the occasional neutral day when you struggle to find three things that went well.

The research suggests a written journal is the key to success. So is the timing—right before bed. Think about it. If the last thing you do at night is reflect on the positive events of the day rather than letting your mind race about proofing that brief, are you more likely to sleep soundly, or less? 

Keep the momentum going

Positive thinking throughout the day is as important as just before bed. “We all need to treat ourselves with some kindness and give ourselves a little space,” says Ruth A. Bahe-Jachna, Chicago, a past cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Health & Wellness Task Force. Bahe-Jachna takes at least five minutes after she sits down at her desk each morning to clear her mind, closing her eyes and concentrating on her breathing.

“I tell myself to focus. To slow down. To take my time,” she says. “When there is a particularly full plate, I think to myself, ‘You’ve got this. You are gonna get through the day!’” 

Bahe-Jachna admits that she has not yet mastered the art of daily self-reflection. “What’s funny is that it seems that the days when I need it most are the days I am possibly least likely to invest the five minutes in myself!” she bemoans. But, as she recognizes, taking those five minutes is worth it: If we fail to “sharpen our saw” by investing in our own mental health and balance, we risk becoming ineffective and inefficient. Attacking a problem with a dull tool requires more passes and gets a far less clean cut.

Nonetheless, any progress toward the ultimate goal of constant mindfulness and gratitude is important. Why? Because you deserve to treat yourself kindly… and your clients deserve that, too! 

JOSEPH P. BECKMAN is a co-chair of the MSBA Wellbeing Committee.

©2018. Adapted from Litigation News, Fall Season, Volume 44, Number 1, originally published 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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