Wellbeing is defined as being as physically fit as you can be, enjoying life and work, being connected to positive others and retaining an ability to both keep perspective about and ability to recover from difficult times.
A significant piece of work by The New Economics Foundation identified five drivers of personal wellbeing. These are strongly supported by Mind, the mental health charity and the NHS.
After years of research, experts on stress and depression like Professor Mark Williams at Oxford University have concluded that our lives are indeed more full and demands are higher on all of us. It can sometimes feel that life is moving at an unrelenting pace. Consider how frequently you have a conversation and struggle to recall the details afterwards, or travel to court or chambers and barely remember a moment of your journey. Taking a moment to pause often seems like a luxury we cannot afford.
Compelling evidence has been building in the past forty years which unequivocally demonstrates the value in becoming more aware, moment to moment. When we are able to live more in the present we start to train our brains to reduce rumination and worrying about future states. This leads to increased positive mental states, self-regulated behaviour and boosts self-knowledge and awareness.
“By paying attention to our thoughts and feelings in this way, we can become more aware of them, less wrapped up in them, and more able to manage them”
Ed Halliwell (Mental Health Foundation report, 2010)
If ever there was a ‘silver bullet’ for great all round personal wellbeing, it is regular physical activity.
The physical benefits include:
Regular physical activity also has known mental health benefits. The risk of depression is lowered by 30%. Cognitive decline is also reduced by up to 30%. Physical activity has a powerful impact on the increased production of endorphins (those ‘feel good’ hormones) and a reduction in cortisol levels (the ‘stress’ hormone).
Studies demonstrate that physical activity also benefits concentration and focus; Dr John Ratey, a Harvard Professor of Psychiatry, recommends taking physical activity before an important public performance in order to sharpen focus.
Memory and mood are boosted by being more active, as is productivity. These are all hugely important skills for your successful career. Being able to regulate emotional responses, remember key case law and use your time efficiently both in and out of the courtroom gives you a huge advantage over the opposition.
It may be tempting to treat physical activity in the same way as our busy lives and work out intensely. However, on a stressed body and mind this can have a negative impact. If you are experiencing symptoms of extreme fatigue, a hard bout of physical activity will put the body under too much strain. At times like these, choose gentle stretching or walking instead and respect the repair and recovery that your body requires.
Consider your life as a barrister. You may have frequent long commutes to court and find that being able to get involved in social interaction with colleagues is difficult because you don’t live locally. Long working hours are inevitable in our profession, reducing time available with family and friends. Perhaps you live in the city for part of the week and return home at weekends. Variable working patterns and working long into the night preparing for court, make it hard to commit to social engagements.
Human beings are social creatures and we instinctively know that we need good quality relationships to lead a fulfilled life. Studies on the over 50’s from the University of Chicago demonstrated that loneliness can be twice as unhealthy for us as obesity. Younger people (18 -34 years) are experiencing loneliness more than ever and this is more likely to result in depression than in older subjects. The Mental Health Foundation found that 42% of us have felt depressed as a result of loneliness.
Research tells us that loneliness is harmful due to five main reasons:
Scientists know that oxytocin, the hormone responsible for affiliation protects us from cardiac ill-health. This hormone is released when we have a physical presence with people we care about, which means that we cannot solely rely on catching up with family and loved ones via social media and emails.
Being curious and continually learning throughout life have also been shown to drive personal wellbeing measures including life satisfaction scores, optimism and efficacy.
Learning has many benefits including raising self-esteem, confidence and building a sense of purpose. Professor Paul Dolan, a behavioural scientist at the London School of Economics has found that happiness is driven by having a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives, balanced with enjoyment of one off, hedonistic pursuits.
Curiosity is a phenomenon that we see in children but outside our job roles, we may find that as adults our lives have become more one dimensional. Positive psychology (the scientific study of what makes us flourish and thrive) demonstrates that being curious broadens our minds to more possibility in life. This has a direct correlation on our ability to cultivate more positive emotion.
Instinctively it feels good to give to others. We now know that reciprocity also drives long term self-reported wellbeing. Professor Sonia Lyubomirsky of the University of California demonstrated that carrying out one simple act of kindness per week over a six-week period increased wellbeing in participants when compared to a group that committed no acts of kindness.
Giving may look like a formal volunteering exercise or perhaps pro-bono legal opportunity or it could be subtler that this. Small actions can have just as deep an impact on wellbeing as the more obvious ones.
Asking for help is never easy. The world of The Bar is a fiercely independent and proud one. Expectations of quality and service are high. However, you’ll provide the best service to your clients when you are at your healthiest and when life and work are in balance. If you feel the balance slipping and stress becoming a normal part of your life, you can take action to bring things back on course.
Knowing your own warning signs allows you to deploy strategies which can help manage your psychological wellbeing in the short and long term. In doing so, you will increase your resilience and greatly reduce the chance of becoming unwell.
Read some of the personal stories offered by barristers who have suffered with mental health issues.
The information and resource packs on this website are designed to help you and your colleagues to work as a community for better wellbeing and professional resilience. If you want to provide feedback on these resources, or to get involved in promoting wellbeing please get in touch.
It can be difficult to make a living from law and it can be pressurised and demanding. Competition and an adversarial approach to everything can make collegiate relationships difficult. This website aims to provide you with the knowledge to manage these stressors, make emotionally informed, wise professional decisions and thrive in your chosen profession.
A simple expression that sums up wellbeing is ‘travelling well’
1 in 6 barristers feels in low spirits most of the time