Life can be darn irritating.  In a NYT op-ed piece, Arthur Brooks argues that “When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me.  When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention.  Adopting a service mind-set guarantees some measure of success.”

He cites psychological research including a study that “found that lawyers in high-income fields like corporate law, tort and malpractice were unhappier and less satisfied than their lower-paid counterparts in service roles such as public prosecutor or legal defender.”

[FWIW, I would quibble with the suggestion that lawyers in some of the higher-income fields don’t feel that they provide service that their clients really appreciate.  Perhaps high-earners feel this satisfaction less often, especially if they have stringent quotas for producing billable hours or revenue.]

Brooks starts the article talking about how people often get frustrated as they get promoted up the ladder in their work.  As an example, he cites deans who get frustrated because they aren’t doing research or teaching that they love.

Though it’s really hard to believe, some people actually like being deans.  It helps when they have the resources they need, higher-level university administrators don’t meddle too much, and their faculty, staff, and students aren’t too annoying.  Sometimes, they even like begging for money.  Some deans especially enjoy giving donors opportunities for service through their gifts, which donors often appreciate.

I would like to buy Brooks’s argument, in essence, that you will feel better if you “whistle while you work” because you are helping others (though you may annoy everyone within earshot).

Of course, this theory doesn’t include some critical variables such as the goodness-of-fit with one’s work and external factors such as the working conditions and reactions of those we interact with.

Case in point:  this public defender is very stressed because of her working conditions – which prevent her and her colleagues from providing the service they want to do (and that their clients are entitled to).

And sometimes people may feel extra pressure when they are serving others instead of just trying to satisfy themselves.  So they may feel more anxious rather than more satisfied.

Even so, I certainly agree that a service-mindset generally is good for oneself and others and it can offset some frustrations.  I suspect that for the readers of this blog, it is the source of some of our greatest fulfillment.

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org