Sean Doyle has been a lawyer for over 25 years. In addition to law, he did his graduate training in applied positive psychology. Sean has not only helped many people navigate the legal process, but he’s impacting how we travel the broader contours of our lives as well.
Consistent with the rotating banner on his website that states “Give Hope. Do Good. Live Fully,” Sean is a breath of fresh air in a world that often stifles us in a smog of negativity. Sometimes life knocks us up against the ropes and rains down metaphorical fists of fury that causes us to want to throw in the towel. Sean Doyle knows all too well that “life happens,” but he’s inspiring people everywhere to keep pushing. The City of Raleigh recently gave Sean Human Rights Award for his work and writing to enhance human dignity, harmony and respect in the community. We had a chance to talk to Sean about his latest book, “Mud and Dreams” and the way he’s helping people find greater happiness and meaning.
LM: What inspired you to write “Mud and Dreams?”
SD: I have been so disheartened over the increasing levels of incivility, cynicism and despair in the culture. We have lost trust in the institutions that once gave us stability. To complicate things further, we are all rushing around and growing increasingly distracted. We are losing the ability to truly connect with one another. Of course, all of us have real issues with which we must contend. But that does not mean that we cannot still find joy and meaning and nurturant relationships. Mud and Dreams is a call to embrace the ups and downs of life. It is an argument for the goodness and reasons for hope that are all around us.
LM: In addition to law, you studied applied positive psychology. Can you define applied positive psychology for those who may not be familiar?
SD: Research in psychology has generally taken a “disease state” approach. There are vastly more articles on depression and hostility than there are on happiness and life satisfaction. Of course, this work has been tremendously important and has helped a lot of people who were suffering. However, there was very little empirical work into what makes people flourish and have a sense of meaning. In the early 1990s, Martin Seligman at UPENN drew attention to this and called for more balance in the research. That was the start of the field. In short, positive psychology is the scientific study of the things that make life worth living.
LM: What do you feel is one of the things that hold people back from truly being happy?
SD: Of course, it will be different for different people, but we are all just so busy. We feel like there is always more that we can do, and with our always-on access, our clients expect it from us too. Because of this busyness and pressure, we don’t make time to connect with others or to take care of ourselves, and we rush past all the wonderous things in our lives that are just waiting there to give us joy and meaning.
LM: How have you been able to successfully “marry” law and positive psychology?
SD: Lawyers have the highest levels of depression and job dissatisfaction of any career. There are people who love practicing law and feel deeply fulfilled by it. But the big numbers across the profession are troubling. They are a signal that we need to do something different, individually, as law firms and as a profession. In the better moments of my own practice, I try to bring respect and understanding into every interaction. For the profession more generally, I work with individual lawyers as a coach, and serve on BarCARES and the NCBA’s Professional Wellness Committee, to get wellbeing strategies into the hands of lawyers. Life balance is part of it. But it is also a matter of changing the way we practice law so that we are more attuned with the best parts of ourselves.
LM: What do you hope readers take away from “Mud and Dreams?”
SD: I wrote Mud and Dreams so that people would recognize that no matter what they are dealing with, that they are better than they thought, stronger and more capable. I wrote it to help point to the goodness and reasons for hope in our lives. The book is based on the research in psychological science but is written in poetic prose to address the reader at another level, at the level of the heart. My hope is that it will help people fall more deeply in love with life.
LM: Who has inspired you to stay positive?
SD: My first job out of college, I worked in a shelter with neglected and abused children. I remember one day taking the kids to the park. They were rolling down a hill, laughing, and getting dizzy and sick as if there was nothing but joy in the world. As a lawyer, and as an adult, it is easy to get jaded and cynical and start believing that the haze we see around us real. However, these kids lived through some truly terrible things, and yet they taught me that we have in this world everything we need to be happy. It is all there, right in front of us, if we would just look for it.
LM: “Mud and Dreams” is not your first book. Can you tell us how this book differs from your previous books (“Being Human: A Love Letter” and “Happiness Field Manual”)?
SD: My first book, Being Human, is a short “chapbook” of essays that eventually became Mud and Dreams.
While Mud and Dreams is poetic in its scope, and aims to engage the reader at the level of the heart, the Happiness Field Manual, is a short, practical guide that offers roll-up your sleeves advice of what you can do right now to enhance the texture and quality of your life. A paperback version is coming, but for a limited time, readers can get a free e-copy when they sign up at my website, www.JohnSeanDoyle.com.
LM: You know first hand how stressful the practice of law can be. What advice can you offer to lawyers when it comes to dealing with the stress of law practice?
SD: This question is so hard because there is so much we can do. Different strategies will work better for different people and on different days. I give several practical steps in my Happiness Field Manual, but a few of the big ones are:
- Nurture your relationships with others. If there is such a thing as “a secret” to happiness, this is it. We are all busy, but make the time to forge deep connections with people. Make time to create relationships of trust, with people who make you laugh and who bring the best out of you.
- Engage your strengths. What is it that fills you, and makes you feel the most at home in who you are? If you can identify the strengths of character that are the most natural and true to you, and find ways to bring them into your home and work, you are going to be more energized and happy. Maybe it is your curiosity or compassion or fairness. How would you approach work differently, if you saw what you did through a lens of these strengths?
- Slow down. Build mechanisms into your day that help you slow down and notice and savor the good things in your life. What can you do to force yourself to slow down? Which of your friends can help you remember to take a breath and appreciate the good things around you?
- Exercise. Get out and move. In addition to everything exercise does for us physically, its greatest benefits might be what it offers us psychologically. Exercise has been described as being like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit Ritalin.
LM: Where can our readers purchase your book and learn more about the services you offer?
SD: There is a link to Mud and Dreams at my website www.JohnSeanDoyle.com, along with some of my articles, and a description of the coaching and other work I do. If you sign you sign up at the site, you will also get a free e-copy of my Happiness Field Manual which has several wellbeing strategies. People can also reach me by email at LiveFully@JohnSeanDoyle.com.
LM: Do you have any closing thoughts?
SD: While so much of life can be hard and tedious and stressful, it is remarkable how strong and resourceful people can be. Despite the difficulties, despite the traumas, we can still navigate life with beauty and grace, and still find great happiness and meaning and loving relationships
John “Sean” Doyle is poet, long time lawyer and has taught psychology at North Carolina State University for close to a decade. Called the “poetic voice of positive psychology,” Sean works with lawyers on enhancing their effectiveness and increasing their sense of meaning, engagement, and joy. His book, Mud and Dreams, is a series of essays about overcoming hardship and falling deeper in love with life. For more on Sean, see www.JohnSeanDoyle.com, or contact him at LiveFully@JohnSeanDoyle.com.