Author Arthur Brooks speaks on key to happiness
Kelsey Quint | Tuesday, November 7, 2023
On Monday afternoon, Mendoza College of Business and the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government welcomed New York Times bestselling author Arthur Brooks to the Jordan Auditorium.
Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, columnist for The Atlantic and author of 13 books, delivered a lecture entitled “Moving from Strength to Strength in Work, Life & Happiness.” Community members, faculty and students assembled in the audience to hear Brooks’ talk on the universal question: how to be happy.
Reconciling with the societal conception of happiness
Brooks opened his lecture by discussing the current state of happiness in the world today, specifically through the lens of the students he encounters at Harvard Business School.
“When people ask what I teach at Harvard … They think it must be accounting or finance or general management or something. I say no, I teach happiness. How could that be a class in the business school?” Brooks said. “But, it’s one of the most oversubscribed classes at Harvard Business School. I have two sections of 90 students. I have 400 MBA students on the waiting list for my class. I even have an illegal zoom link that they think I don’t know about.”
Why exactly do students want to take a course on happiness? Brooks explains the crisis that plagues many high-achieving students.
“They go into HBS thinking what the world tells them, which is that if they get worldly success they’re going to get happiness for free. And about the second semester of their second year, they’re on their way out, and they’re starting to figure out that that’s not right,” Brooks said. “They’ve been sold a bill of goods not by the Harvard Business School, but by the world and they’re starting to panic.”
Brooks shared an anecdote that prompted him to initiate change in his own life.
“So I hear this couple talking behind me on the plane. It’s nighttime and it’s dark and I can’t see him. But I can tell you the voices … they’re elderly probably mid-80s,” Brooks said. “[The woman] says, ‘Oh, don’t say it would be better if you were dead.’ Whoa, now I’m all ears right — now I’m really interested. And he mumbles a little bit more and she says, ‘it’s not true that nobody remembers you anymore or cares about you anymore.’ And this goes on for 20 minutes.”
Listening to the couple’s conversation, Brooks recalled assuming this man “probably didn’t get the education he wanted, didn’t get the jobs he deserved, didn’t start the company he dreamed about and now, now it’s too late. And he’s disappointed.”
Upon landing, the airplane lights went on and Brooks turned around to see “one of the most famous men in the world … an authentic American hero.”
Brooks recalled returning home to his wife that night, panicked about the course of his life.
“And she said, ‘Don’t you have a PhD? Why don’t you use it for something useful? Study yourself, find the solution. You know that model of life is wrong. What’s the right model that can actually lead you, as a person who’s working hard and trying to be successful, but can also be a truly happy person?’” Brooks said. “And so I did it. I set to work on it. I worked on it for eight years.”
Happiness, according to Brooks, is a sum of three factors: enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose. Years of data analysis proved, Brooks said, that although humans have the tendency to believe happiness is generally upwards-sloping, there is an observable pattern of happiness over the course of an average human life.
During an individual’s mid-60s, Brooks explained the general population splits into two groups: one in which happiness increases and the other which experiences decline, typically from a lack of purpose or fulfillment.
What can you do now?
After outlining the state of happiness in society, Brooks assured the audience that not all hope is lost. There are, he explained, proven factors under an individual’s control that can contribute to building a happy life.
Referencing the 80-year-long Harvard study of adult development, Brooks described “The Happiness 401k Plan,” which is comprised of seven controllable components. These include no smoking (or quitting early), no problem drinking, maintaining a healthy body weight, walking as daily exercise, developing an adaptive coping style (such as prayer and daily mass), reading to continue one’s education and finding love through friendships and a long-term marriage.
Brooks said he would prescribe this list to the general population. However, he said, “The Happiness 401k Plan” is insufficient for high-achieving individuals, the “strivers.”
What about the “strivers”?
Looking out at the audience of Notre Dame students and revisiting the man from the plane, Brooks shared there are additional challenges for the particularly motivated section of society, as they are often predestined for disappointment.
“I assumed when I found the data that successful people, worldly successful people, they’d be in the top branch automatically — not the lower branch. That’s wrong,” Brooks said. “The more successful you are in your career, the more likely you are to end up on the lower branch, meaning that after retirement, you’re going to decline in happiness. I don’t want this to be true. Believe me, I really don’t want this to be true.”
After coming to this realization, Brooks was determined to find a way to be both ambitious and happy.
“I’m not going to stop striving. So what’s the workaround? What’s the loophole? What’s the hack that you and I can actually do to be ambitious and hardworking and successful and happier?” Brooks said. “How do I avoid the trade off?”
The answer, Brooks warned, involves standing up to natural inclinations. This protest against high-achieving tendencies has four parts.
First, the striver must understand the inevitability of decline. Brooks explained that “you’re good at different things at different ages in your life, and you’re going to be most successful if you know what they are, and you design your life around your natural cognitive abilities.”
Brooks describes the transition that occurs from “fluid intelligence” to “crystallized intelligence” during middle adulthood. The former type surrounds innovation and problem solving, while the latter speaks to accumulated wisdom and teaching ability.
“At my university, the best teaching evaluations uniformly go to professors over seventy. When graduate students right out of their PhDs come to me say, ‘What’s the secret to great teaching evaluations?’ I say, ‘get older,’” Brooks said.
Secondly, the striver must realize satisfaction is the quotient of “haves divided by wants.” Rather than spending life attempting to increase the numerator, Brooks explained an individual should look to always “want less, want less, want less.”
“The math is simple. Look, you can try to increase the numerator in the satisfaction equation and temporarily satisfy levels of joy for a minute or you get a much more efficient and enduring level of satisfaction by decreasing the denominator by managing your wants,” Brooks said.
Brooks offers up the concept of a “reverse bucket list.”
“A reverse bucket list is where I take my worldly cravings — money, power, pleasure, fame — all those idols, and I list those idols and then I cross them out. Not because I won’t get worldly things, but because I don’t want them to be in my limbic system as ghosts,” Brooks said. “I want to experience those wants in the prefrontal cortex of my brain and to offer them up in my prayer such that I can manage them and they don’t manage me.”
The third step the striver must take is to recognize their journey is not a solitary one.
“The happiest people are not counting the sum of their achievements. They’re counting a sum of the love for the people in their lives and the divine love that can tie it all together,” Brooks said.
The fourth and final step on the striver’s path toward long-term happiness is to reject the allure of “specialness.” Brooks recalled his experience interviewing a billionaire on Wall Street.
“She confessed to me that she was deeply unhappy,” Brooks said. After questioning why she had never made a change, “She said, ‘Because I’ve always made one specific decision to be special rather than be happy.’”
Brooks said this desire to be different, to out-compete everyone else, severs the striver’s core relationships, instead feeding into the philosophy of “more, more, more.”
Brooks concluded with advice to the audience of Jordan Auditorium. For whatever work an individual embarks on, they should undertake it “for the glory of God and the enjoyment of man.”