For people of a certain stripe, happiness is something like a bonus emotion that lucky, or blessed, people get to go along with the substantive parts of life. For others, the idea means more. It’s an idea to which Arthur Brooks, the author and longtime president of the American Enterprise Institute who holds an endowed chair at Harvard University and writes a widely read column for The Atlantic, dedicates significant time. There’s a good chance you’ve been following along: His How to Build a Life project with The Atlantic attracts hundreds of thousands of readers monthly. Brooks talked to Common Good earlier this year.
What is the relationship between living better and happiness?
Many people believe that happiness is a fanciful and unpredictable byproduct of luck or good fortune. You can’t really predict how it will happen, but we hope for it, like we hope our lottery numbers will come up. Turns out, that is a terrible way to approach happiness. The best research shows that happiness is understandable and can be increased. There are certainly things beyond our control that influence our happiness. But there is also a significant fraction of our happiness that is directly under our control, taking shape in our everyday lives. That is the foundation of my “How to Build a Life” column. Building your life includes building your happiness.
How are you defining happiness?
The first thing that comes to our minds when we think about happiness is the emotions associated with it. But happiness is not a feeling — it is a multifaceted concept with elements of pleasure and even suffering. The easiest way to define happiness is through a simple equation: Enjoyment plus satisfaction plus meaning equals happiness. Those three elements make up the macronutrients of happiness, and we need each of them in balance and abundance. When we are out of balance we feel unhappy. Going all in on enjoyment is like subsisting on highly glycemic, empty carbohydrates. All meaning is like only eating protein — it becomes utterly joyless in a hurry. And so on.
Your new book, From Strength to Strength, applies these ideas to people in the latter half of their lives. Why that demographic?
Old or young, each of us wants to be happy. But as we age, we tend to miss the signposts pointing to happiness and instead travel down the path promising worldly success. I saw this when I had an encounter with one of the most famous people in the world and discovered the person was acutely unhappy. We work hard, experience success, and tirelessly work for more so as not to lose our edge. In the mantra of work-eat-sleep, we lose our happiness mostly due to neglect and wind up with work-eat-sleep-dead. There is an abundant scientific literature that suggests we can beat this inevitable decline by restructuring a few rules of the game. If we pay attention to what happens to our intelligence, how our relationships evolve, and what investments pay off in life, we can add a new dimension of success in our careers and lives that includes our happiness.
To what extent is the path to happiness personal or communal?
The scientific literature is abundantly clear on this point: Happiness thrives in community. We’ve learned from studying happiness over the life course that it is essential to cultivate love in relationships and to find a way of coping with life that doesn’t push love away. Communities help bolster and facilitate individual happiness by providing stability, love, and support. The last few years have taught us that virtual replacements have a role in our lives, but are no substitute for in-person social interactions. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy has shown that loneliness in the U.S. is at unprecedented levels with deaths of despair and repercussions constituting a public crisis. For many, we’ve emerged from the pandemic lockdowns in an unrecognizable Kafkaesque world. But the post-pandemic world is an opportunity to refresh our happiness and our life together.
What role do faith communities play here?
One of the most significant elements of our happiness is our faith, even for those who don’t belong to a traditional religious community. Exploring the most important questions in life in a community of like-minded individuals sharpens you and provides a sense of belonging. Faith communities are the fertile ground where the expressive work of individual growth and shared freedom take root.
St. Irenaeus wrote that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Faith brings us to life by showing us our meaning, bringing us together in love, and giving us a panoramic perspective on life. And in my view, it also does so because it exposes the truth about the universe.
Before this iteration of your career, you ran the AEI and published more around economic policy. What is the connection between that work and what you’re doing now?
Public policy is at its finest when it lifts people up, especially those at the margins of society. While running AEI, I was personally focused on how economic policy can improve individual lives. I would encourage my colleagues to picture the individuals who would directly benefit from their research and advocacy. I’m doing the same today. I’ve consecrated my work to lifting others up through the science of human thriving. As a social scientist, economics and positive psychology are two tools in the service of the same goal. I have always loved that the American dream was inspired by ambitious riff raff who believed the pursuit of happiness was an “inalienable” part of life. Each one of us has an opportunity to chase after that dream, and I’m glad to be doing just that in my role now