Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S2. EPISODE 3
The Happiness Rebellion
Featuring Arthur C. Brooks
What is happiness, and why does it feel so difficult to find? The path to purpose, meaning, love, and contentment is actually no mystery, says Harvard University social scientist Arthur C. Brooks. He shares the research for how to invest in a thriving “happiness 401k.”
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am here as always with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are having a series of conversations with stimulating people about stimulating, complicated, often unaddressed aspects of who we are, who we want to be, what we’ve been, and what we’re heading to. And today we’re gonna have a conversation with one of the more unusual, and I find, compelling voices in our public sphere, Arthur Brooks, who has had multiple careers and worn a number of hats and is now a bestselling author, as well as a professor at Harvard, both of which are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the sheer elegance of how Arthur describes what’s most essential in the human condition, which we will get into with him. But as a quick harbinger of things to come, one of the things that is most striking about our contemporary world, isn’t just the noise of negativity, which The Progress Network seeks to offset, not necessarily with an aura of positivity, but with a reminder of the complexity of the human experience and the degree to which are all in the present responsible for creating a future that we wanna live in, and not the future that we fear we’re heading toward.
What’s unusual is the way in which so much of life has become siloed and segmented. So you can have a conversation about politics. You can have a conversation about personal development. You can have a conversation about religion. You can have a conversation about sports. You can have a conversation about international affairs. You can have a conversation about economics. But it’s very difficult to have a conversation about all those things simultaneously and one’s personal relationship simultaneously. And yet we’re all individuals having emotional reactions to all of those things. And as we’ll talk about, it would be a very different and perhaps much more constructive world if we allowed the personal to intersect more frequently with all of those siloed categories. So, Emma, tell us a little bit about Arthur and his most recent book as well.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): For sure. So as you mentioned, Zachary, Arthur is a professor at Harvard and he has written 12 books. His most recent one that we’re gonna talk about today is called “From Strength to Strength,” and that came out in February 2022. He’s a host of the podcast How to Build a Happy Life, which is a really useful listen. And before all this, he served 10 years as president of the Washington DC-based American Enterprise Institute, which is one of the world’s leading think tanks. So we’re really excited to talk to Arthur and please welcome him with us.
ZK: So, Arthur Brooks, let’s start where we will almost certainly not finish, which is with your new book, which for those of you doing this in a video context is nicely blown up behind your right shoulder, “From Strength to Strength.” For those of you listening to the podcast, you’ll just have to take my word for it, that it’s blown up over his right shoulder.
So this book, like a lot of what you’ve you’ve written about over the years, has a component of you trying to answer questions for yourself and in so doing also answering questions, presumably for all of us, given that we all share more than we don’t. So just tell us, give us the, you know, the radio pitch for the book and what it’s about.
Arthur C. Brooks (AB): Sure, absolutely. It’s a book about not leaving your happiness up to chance as you age. When I had this idea—I’m a social scientist. I teach happiness classes at Harvard University, and I realized that there’s not very much about happiness as you get older. There’s a lot about, you know, life hacks for young people, which is great. And I teach, you know, 27-year-olds, 28-year-olds at the Harvard Business School. But there’s this assumption that as you get older, you just gotta hope for the best, live right, and just sort of assume things are gonna turn out okay for your happiness. And that can’t be right. Like, I’ve been in this business long enough to know that there’s gotta be a 401k plan for your happiness out there someplace.
So I spent seven—and by the way, I did this for myself. This is not research. This is me-search, which it all is when you’re a social scientist, and especially specialized in happiness. And I spent seven years trying to find the practices that most reliably change the odds that you’re gonna get happier as you get older, as opposed to less happy as you get older. And I think I actually found the answer. I think that I can pretty much… I can’t guarantee, but I can remarkably raise the odds for anybody who reads the book or is listening to us here that they can be happier at 75 than they were at 25, if they do the things that are in this book, that all the, of the happy older people have in common.
EV: I love hearing that because I’ve been telling people for most of my life that I’m 65 years old at heart. So I love to hear the fact that that’s not just a, you know, breezy, throwaway line, that I can actually get happier as I get older. But you know, if you’re gonna give the people listening, some spoilers, is there, like, a top five we can give them to make their happiness trajectory go up and not down?
AB: Yeah, for sure.
ZK: Only do the top five and make sure that you say at the end that if you wanna know six or 10, you’ll have to buy the book.
AB: Yeah, you’ll need to buy the book. You know, that’s the premium content.
Well, to begin with, there’s the… One of the things that people who work hard and play by the rules and try to achieve a lot and are successful all think that’s wrong is that you’re gonna be satisfied by achieving all your dreams, that if your dreams come true professionally and for worldly terms, you can bank that and count on being happy when you get older. And that’s completely wrong. It’s not just false. It’s the opposite of the truth. There’s a really interesting dataset—actually it’s a ton of data by a bunch of researchers that looks at how happy people get when they get older. And you find that, generally speaking, adults, their happiness kind of drops a little bit over most of their young adult years. Not a lot, just a little. You know, you’re having your kids and that sort of thing.
And then over early fifties, it turns around, and almost everybody gets happier from 55 to about 70. It’s good years for most people. But then people break up into two groups. About half the population keeps getting happier all the way to the end. And the other half starts getting unhappier from about 70, 65 or 70, all the way to the end. So the key thing is, like, what do the people on the upper branch have in common, and what can I do to stay off the lower branch? That’s basically what it comes down to. And most people think that if they have a lot of success in their life, worldly success, you know, they make a lot of money, they do what they want, their worldly dreams come true, then they’ll be super happy. They’ll be on the upper branch. And that’s actually wrong. The strivers in life have this curse, actually, appropriately called the strivers curse, in which if you are, you know, somebody who does a lot, you’re gonna know when it’s over. Look, if you never do anything with your life, you’re not gonna know when the party’s over, because there was never a party. But if you make a big party with your life, when you actually inevitably have some declines, you’re not gonna like it and you’re gonna be frustrated. And so that’s the first big myth that we need to explode is that worldly success is not the key to late-life satisfaction. On the contrary.
ZK: I wonder though what the nature–nurture part is, right? I mean there’s a lot that you write about in this that is very much in the spirit of we, all of us have a great deal of individual autonomy about how we relate to our lives, our present, our past, our future. The pushback against that would be, there are clearly people for all of our lives who we encounter, including ourselves, who are wired a certain way. You know, there are people who are more predisposed to be aware of the downsides or to be Eeyore-ish, to take a Winnie-the-Pooh analogy. And then there are people who are much more likely to always look on the bright side of life, all due respect to Monty Python. And you know, I think about this a lot, and we created The Progress Network partly as way of saying we could all collectively be better served by being attuned to what is positive or to the work that people are doing to create a more positive future, as attuned as we are to the negative, in balance. But there are clearly individuals, right, who are somewhat constituted one way or the other. How does that affect what you’re saying?
AB: Yeah, for sure. Well, 50% of your happiness is genetic. And we know this from identical twins that are separated at birth and raised by different families. And then they get them back together as adults and give them personality tests. So between 40 and 80% of all of your personality is genetic basically, which is important to keep in mind, and it’s about somewhere between 44 and 52% of your baseline happiness is genetic. So I’m not gonna say that that everybody can be perfectly happy at 75, because some people are like Eeyore, you know. And some people are just ebullient when they get happier. But everybody can be happier than they would’ve been otherwise. And that’s a claim that I think is a responsible claim to make. You know, some people who really struggle with happiness or struggle with mood disorders, struggle with really high levels of negative affect they can improve.
And it’s interesting because you see a lot of people who are less neurotic as they get older, they’re more open to experiences as they get older. They have personalities that are friendlier as they get older, because they’re doing a lot of this stuff right. They’re getting their happiness hygiene on point. And that’s what this book is all about. This book is not about perfect happiness. This is a book about getting happier than we would’ve been otherwise and getting happier as the years go by. And those are claims that we can really, really make no matter where you start out.
ZK: I think a lot of people think of happiness as a state of being where there is less pain and less conflict and more pleasure and more feeling of connectedness, and that you are who you want to be, and that your life is as you wished it to be. So where, though, is the role of constructive struggle in that, or of, as it were, you know, pain as part of the gain and not simply a state of being that you define as happy, which means one of the absence of pain or the absence of conflict or the absence of challenge?
AB: Yeah, so you’re defining Epicureanism, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who defined happiness as a series of pleasant feelings characterized by peace and tranquility and friendship, et cetera. And that’s where the guy idea of hedonia comes from. It’s hedonic with respect to good feelings. Hedonism comes from that. Although, the ancient idea of hedonism was not unbridled, immoral activity. On the contrary. Epicurus was deeply, deeply moral and deeply upright. He had a cult, actually, around him. But they were very peaceful, and they were very friendly, and the whole idea was good feelings. There’s lots of good feelings, lots of stuff to read, lots of stuff to eat, and good feelings all around. Today, we would think of that as kind of psychological hedonism. And a lot of people kind of go according to this theory that the philosophy of the best life is to get rid of the bad stuff.
Back in the sixties, they’d say, “if it feels good, do it.” Well, psychological hedonism todayespecially among millennials is more like, “if it feels bad, get rid of it.” “If it feels bad, treat it.” If you go to the campus counseling center where I teach at Harvard University and you say, “I’m feeling really, really rotten.” They’re gonna treat you. They’re not gonna say, “well, guess what a full life has suffering.” They’re not gonna say that to you. But that’s true, it turns out. The problem is that there’s liability involved, and you don’t know who actually has a mood disorder. And so you can’t send people away saying, you know, “you’re living a full life,” you know, “get in touch with your suffering.” But you know, the truth is we all kind of do have to do that in some cosmic sense.
So the way to think about this for everybody is that happiness has three elements. It has three macronutrients to it, sort of like food is made up of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Happiness is made up of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. And purpose requires suffering. It just does. You know, when I ask people, “when did you find your true self?” You know, “when were you aware of the meaning of your life?” They never say it’s like that weaken Ibiza. That’s not what they say. You know, they talk about, you know, my mom got sick or the family business went broke or I got kicked outta school. You know, they always talk about hard things, and maybe there were some pleasant things thrown in there, but it’s always hard things. And the reason for that is because pain and suffering and your reaction to them, this is what makes you grow. This is what defines your purpose. Purpose is a macronutrient of happiness. And so paradoxically, if you go through life trying to avoid unhappiness, what you wind up doing is avoiding a lot of your own happiness.
Life is a big experience. Most people, they don’t even wanna be happy all the time. Most normal people, they wanna feel the appropriate feelings to life, that’s why people listen to sad music. Sad music brings you down, man. I got data showing that it will literally stimulate the parts of your brain, the anterior cingulate of the brain, which is responsible for you feeling physical pain. You listen to sad music, it stimulates the same part of the brain. People do it on purpose because they wanna feel something, and feeling something is part of being alive. That’s part of purpose. And that’s actually part of happiness in the proper understanding of eudaimonia, a good life, a full life well lived. So yeah, we shouldn’t be in the absence of suffering. That’s not life at all.
EV: Yeah, Arthur, it’s interesting. What you say about millennials in particular wanting to, you know, avoid the bad stuff or get rid of the bad stuff. Because it really seems like we’re having, at least in my age group, the sort of, like, collective thing about acknowledging trauma, and that we’re all weighed down and bogged down by trauma. But on this sort of social level of conversation, there’s not a whole lot about what you mentioned in the book and are talking about now, which is that trauma and loss are not always harmful. Like it’s an enormous opportunity to create meaning in your life. And I’m wondering about the loss of, like, that social conversation of transmuting the trauma and loss into meaning. Why has that been lost from society?
AB: Well, part of it is that society tells us that a good life is one in which you feel good all the time. The second thing is that we’ve got kind of the victim Olympics going on all the time, which is to say, you know, when there is suffering and trauma, there are two ways to look at it. One is, “this is happening to me, somebody’s doing this to me.” And the other way is, “I am experiencing this.” And those are two different ways of actually looking at suffering, looking at pain. And to say “I am experiencing this” makes it part of a full life. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to eradicate it. Of course you want relief, and you will do what it takes to get real relief, but you’ll experience the suffering while you’re on the path to relief.
That’s entirely different than getting no meaning from it because you’re in the mentality of grievance and victimhood. And again, there are legitimate grievances in the world; don’t get me wrong. And people are victims, to be sure. But if we’re in kind of a culture of saying, you know, “I’m looking for the ways that things aren’t working out for me, and I’m looking for the perpetrators of those things, and I’m gonna concentrate on the grievance per se,” you’re not gonna find personal meaning and personal growth in those things. On the contrary. And a lot of our politics today on both right and left are based on grievance. They’re based on identitarian grievance, and as such, it’s kind of a source that victimhood is permanent and a source of power. And that’s not gonna give you meaning. That’s certainly not gonna bring you the macronutrient of happiness.
ZK: We talked about this a bit, Emma with Jonathan Haidt in the first season, who’s another member of The Progress Network.
AB: Yeah, he’s an old colleague and collaborator of mine. He’s fantastic.
ZK: And we talked a lot about… The challenge of suffering, right, is not to then descend into victimhood. It’s to have that experience, and I guess to some degree to own it. I know that’s a bit of a cultural cliche, you know, the idea of “own your experience.” But, but the value in that is, sort of back to the mantra of your current book, is you are then living your own experience, right? You’re not living someone else’s experience of you or someone else’s diktat of your life. But I think that is a very challenging one, right? To embrace what you’ve just said, you know, that sometimes life, particularly when there is an endeavor that has meaning, can be immensely challenging and immensely difficult. And that doesn’t really scan from our traditional notions of happiness, which you’ve articulated so beautifully are I think largely at this point filtered through more the hedonism and the, you know, the lens of zero pain. I’ve felt like happiness is a challenge for Americans because it becomes a set point that assumes the absence of difficulty. And therefore it’s either always a will-o’-wisp, meaning it’s a never achievable state of being, right, except on, I guess, a lot of sedatives, and even then, not really…
AB: Not really. You’re not experiencing your life at that point.
ZK: Right, then you’re just numb. But there is a cultural thing too, right? You talked about some of it’s genetic. There are also cultures that are more like happiness cultures, and there are cultures where it’s just not, it’s not seen as appropriate to speak of happiness, right? And Americans clearly have an expectation of it, where other cultures don’t. How does that in your mind shape some of these questions?
AB: Well, I’ve written about that a lot. And there are cultural differences in how you talk about happiness, how you define the word happiness, and how you actually experience happiness in different places around the world. Collectivist cultures do it in different ways than individualist cultures, for example. In parts of East Asia, a lot of happiness is defined as tranquility. It’s defined as social peace, for example, is how you would think about it. And so there are those particular differences. But as a general rule those indices of, you know, world happiness—the United Nations shamelessly plugs this index of happiness, where every year they talk about the happiest countries, and it’s nothing more than a pretext to say that Northern European social democracies have got it right. And all the rest of us need to fall in line.
You know? And it’s like everybody’s gotta be Denmark. I mean, that’s what the United Nations really wants is for us all to be Denmark. And so they say, “see,” and they hold out the carrot of happiness. But the truth is, we define happiness differently than the Danes. I’m not gonna cast aspersions. Denmark’s awesome. But I don’t wanna live in Denmark. My grandparents were immigrants from Denmark for a reason. They were ambitious riffraff that didn’t wanna have a Danish lifestyle. They wanted to start a farm in South Dakota and see if they could make it on their own. Different strokes, right? And different countries actually have different sets of ambitions.
The really interesting thing for me is how we as people are all the same. And we’re way more the same than we are different. Way more the same. This is one of the key things in an identitarian, polarized world where everybody’s looking at these big differences—my tribe, your tribe; my opinions, your opinions; my this, my, that; this group, that group. Ugh. It’s so boring because the things that we have in common are so vast and so important. And so the really interesting things—okay, so half your happiness is genetic. Another half of that last half, in other words, a quarter, is circumstantial. And we’re all open to the same set of circumstances. And everybody thinks that if their circumstances in life are right, they’re gonna be permanently happier. And that’s wrong. That gets to this first mistake that people make. “If I make a bunch of money and I have a successful company, or if my kids do really, really well,” whatever it is, “then I can bank it and I’ll be happy for the rest of my life.” Circumstances never last. You’re on a treadmill. You can’t, as Mick Jagger sang, you can’t get no satisfaction. Actually, you can’t keep no satisfaction. You can get it, but you can’t keep it. And so what you really need, what we all need, is to have the right happiness hygiene, the right habits of happiness. And those are the kinds of things that we all need to do at any age to be as happy as we can be, and the right things we need to do to bank to get happier as we get older. And those are the two things I teach about and that I write about.
EV: Yeah. So, Arthur, that’s what I was just about to ask, which is really a me-search question. Because of course your book is primarily for people who are, I guess, in the latter half of their life…
AB: Actually, for you, because, you know, the earlier you start on your 401k, the more it grows and the better it is when you retire. So this is a book for, you know, 25, 45, 65, any age, really, so that we can get happier as we age, for sure.
EV: This is exactly what I was gonna ask. Because a lot of the book, as you mentioned before, is about, like, your career goals are not gonna bring you lasting happiness. And I remember very clearly reading something by David Brooks, who was sort of like, if I were to fashion a dream career, it would be something like David Brooks, and it was like, one of his books hit the bestseller list, and he felt nothing. And I was like, that freaked me out. Like it really honestly freaked me out.
It made me wonder reading your book, like, is it, we should be striving and setting up our life and doing the career things and all this and all that into a certain age when we start to decline, or is it what you’re saying now, which is like, we’re doing that, but we’re also setting ourselves up for happiness, success. And are the two things mutually exclusive? Like how does that all work if you’re on the younger side?
AB: Yeah. David Brooks and I are old friends. We’re actually not related, even though we share a surname. And he did tell me that. I remember, you know, David said, like, “yeah, I got number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and I felt nothing.” And I’m like, “let me see for myself, David, let me see for myself.” And it’s interesting because, last week this book was number one on the New York Times, bestseller list. And I thought to myself… I gotta say, I didn’t feel nothing. It was awesome. It was awesome. But I was mostly happy for, you know, the people who made it so. My editor and the people who pushed the book tour and the media, these are the people who worked super hard. I’m just the guy who wrote the book and whose name is on it, but it’s a team effort. And you’re so happy for the people you love who are behind it.
And that kind of points out the real truth of this, which is that happiness from achievements comes because of a shared success with people you love. Happiness from achievements doesn’t come because your dream came true in that particular moment, you could bank, “I’m a number one, New York Times’s bestseller forever.” No I am for a week. It’s intense satisfaction for an hour, and then a glow for a day, and then the credential for a week, and then you’re just another loser. So if you’re trying to bank those things, you’re gonna be hopelessly frustrated. On the other hand, if you’re gonna say, “This is awesome. Look what we did. This is an opportunity for us to come together and love each other and compliment each other and say, ‘yay, team.'” That’s real satisfaction. And that’s what you put in the bank, in your 401k of happiness, is improving relationships on the basis of mutual admiration. And that’s one of the things I write about in the book, as a matter of fact.
ZK: Well, I mean, there is sort of the mid-ground between those, “It made no difference, and it made every difference.” There’s, I guess, a Buddhist saying—I don’t know which tradition—of, “How do you attain enlightenment? Chop wood and carry water. What do you do when you attain enlightenment? You chop wood and carry water.” And it’s the idea of—I’ve thought about this a lot also having written a lot—you had better enjoy the process of writing a book because the process of publishing a book and promoting a book is about a nanosecond relative to the process of writing it, thinking about it, cogitating it, the effort in it. There’s a lot more behind the scenes than in front of the scenes.
AB: For sure. And that’s life. There’s an old existentialist joke: “What’s first place in a pie eating contest? It’s pie.” So I hope you like pie, right? Because if you don’t like pie, don’t enter a pie eating contest. And we’re all just in a bunch of pie eating contests. I mean, I have these MBA students at Harvard, and I’m like, “I hope you like pie. Because you’re studying pie, you’re accumulating pie, and all you’re gonna get as a result of this, your reward, is a lot of pie for the rest of your life.” And so this is the key thing. You better like writing books because if your book is really successful, which it usually isn’t, I hope you got a lot of inherent satisfaction, no matter what. And if it’s really successful, it means you’re gonna get to write a whole bunch more books. So, you know, time for pie.
EV: I think we should name this episode that: Time for Pie. Arthur since you’re pointing out, okay, a big thing to put into your happiness 401k—which I really like as a metaphor—is loving relationships. And of course there’s a lot of talk these days about the loneliness epidemic and how we’re lonelier than ever before. There’s some pushback about that. Some people say, actually, it’s not true. Wondering where you stand on that. Are we lonelier than ever before?
AB: Yeah. It’s true. It’s a huge problem. And there’s a couple of different ways that we look at it. You know, the number of people that we report know us wellthat has been declining for a long time. The number of people that we consider to be close friends, that’s been declining for a long time. And then just the markers of loneliness with respect to depressant symptoms has been increasing for a long time. And then the real question is, you know, what’s going on? Part of it is that that romantic love is in just wholesale decline all the way across the West. And I don’t know about the data outside the West because I haven’t seen it, and maybe it doesn’t even exist, but in the United States, for example romantic love for people in their twenties today is down by about a third. And, you know, that’s catastrophic.
And part of the reason for that is that, you know, people talk about the passion for romantic love, the dopamine. You look at the brain of somebody who’s recently fallen in love, and it looks like a methamphetamine addict’s brain. I mean, it’s just oxygenating the ventral striatum of the brain. And it’s unbelievable. But you know, what happens, the reason that doesn’t bring us ultimate happiness—because falling in love is exciting, but it doesn’t bring happiness. It brings jealousy and surveillance behaviors and all kinds of things that are not associated with happiness typically. But in a healthy relationship, you also get this other neuropeptide that functions as a hormone called oxytocin, and oxytocin is the warmth that comes from human love. The best relationships, they go from passionate to companionate. And the basis of that is very, very, very close friendship. So the fact that that romantic love is in decline means that we have less friendship and we have more loneliness.
The second thing is that we’ve got this junk food epidemic called social media. The junk food of social life is social media because you can’t get any out oxytocin from social media. And we’re craving this neuropeptide in our brains. Our brains are screaming out. It’s physically uncomfortable. So during the coronavirus epidemic, during the lockdowns, people who were either isolated completely or just living with somebody, or even living with family but hadn’t really improved their relationships with family—this was like the divorce lawyers full employment act of 2020, you know, it was just ruining relationships actually—they found that they were restless, they couldn’t sleep. And a lot of this had to do with this oxytocin scarcity that was going through their brains. And people would turn to binging social media as a result of that, and actually get lonelier. It’s like, “I’m hungry. So I’m gonna eat Big Macs and fries and chocolate shakes all day long.” And you’re gonna over-consume calories and under-consume nutrients. And it’s a direct metaphor for what’s actually been going on.
So you have a lot of fear from young people of rejection. You have a culture that says that men and women should be afraid of each other, or should resent each other for all sorts of reasons. And then you have a social media culture in which people are substituting these virtual relationships for real relationships. And all that adds up to is a real oxytocin deficit in our society. And that’s manifest in loneliness. And I looked coming outta the coronavirus epidemic, ordinarily, you’d have nine and a half percent of the population having depressive symptoms, symptoms of clinical depression. It’s 28% right now. And most of that’s because of loneliness.
EV: I can’t help think as you’re saying this, about the decline of romantic love and the junk food eating, is just the immense popularity of shows like “Love Is Blind,” which is basically like romantic love junk food on steroids.
AB: Yeah. It’s also… It’s nutty. It’s crazy. I mean, all of the stuff that we see, not only is it super torqued because of our culture and the way that we’ve told people that they should resent and be afraid of each other. It’s also torqued in a big way in our popular culture by these myths of things like destiny and soulmates. And these things are completely wrong. Love at first sight does not exist. I mean, there’s a ton of research on this. It’s these sort of romantic ideas that, actually, what they wind up doing is destroying romance. People who believe in soulmates are more likely to blow up their relationships. They’re more likely to ghost their partners when things aren’t going right. They’re less likely to display forgiveness. They don’t even have the hygiene to develop a good romantic relationship. So our culture, it’s a double whammy. We’re taking away the oxytocin and we’re replacing it with some sort of noxious but colorless and odorless gas that we get that, you know, things like “love is blind.”
ZK: But isn’t there the question then of expectations? You talked about that before, about happiness and what we think of happiness. These are very sort of short-duration datasets, meaning our awareness of a delta of a change from depressiveness to happiness, or contentment to discontentment, is really of the past 50 years, maybe 60. But it’s not like these questions have been asked for time immemorial so that we can have a control group of Burgundian peasants in 1512 versus Cambridge in 2022.
AB: That’d be grim. Yeah, I don’t want that.
ZK: Right. So, I wonder if we’re extrapolating a lot based on a moment in time where a series of expectations about what is possible for human life are probably at an apex based on the 20th century. And I mean, look, you can disagree with me on this, it just seems to me that the belief that a human life can be safe, healthy, long, happy, full of friends, connectivity, romantic love, self-actualization, a job you want, a house you’ve created, where more is possible rather than less, like, all that suite of expectations—which is a product of 19th century progress and 20th century, somewhat, material success and innovation—would be pretty alien to a lot of human beings.
AB: Yeah. And add in 21st-century atheism, and you’ve got the full monty.
ZK: So how much of happiness, or rather, how much of discontent is the mismatch between unrealistic expectations—you talked about it before, you know, the idea that there should be no struggle being just one of many—as opposed to an actual step backwards from some point of genuine contentment?
AB: There are a lot of schools of thought on this. You know, there is kind of a sentimentalist school of thought that there was some halcyon period in which real contentment was happening. But I tend to not believe that, only because if I look at what people were writing going back to Plato, Plato was talking about “kids these days. They don’t know how easy they’ve got it.” And then in Jesus Christ, “woe be unto this generation.” I mean, every 20 years, everybody thinks that the last three generations were worthless, except for the Greatest Generation that won World War II. By the way, they were named the Greatest Generation by the Greatest Generation. So, take it for what it’s worth.
And, you know, no matter what we’re always doing that. It’s like, the boomers can’t stand the millennials. The millennials think the Gen Zs are a bunch of slackers. And it goes on and it goes on and it goes on. I think there’s really kind of nothing new under the sun. But the problem is that all of the progress that we’re offered has sped up in a very big way, but it’s been in the hands of people that don’t understand the dynamics of actual human happiness. What we’ve done over the past 30 years is we’ve handed the keys to our society, and a great deal of our money and our time and our energy, over to engineers and bureaucrats, you know, people who basically have the same worldview, which is that we can engineer a better world where you’ll be happier and have more love. And we say, “okay, okay, good, fantastic, go do that.” Right? Give me the apps, give me the social media, give me the dating apps, give me the cradle-to-grave welfare state, give me the whole thing so that I won’t be lonely, and I’ll have what I need, and I’ll be completely contented, and all will be well. It’s basically, you know, blue-pill engineering. And then, guess what? It doesn’t actually give us what we want because it can’t. And I don’t say it to cast aspersions. I like living in a welfare state. Don’t get me wrong. I love my taxes going to help people that need help. I love that. I think it’s literally the greatest achievement of the capitalist system. But it’s not gonna bring people love. And people need love.
People need faith. They need family. They need real friendship—not deal friendship, by the way. And they need work in which they can serve other people and feel like they’re earning their success. These are the portfolio of habits of happy people. And last I checked, Facebook can’t do that. Microsoft, Amazon, Apple can’t do that. Google can’t do that. The state of California can’t do that. The education system can’t do that. They’re not built to do that. But we’re looking to them and handing over all of our cash and then wondering why we’re still bummed out. Well, that’s why.
EV: So, Arthur, how can we build those connections and friendships and love in our life when we, like you said, seem to have of handed over the keys. For instance, if you happen to be a millennial woman looking for love in a time where romantic love has declined—asking for a friend, obviously….
AB: Asking for asking for a friend, right?
EV: Yes. I’m asking for a friend. Really, like, how does one swim against that tide then in an individual way?
AB: Yeah. Well, part of is that you need to swim against the tide. You need to rebel. You need to basically say, “I’m not gonna play. I’m just not gonna play. I’m not gonna do that.” You know, what am I supposed to do? I’m supposed to be afraid of this, and I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to buy this and I’m supposed to avoid that. Well, you’re being told lies. You need the right formula. The world has given you a formula, Emma. And the world’s formula sounds almost right. And here’s the world’s formula: Love things, use people, and worship yourself. That’s what the world’s telling you to do. It’s like six easy words, man. It’s like, what are people for? To use. To use for your pleasure, to use for your career, to use for your opportunities. To use, use, use, use. That’s what people are there for. People are instrumental. What are you gonna do? You’re gonna love stuff. Are you kidding me? You wanna be happy? Get that car. You know, that car’s awesome. That car is super great. Go on that vacation. Sit on that beach. Buy those clothes. And worship yourself, because who else are you gonna worship? Social media is the church of me. That’s really what social media is all about. Social media is just a temple to myself, basically. Well, the thing is, that sounds right because it’s so close to correct. But it’s not.
St. Thomas Aquinas in 1275, 1265, when he wrote Summa Theologica, he called these things the idols that attract people; they’re incredibly magnetic. They don’t give us what we want, but they’re close enough that they’ll draw us in. They’re like a rubber worm that a bass is gonna eat because it looks like a real worm. But it’s got a hook, right? So here’s the real formula. Remember, the counterfeit formula is love things, use people, worship yourself. The right formula is use things, love people, and worship the divine. That’s the right formula. Now, you’ve gotta figure out what that means. But that’s the adventure. That’s why it’s so awesome. If you’re basically following that going… So Emma’s plan of life is, okay, I’m gonna love people today. I don’t care if it’s embarrassing. I’m gonna tell three people ‘I love you’ today. I’m gonna tell my friends, I’m gonna tell my mom. And sometimes it’s gonna be safe, and sometimes it’s gonna be dangerous. Yeah. Dangerous life.
I’m gonna use things with abundance. Look, I’m a capitalist. I wanna use things with abundance, right? I don’t wanna abuse things and throw things away and ruin the Earth. But come on. Stuff is for using. But it’s not gonna bring me happiness because I’m just gonna use it. That’s all. That’s what it’s all about. And I’m gonna be on the spiritual path. I’m gonna be looking for what that means to worship the divine. I don’t know what that means. Now, I know what that means for me. And a lot of people think that they know what it means for them. But the path itself is like, it’s like being Lewis and Clark trying to find the Pacific. It’s the most exciting thing ever. If these are the three objectives, if you go from the wrong formula to the right formula, then it’s a crazy world. I mean, this is a dangerous world. This is an adventurous world. This is like, you don’t know what you can expect. It’s not gonna be ordinary. It’s not gonna be boring. And you might just find your bliss.
ZK: So can we go for a moment to shift gears from the personal to the political—not about politics, just the political—and a little bit about Arthur Brooks, who we’ll talk about in the third person for one moment.
AB: Yeah. That guy. That bald 57-year-old guy. Yeah.
ZK: But you’ve had a kind of extraordinary, unusual career in that, for a period of time, you were the head of the American Enterprise Institute, which for most coastal, liberal viewers is perceived at best as right-leaning, and at worst, a very much to the right intellectual organization.
AB: Evil. Yeah. Right.
ZK: And yet, you have managed to thread a very unusual needle in that your voice, your sentiments, your writings, your intellect has been both lauded and accepted by many people on the right and clearly by many people in the center and many people on the left in a way that is increasingly unusual in contemporary society. I assume, given your acumen and self-awareness, you’ve thought about this and thought about the uniqueness of your own placement in the firmament. So how do you explain how Arthur Brooks has been able to navigate what so few people have, and what are the constructive lessons of that? Or is it just a sui generis luck of the draw?
AB: It’s… Yeah, that. I mean, I don’t give it too much thought, actually. And I appreciate your really kind words. It actually gets weirder than that. I mean, I don’t know if you know, but I started off my career as a classical French horn player. So I didn’t go to college until I was 30. I spent, you know, from 19 to 31 playing classical music, chamber music, and I was in the Barcelona symphony in Spain for a bunch of years.
ZK: Well, that explains everything.
AB: Yeah, yeah. But the whole point is, I have this theory, and I don’t know if it’s right, but my theory is, you get to invent your life. Your life is your startup. Your life is your enterprise. Don’t screw it up by just wasting it. I mean, screw it up by screwing it up is the whole point. Take a shot. And when you wanna do something else, spiral around, take your career down to the studs. Take your work and your life down to the studs every 10 years and start again if you wanna do something different. Because you get a certain number of years, and you gotta have an adventure, and you gotta love other people, and you gotta lift people up, and you have to find the best way to do that.
And so, you know, I have certain beliefs. I really… I love the American Enterprise Institute because it’s dedicated to alleviating poverty and the strict equality of human dignity, and using market forces to do that, is the whole point. Not everybody agrees. But that’s cool. You know? That’s cool because, you know, maybe I’m not right. Maybe I’m wrong. And so I’m almost looking… I’m thinking about, who’s got a good argument, right? And so I’m not a dogmatist on it. I’m not pugilistic about my ideology. I change my views constantly. I try to have enough epistemic humility to do it. And all of that is based on the fundamental proposition that I believe that everybody is fundamentally equal, and I believe everybody is a child of God, and I believe that we all have the same kind of dignity. And my job is to love everybody and lift them up as much as I possibly can. And sometimes it’s controversial, and sometimes it’s not. But I think if you come at the adventure of life from the point of view that’s saying, “I love you, these are my values, I offer them as a gift, never as a weapon,” it usually turns out okay.
EV: Arthur, since you talked a little bit personally just now from a professional point of view, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit personally about yourself from a religious point of view. It’s definitely something that’s in the book, but it’s interesting because in the book even say, like, “I debated putting in this chapter because so many people are allergic to religion nowadays.” So I was just wondering if you could talk about your journey with that a little bit. Is that something you grew up with, or is this a newfound thing, and what traditions do you follow, and all of that.
AB: Yeah. I’m a Catholic, but it’s been a funny road. I grew up in a Christian home in Seattle, Washington. And my parents weren’t super religious, but we attended religious services, and we considered ourselves Christians. And I had kind of a mystical experience when I was a teenager and became Catholic. And probably it was adolescent rebellion, but my parents were like, “it’s probably better than drugs. So I guess, you know, cool. We’ll let this one slide.” And then I met and married my wife. Actually, I moved to Barcelona because I fell in love with a girl who didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish. The reason I went to the Barcelona symphony was actually in pursuit of this girlthis hopeless romance. I mean, it was just completely crazy. And we just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We have three grown kids, and our communication has marginally improved over the period.
But the key thing is that we followed a spiritual path together over three decades. And this is one of the most critical things that everybody needs to understand: there’s a concept called metacognition, and metacognition is going through life in a way where you’re aware of your urges, tendencies, and feelings so that you can manage them. And there’s a lot of neuroscience behind it. I mean, it’s like tendencies and urges and feelings, they originate in the limbic system of the brain. And when you understand them, and when you think about them, they go to the prefrontal cortex where you can actually manage them.
The most powerful thing that you can do when it comes to trying to understand the mysteries of the universe is joint metacognition, where you are with somebody that you love and trust, and together you navigate these incredible mysteries. And that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been jointly metacognitive on the spiritual path. And I realize I’m sounding like some new age, crazy person when I say that. But this is actually based, believe it or not, more in science than it is in new age ideology. And we’ve been looking for the, the spiritual way together. And she’s, I mean, I dedicate this new book to my guru, and that’s my wife.
I was in Southern India studying with a great Vedic master, one of the disciples of Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of the great Hindu masters of the past hundred years. And it’s one of his disciples named [inaudible] Venkataramaiah. He’s a Tamil guy. And he’s asking me about the spiritual path, the same question you just asked me, Emma. And I said to my wife, she leads me on paths of righteousness. We meditate the rosary, the holy Catholic prayer of meditation, every night together. And we learn, we read. And she teaches me. She leads me by the hand. And he said, “she’s your guru, she’s your guru.” Which, for Hindus, it’s a really big deal, right? It’s a really big deal. And so that’s really the essence of it. You know, the Catholic faith for me is the way for me to find the verities of life and to explore the beauty that is the adventure of life that. It’s ultimately what… The meaning of what I’m trying to do is to lift other people up and bring them together in the same spirit as my Lord and savior. And not everybody agrees with me on that either. And at the end of my life, maybe at some point I’ll find out if I was right.
ZK: I mean, it’s unusual. You’re an unusual soul to be able to express both your personal journey and then iterate it through multiple lenses of politics, of people’s political behavior, of people’s personal behavior, from young to old. And I do wanna acknowledge that. Because it’s not as if the world is littered with people who navigate their own inner life and their awareness of everyone else’s outer life with such fluidity. I don’t know that that’s an easy path to emulate, even though you lay out a way in which everybody can presumably become more of whoever they’re supposed to be at whatever point in time they’re supposed to be that. But it does require a comfort that you have with words like love juxtaposed to realms that usually have done their best to elide human emotion, right? You don’t hear a lot of talk of love on Capitol Hill. And you don’t hear a lot of talk of what is the purpose of us all being here in worlds of money and politics.
AB: In times past, leaders did talk about love. George Washington talked about love. Abraham Lincoln talked about love. The Gettysburg Address was about love. I mean, it’s incredible to me that we’ve got this desiccated understanding of what politics and public life is supposed to be about. If it’s not about love, it’s not about anything. What is it about, money? How boring. Is it about power? It just couldn’t be more boring than power. Power is the most boring thing ever. Right? And yet we talk as if love were something in the private realm. No. Love is the most public thing ever. It animates us. It fires our soul. It’s the nuclear fuel rods of our happiness. And as such, it should be at this very center of how we see ourselves and how we govern ourselves, how we share our values with other people. It doesn’t rule out even conflict. On the contrary. It should motivate the right kind of conflict. And yet, somehow we’re this husk of a culture, in which the things that I said just now are weird. I mean, that’s weird, actually, I think.
EV: I wonder at what time love became embarrassing like that. Like, when did that change?
AB: Yeah. Well, the idea of private love… You know, there’s this old joke that there’s a man in Minnesota who loved his wife so much that he almost told her, you know? And so there’s this kind of the American Stoicthe American Gothic Grant Wood’s famous painting of the farmer in Iowa with his wife, you know, grim looking, holding a pitchfork. And so the private, sentimental idea of love probably would not have been expressed, you know, a hundred years ago. You would’ve talked about love for nation and love for humanity. But that’s kind of culturally contextual, too.
I mean, if you go back and look at how the Commandments—it’s just interesting, to talk about love. For example, just from more of a mystical perspective Pharisee asks Jesus, you know, “the 10 Commandments, it’s a lot to remember, Lord. I mean, it’s like, ten’s a lot. So boil it down for me.” And Jesus is like, “okay, easy, love the Lord, your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. That’s one. And number two, love your neighbor as yourself.” That has everything in the world packed into it. Because if you wanna love God, where God is omnipotent and doesn’t need anything, including your love, the only way that you can do that is by actually loving people who are made in his image. So it makes kind of perfect sense. That’s why it’s an adjunct.
Okay. So 300 years later, St. Augustine is asked, “even that, too, is too much. Boil it down.” St. Augustin said, “love and do what you will.” Love and do what you will. That does not rule out the sentimentality of love between friends, of love between lovers. I mean, it’s all love is the most important thing. And that’s the punchline of the great Vedic traditions of love, of the Hindu traditions of love, that the whole concept of love of the divine means that God is pulsating love, that our souls are a little chip of that love, destined to be manifest in ourselves in terms of love. And that Samsara, the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, occurs because we have not achieved perfect love. And look, it all comes down to this at the end of the day. I’m a PhD, social scientist, but strip all the junk away and all the math that I’ve done. And this is all I got. This is all I’ve got. I mean, it’s like, it’s just one word.
ZK: I feel like we should just end with that one word, given that we could hardly do better, even though we could absolutely have a much more extensive conversation about all the ways that love and its motive force could be applied in multiple realms to much greater effect than is currently in evidence in our local, national, and certainly global scene. But maybe we’ll save that for a next chapter of our conversation. Thank you so much for having this with us today, Arthur.
AB: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for doing this program. I know you’re lifting people up. I know you wanna bring people together. And I know you want a better world. And I appreciate that a lot because I’m part of this world.
EV: Thanks, Arthur.
ZK: Wow. That was an intense, illuminating, and in many ways, beautiful conversation that I didn’t really expect to go quite in the directions that it went. But I am delighted that it did. And it’s a real reminder of how much more, at least I feel, we should be having conversations that weave in and out of our inner lives and our outer worlds, right? And that the degree to which those have become seemingly separate and non-communicating realms of human experiences is one of the many fissures that rents our current world. I was also really struck by that emphasis on contemporary understandings of happiness as the absence of struggle, or the absence of pain, or the absence of challenge, is one of the most significant impediments to genuine happiness because the cost of trying to avoid conflict or avoid struggle is immense relative to whatever one can gain from it.
EV: And I think that we’re missing that a lot in modern society. Since we’re on this conversational track of weaving in our inner and outer lives. There’s a really nice prayer, it’s a Puritan prayer that this reminds me of. And if you will forgive me for reading a couple of lines, it’s called the Valley of Vision, and in the middle the author says, “Let me learn by paradox / that the way down is the way up, / that to be low is to be high, / that the broken heart is the healed heart.” And it goes on from there. But so essentially the essence of what you’re saying is that all of life is life. And we forget that or ignore that at our peril.
ZK: And look, part of the point of The Progress Network was that a huge portion of our shared reality is filtered through platforms of media or communication. And the contemporary version of them, in particular either privileges, very hot emotions—anger, outrage, fear—or on the other hand, euphoria, excitement. It doesn’t privilege the complexity, and the put one foot in front of the other, and the work, and all of those things. Because that doesn’t activate those pleasure or pain centers with the same immediacy that is required to make these platforms function. And look, that was true with yellow journalism, and pamphlets, and the 18th century, and newspapers in the 1890s. It’s not like human beings were talking the way Arthur Brooks talked 150 years ago, or the way Thoreau talked, right? Those were always exceptions to the rule. But there are lessons that we really, really need in a world where the sheer volume of noise and cacophony that moves toward, “I want it now,” and “I want it easy,” and “I want it seamless,” and that anything that are roadblocks and obstacles are seen as unequivocal, absolute negatives that have to end or be removed.
EV: Yeah. And I will say as a… I don’t wanna say a silver lining, but as a point of optimism, I suppose, against the sheer noise is that, if you do present people with the conversation, for instance, that we just had with Arthur, or, you know, some of these things that you tend to find in the world’s oldest wisdom traditions, people do stir, right? Like, it stirs something in them. It’s not like that doesn’t work anymore, right? And there’s something comforting there that, this is what Arthur was saying, is that we’re kind of all the same at the end. Like, we are all gonna react to those like deep, deep human traits and conditions.
ZK: For sure, right. I mean, the tens of thousands of people that have been listening to this podcast, or I guess, hundreds of thousands by the time some of you are listening or the newsletter that we’re doing, or just the content that we’re trying to propagate would suggest that obviously there is resonance and there is an audience and people do wanna hear that. It just is, right now, more the exception than the rule. And it would be a totally different world admittedly, and one that’s not likely to happen in the near or the mid term, if that was more the rule than the exception. And it’s a good thing that it has resonance. Arthur’s book is on the bestseller list. So people are clearly hungry and listening and reading and wanting. All true. And we are having these conversations, obviously, because we think that they are vital and important.
It’s still nonetheless the case that it is an uphill pursuit relative to the sheer weight of the culture and the volume of that noise. I do find it very heartening, though, the number of people that we’ve talked to and will keep talking to who are not of that particular sentiment, who have found their own megaphones, who have found their own ways to make their voices resonant in a constructive way in a complicated culture. I take the silver lining from that, you know, that we are literally able to have these conversations and propagate them, to me, is part of the, “well, there’s actually more going on here in the world than just an endless litany of chaos and conflict and drama,” right? Arthur Brooks is very interesting insofar as his entire tone and messaging is the absence of drama. Drama as in, “oh my God. Oh my God.” Not drama as in “there are challenges and there are problems and there are stories.” He’s absolutely about that.
EV: Yeah. I was thinking as you were talking about what we’re doing sort of being movement uphill, and then what you followed up with after is that it might be a hill, but hopefully it’s not Sisyphean. And I guess we’ll see.
ZK: All right, well, we will continue our non-Sisyphean task of pushing the boulder uphill, inch by inch, day by day, until we get to the crest and look at how far we’ve come and what a wonderful world it is after that task is complete. And we will keep having those conversations. Thanks, Emma.
EV: Thanks, Zachary.
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