If you had to describe Americans in one word, what would it be? Perhaps you might say that Americans are independent and individualistic. Or maybe you see them as driven, competitive, and courageous. If you’re a little more cynical, you might describe Americans as entitled or selfish. Are you a more careful analyst? Then maybe you’d use words like “polarized” and “fractured.”
As an experiment, I asked people—mostly Americans but some non-Americans as well—on different social media venues to do just this: give me one word that describes Americans. I was surprised that most people offered words that have negative connotations: stressed, myopic, proud, consumers, spoiled, loud, shallow, oblivious, egotistical, pretentious, indoctrinated, confused, violent, nationalistic, lost, opportunists. Others who were more positive described Americans as eclectic, fortunate, optimistic, enterprising, diverse, innovative, self-confident, hopeful, kind and pragmatic.
But not one person described Americans as happy.
America may be the land of opportunity and wealth; it may be the place where anyone, with enough diligence and hard work, can achieve anything. But apparently it’s not a place where people are generally happy, although it’s not for lack of trying. Our obsession with success, material goods, and physical appearance is evidence of this pursuit, yet none of these things seem to make us happier. It’s no wonder that happiness has become such big business. We all want to be happy, don’t we?
And when it comes to the business of happiness, there’s no bigger expert than Harvard professor and social scientist Arthur C. Brooks.
Brooks, who also writes the popular “How to Build a Life” column at The Atlantic and is the author of 12 books, uses science and philosophy to create strategies to help people live happier lives. I spoke to Brooks about why happiness is suddenly such big business and learned that, while we may not always know exactly how to achieve it, the search for happiness is quintessentially American. “It was written into the Declaration of Independence after all,” said Brooks. Indeed it was: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s revolutionary—the idea that not only the search for happiness but also the right to that search is important enough to be codified in a country’s founding documents. In fact, says Brooks, the United States of America is “the first known civilization that’s ever done anything like that … the idea that ambitious riffraff can pursue their own happiness notwithstanding their humble roots was a crazy idea.”
The “hard truth,” said Brooks in his Yom Kippur message at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts last year, is that “mother nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.”
But the pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily mean that we will attain it, especially if we’re going about it the wrong way, and especially if we assume that happiness is something that happens to us rather than something we have to work for and create. Americans may be playing at the top of their game when it comes to working hard for success or power or money, but we’re simply not created or conditioned to put forth the same effort when it comes to happiness, even if we tell ourselves that our careers and material things are part of the path to being happy. The “hard truth,” said Brooks in his Yom Kippur message at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts last year, is that “mother nature doesn’t care if you’re happy.” Humans are wired to survive and to pass on genetic material. Happiness never even enters into the equation.
But humans are, well, human. We have needs and desires and longings that don’t factor into nature’s survival plan. Since happiness isn’t intuitive, we look for hacks. “In a world of dials,” says Brooks, “we’re looking for switches.” We want a formula that will reveal the quick way to be happy. Brooks has often been approached by publishers who have asked him to write a “happiness hack” book. “But sorry, no hacks. It’s all dials,” he says. “It’s all work. It all takes the complexity of the human heart and mind. It takes education and knowledge and sharing. It takes love, and love is not a switch. Love is the ultimate dial.”
Since happiness isn’t intuitive, we look for hacks. “But sorry, no hacks. It’s all dials,” Brooks says. “It all takes the complexity of the human heart and mind… It takes love, and love is not a switch. Love is the ultimate dial.”
Anyone who’s ever loved someone understands the profound truth in this statement: “Love is the ultimate dial.” We all know that no matter how much we love someone, sometimes it’s complicated. Sometimes we feel anger or annoyance toward that person. The backbone of relationships between parents and children is supposed to be one of the strongest and most innate bonds of love, but even those relationships can become strained and require work. There are very few switches in life. Everything worthwhile takes work.
But that doesn’t stop us from endlessly chasing happiness hacks. And movements for happiness are even more pronounced in times of “acute cultural and identity distress,” which is what we are seeing today, according to Brooks. The relentless search for happiness is nothing new, he says. There have been many such movements in American history, but they’re always most prevalent “when there’s been trouble, and so if you’ll look at the period between the Civil War and the First World War, there was a big happiness moment. It was the temperance movement, it was the tent revivals, it was the Mormons, it was the transcendentalists, it was Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy movement, it was the self-improvement gurus, some of whom were quacks, just like a lot of the happiness people are quacks today.” In other words, in times of trouble, we’re always “going back to our roots, demanding our right to pursue happiness.” But once we’ve asserted this right, we don’t always know what to do next. “And that’s why,” says Brooks, “I believe, God created my work.”
At Harvard, Brooks teaches courses on leadership and happiness. He even has a lab called The Leadership and Happiness Laboratory, where he works with leaders in academia, business and government to teach them how to be happiness leaders. Especially as someone in academia, something that stands out about Brooks, a Catholic, is how comfortable he is speaking about his faith and the ways in which faith contributes to happiness. It’s not that he’s pushing Christianity or Catholicism. Rather, he understands that faith—whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, another faith, or even some kind of “secular life philosophy”—along with friendship, family and work that serves others, is a key part of happiness. And the science supports the idea that there are four components when it comes to happiness.
At Harvard, Brooks has a lab called The Leadership and Happiness Laboratory, where he works with leaders in academia, business and government to teach them how to be happiness leaders.
“The way to think about it,” says Brooks, “is that happiness can be divided up into its macronutrient parts, which gives you strategies, and those are your enjoyment, your satisfaction and your purpose. But you can also take that meal that is happiness and you can make it into the dishes that make up the dinner and those dishes are faith, family, friendship and work that serves others.” If you want a “full and balanced happiness meal,” that’s all you need. And it’s the “enjoyment and satisfaction of purpose” that come from these things that brings that happiness to an even deeper level.
It should go without saying that even those with the most full and balanced happiness meals are not immune to suffering and sadness. There’s no delusion in Brooks’ equation for happiness. There’s no willful denial of the reality that we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people—a place where death and pain and other forms of suffering will touch everyone. But it doesn’t prevent us from living a happy life. Part of having a full life is “one where you’re getting happier by learning and understanding and growing from the sorrow and suffering” that comes your way. And even this fact taps back into the experience of faith: “As Jews and Catholics, we know perfectly that suffering is sacred … but it’s actually true whether you’re religious or not, that you can manage your feelings, that you can choose your actions, and that you can focus on others, not yourself.”
These four threads—faith, family, friendship and work that serves others—are how you build a life, a happy life. But, really, they’re all about love: “love for the divine, love for the mystical relationships put in your life without your will, love for the chosen friendships, and love for everybody as substantiated through your work.”
These four threads—faith, family, friendship and work that serves others—are how you build a life, a happy life… But all of these four elements require work.
But all of these four elements require work. Judging by the cultural pervasiveness of the term “self-care,” however, we’re still a bit confused about how all of this works. Faith, family, friendship and work that serves others are all external—they’re outside of us, and we have to focus away from ourselves in order to nourish them. But when we talk about self-care (or its newest incarnation “radical” self-care), we’re usually focusing inward, on ourselves, another misunderstanding of what happiness is.
Of course it’s important to care for ourselves. It’s important to get enough sleep, to eat healthy foods, to seek out a therapist when our mental health is taking a hit. But for many people, self-care goes beyond these basics and extends to acts including shopping and spa days and eating decadent desserts. No one is saying we shouldn’t do those things, but the truth is that there’s an inordinate amount of focus placed on activities that don’t truly bring us happiness, which is really what we’re looking for when we engage in acts of “self-care.” We feel distressed and so we want to “induce these feelings of happiness in the short term.” But thinking of happiness as a feeling that happens to us is “unbelievably misguided” and gets the whole thing wrong, says Brooks. “It’s basically saying, I’m going to take care of myself so that I’m an appropriate vessel for the feeling of happiness that I hope occurs. It’s horrible. And it’s a big mistake.” A big part of Brooks’ work is dedicated to helping to correct that mistake and to give people control. He wants people to understand that we are the agents of our own happiness and that there are specific habits we can adopt in order to build a full life worth living.
He wants people to understand that we are the agents of our own happiness and that there are specific habits we can adopt in order to build a full life worth living.
I realized something important when I was talking with Brooks. Happiness is not a product. It’s a process and a commitment—an idea that resonates with the Jewish way of seeing the world. As Jews we prioritize questions, the search for truth and meaning, over fast, ready-made answers. We commit to the idea of the process as opposed to the product or final outcome. Meaningful dialogue falls into the process category, for example. And so does happiness. It’s something we have to commit to on a daily basis. But we also need to be a “happiness teacher” to other people, says Brooks.
I realized something important when I was talking with Brooks. Happiness is not a product. It’s a process and a commitment—an idea that resonates with the Jewish way of seeing the world.
“If I’m going to be a light for the world, that’s a dial I’ve got to work on. I have to turn it up every day, and if I don’t tend to it, it’s going to turn itself down. And the way to do that is very clearly based on the science. I have to have knowledge, I have to practice habits, and I have to share the ideas,” he says. “If you want to be a happier person, which is a dial, you need to be a happiness teacher to other people. That’s why you need to be a leader in this field.”
And Brooks is doing just that. But he wants others to lead with him, and I can’t think of many causes nobler than wanting others to lead alongside you.
Years ago I heard a talk at a synagogue in Los Angeles in which the speaker said that we have an ethical imperative to be happy. It bothered me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate and it’s something I never forgot. I asked Brooks whether he thinks we have a responsibility to be happy.
“Of course not. We don’t have an ethical imperative to be happy. We have an ethical imperative to love. That’s what we have an ethical imperative to do … the truth is that you have an ethical obligation to live in a well-ordered ethical way, in right relation with God and others,” and if you live in this way, you will generally become happier. “But beware,” he warned. Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean that everything is right. “We’re supposed to suffer too … and the idea that you’re doing something unethical if you don’t feel happy in a particular moment, after your spouse died, after you had a rupture with one of your children, after you got laid off of your job and you don’t know how to pay your rent, well no,” he said. But “God is giving you an opportunity, I believe, to learn and grow. That’s your ethical obligation—it’s to learn and grow in the face of suffering so that you can sanctify your suffering and find meaning in your suffering. That’s an ethical life.”
We don’t have an ethical imperative to be happy. We have an ethical imperative to love.
How to live a life that is both happy and ethical—it might be the only question that matters. But when it comes to life, there are different stages, and each requires a different approach. Brooks’ most recent book “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life,” is both a warning about what is to come and a strategy for how to maximize it to its fullest potential in the second half of life (which starts earlier than most realize), even after your knowledge and skills have begun to decline. When Brooks was 48 years old, he found a list of professional goals he’d written on his 40th birthday; they were goals he was certain would bring him happiness and satisfaction. To his delight, he realized he had met or exceeded all of them, and yet he “wasn’t particularly satisfied or happy.” His “heart’s desire” had not delivered the joy he expected it would. The question was whether continuing to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day (if he could maintain that pace) doing the same thing could ever bring him satisfaction. Brooks spent the next nine years on a quest to turn his future “from a matter of dread to an opportunity for progress.”
How to live a life that is both happy and ethical—it might be the only question that matters. But when it comes to life, there are different stages, and each requires a different approach.
“What I found,” writes Brooks, “was a hidden source of anguish that wasn’t just widespread but nearly universal among people who have done well in their careers. I came to call this the ‘striver’s curse’: People who strive to be excellent at what they do often end up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.” But there’s a way to “escape the curse” and have a “second half of adulthood that is not only not disappointing but happier and more meaningful than the first.”
There’s a way to “escape the curse” and have a “second half of adulthood that is not only not disappointing but happier and more meaningful than the first.”
Brooks’ findings are fascinating, and certainly not what most people would expect. People in their 30s and 40s and at the height of their career often feel unstoppable. They expect this state to exist for decades more, and don’t imagine they’ll have to change or slow down until they’re much older. Around 40, we’re at the highest point in what Brooks calls “fluid intelligence,” that fast and innovative kind of intelligence. But halfway through our 40s and definitely by the time we reach 50, that fluid intelligence starts to transition into “crystallized intelligence”—the kind that is more insightful and mature and less ego-driven.
I mentioned to Brooks that a group of men here in Florence, all expats between the ages of 40 and 60, recently read his book for their book group. One of the men around 40 was a little resistant to the idea that at such a young age he is about to begin his transition into crystallized intelligence. This pushback made perfect sense to Brooks: “Well, 40 is the age of maximum resistance. Because that’s when you’re at the highest point in your fluid intelligence … 39 is the average height of the fluid intelligence curve. He’s got good years ahead of him. The problem is if he doesn’t have a plan for when he’s 50. That’s why he needs to start thinking about it, because I guarantee when he’s 50 he’s going to feel burned out and less interested in what he was doing before. If you’re distracted into thinking that because things are good right now they’re always going to be good … that’s going to really hurt you going forward.”
Brooks finds that the people who are most resistant to this idea of intelligence transition (I refuse to say “decline”) are also the people who have been “going up and up and up to the very top, and they don’t know that they’re at the top and it’s not going to keep going up and up and up. But it’s not. They’re at the top of Mt. Everest and they’re about to start going down the other side.” I don’t know about you, but if I’m at the top of a mountain, I want to know how I’m going to get down the other side.
Contrary to how it sounds, going down the other side isn’t negative. It’s about moving into the next phase of your life and intelligence. It’s the place where, as Brooks puts it, you’re no longer the star litigator but the managing partner. It’s not over. It’s the “opportunity to get onto another curve.” But if you don’t anticipate this and make a plan (and do the work) you may end up feeling extremely dissatisfied and longing for a past incarnation of yourself. However, if you do prepare for this next phase, you can walk “naturally into this new set of skills in your job and you become more of a teacher, more of coach, more of a pattern recognizer … you become the boss,” as you walk from one curve onto another.
Given how much Brooks’ most recent book has resonated with some of the men I know, I wondered if there is a gendered component to Brooks’ equation. How do women fare as they approach their 40s and 50s?
“Generally speaking, women do better,” he said, “and part of the reason is that women are a lot more comfortable changing curves than men are.” Of course it’s not true for everyone, Brooks notes, but, for example, women who may have a more conventional family and are working part time or staying at home with their children are actually cultivating a great fluid intelligence curve with raising their children, “but it’s not conventionally exploited or rewarded in the same way.” And so for this reason, the first curve they really see is their “crystallized intelligence curve, and they jump on it and they’re so successful. They become teachers, they’re really big in their communities, they’re really all about ‘us’ and ‘we’ and the guys, their husbands, are like ‘I’m so depressed, I used to be somebody, but no one calls me.’” Why? Because some of the men are trying to “stay on their big fluid intelligence curve while their wives walk right onto their crystallized intelligence curve” and are happy, more fulfilled, and are rewarded. Furthermore, it turns out that, in general, especially as people age, women are happier than men: “Women are generally happier than men at almost any age but more so after 50.”
I have to admit that this came as a surprise to me. Let’s face it: American culture and media don’t really lead us to believe that this could possibly be true, that aging women could make up the happiest demographic in the U.S.
But, as Brooks reminded me, the American culture we see on television does not depict actual American culture. “American culture is Tulsa. It’s not LA. It’s Little Rock, not New York. People have really good lives and they’re not trying to get famous and they’re not trying to be beautiful … they’ve got eleven grandkids. Life is sweet. They’re working in their communities and volunteering in their churches and working part time at the dentist’s office and they’re liking their lives. People who don’t like their lives are the movie stars. The people who don’t like their lives are the investment bankers who are aging and the people who are trying to pay a mortgage in Greenwich and on a place out on the Cape.”
The truth is that “ordinary Americans, most of them, are doing a lot right.”
This brought me back to the beginning of our conversation about Americans and the search for happiness. Some say that the U.S. is very divided right now, that Americans are politically and ideologically polarized, and it does feel that way sometimes. But it’s also true that the average American is fairly moderate. The average American doesn’t fall on the far right or the far left even if media suggest otherwise. I asked Brooks for his thoughts on this topic as well because I couldn’t help myself.
“I think the media picks nuts,” he said. “It’s called ‘nut-picking’ actually, the opposite of cherry-picking—you pick the nuttiest thing from whatever you’re looking at, particularly if you’re a journalist … and you don’t like people on the political far right or traditional people or religious people. You don’t like it, you don’t respect it, and so you look for the nuttiest person you possibly can.” But in reality, “it’s actually really hard to find those people … And on the left it’s the same deal. They’re not all like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez … They’re not socialists. I know lots of Democrats. They’re not socialists.”
“And what about academia?” I asked. Most academics don’t identify as conservatives, and for that matter aren’t religious, so Brooks is a bit of an anomaly. But much like media depictions do not accurately reflect the experience of most Americans, neither does academia. Further, Brooks says that he is the only Catholic at Harvard who consistently gets antisemitic hate mail. “I’ve had people scream at me at presentations at Harvard because of my support for Israel … but it’s always hard left antisemitism, which is where most of the antisemitism in American academia is, the hard left.”
He’s not wrong. It’s not that antisemitism on the right doesn’t exist. We know it does. But it’s easier to spot. We know what neo-Nazis and real white supremacists are, but antisemitism on the left can be more difficult to identify. But maybe it doesn’t make sense to compare right and left antisemitism given that, now, antisemitism is everywhere. “It really is,” said Brooks. “And it’s actual hatred. It’s always been there in Europe … But now it’s here, and on campuses, and it’s all these dog whistles: the neo-cons, it’s the Israel lobby that’s pulling the strings, and it’s all these canards about money and influence and power behind the scenes … I can’t believe that in academia we’re doing this. But I don’t think it’s ever really been gone,” he said. American intellectuals “come from the European intellectual tradition, which was the bosom of murderous antisemitism.” It was “always the deep intellectuals to begin with, especially in the late 19th century. But we have to be vigilant, and we have to stick together and we have to fight against it.”
I couldn’t help but think, as our conversation ended on a topic that might actually be the opposite of happiness, that even this—concern over rising hatred and violence toward a specific group of people and the willingness to fight against it—can be a sign of a full and happy life. We don’t live in a world that allows happiness at every moment. In fact, being “happy” all the time is not an authentic experience. But Brooks teaches us that work that serves others is part of the happiness equation, and sometimes that means acknowledging the darker parts of our world. But when we supplement that work and care for others with faith, family and friends there’s no way we won’t experience a happy life.
Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor at Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.” Twitter @DrMonicaOsborne