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Harvard Professor Arthur Brooks now an Impact Scholar at the University of Utah

Brooks was in Utah Thursday for the announcement, and to speak about his latest book

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Bestselling author, Harvard professor and Ph.D. social scientist Arthur Brooks speaks at the Alumni House at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

When Harvard professor and author Arthur Brooks was in Utah for a speaking engagement last year, he met University of Utah President Taylor Randall. They got to talking.

“What if we did more together to bring the science of happiness here to Utah?” Brooks remembered Randall saying.

That conversation led to Randall’s announcement on Thursday that Brooks had been named an Impact Scholar at the university’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. As part of the engagement, Brooks will spend three to four days in Utah per semester over the next three years. Brooks said he will participate in guest lectures and meet with students, professors and local policymakers.

“Is there a better place to study happiness than Utah?” he asked.

Randall made the announcement at a luncheon at the university’s Alumni House, which was sponsored by the Gardner Institute, the Sutherland Institute and Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson.

After the announcement, Brooks spoke about his latest book, “From Strength to Strength,” which explores how “strivers” — those who work extraordinarily hard to succeed in life — can overcome the curse of unhappiness in the second half of their lives by changing course.

Brooks studies the science of happiness and teaches popular classes on the subject at Harvard Business School. It’s the perfect place for Brooks to study and speak about the subject of his latest book — how strivers can find happiness after they’ve hit the pinnacle of their careers.

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University of Utah president Taylor Randall leaves his table to introduce bestselling author, Harvard professor and Ph.D. social scientist Arthur Brooks at the Alumni House at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

After spending a decade as president of American Enterprise Institute, one of the foremost national think tanks, Brooks said he was burned out and ready for a change. But it wasn’t until he overheard a conversation between a husband and wife on a plane that he decided to make the leap.

“Oh, don’t say it would be better if you were dead,” the wife said to the husband. Brooks said he imagined the wife was speaking to her elderly husband who had not achieved all he’d dreamed of in life, but when he stood up at the end of the flight he was shocked to see the man was “one of the most famous men in the world,” “a real hero.”

The overheard conversation had Brooks rethinking all he thought he knew about happiness. Data seemed to show that people hit a kind of happiness plateau in their last few decades, but when Brooks took a deeper dive into the numbers he learned that what really happened was for some people happiness shot up, while for others — the strivers — happiness declined.

He called it the “strivers curse” — in their later years they are “rich, successful, admired, and miserable.”

Most people hit peak creativity in their careers in their late 30s, and in the years following, if they don’t pivot, they can end up feeling like failures, he said.

This new understanding led Brooks, a consummate striver, to quit his job running AEI and turn instead to teaching. His recommendation to fellow strivers is to “get on a second curve” in their later years, so they can make the most of their increased “crystalized intelligence,” which is a kind of intelligence built on the skills and attributes most people acquire in their later years — like wisdom, the ability to work with people, and an enhanced ability to teach.

“I look at the officials in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said. “They’re not young, but they’re sharp. What do they have? Crystalized intelligence. That’s what they’re required to have. That’s what they’re relied upon to have.”

“At my university, the best professors, by which we say, the professors who get the best teaching evaluations, are over 70. Now, this is not charity — at Harvard there is no charity. They literally are the best teachers.”

Brooks also recommended people in their later years follow the teaching of the Dalai Lama, a mentor and close friend of Brooks, who says: “We need to learn how to want what we have, not to have what we want in order to get steady and stable happiness.”

Over the past few years, Brooks said he’s followed the practice of creating a “reverse bucket list” on his birthday, which means he writes down a list of his ambitions, cravings and desires and then he works on ridding himself of them. “I offer them up in prayer, I make a strategy for saying I don’t care,” he said.

This year on his birthday, he said he crossed off half of his political opinions as part of his bucket list ritual, allowing him to “make more friends.”

Loving, connected relationships are what bring people happiness, especially in their later years, he said.

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Bestselling author, Harvard professor and Ph.D. social scientist Arthur Brooks speaks with Speaker Brad Wilson at the Alumni House at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News