Arthur Brooks has no shortage of stories. He dropped out of college, chased a dream to Spain (her name is Ester), and brought along the French horn he thought would be the focus of his life, landing a spot in the City Orchestra of Barcelona. But the stories are incidental to the foundation of faith and family that makes Brooks one of the nation’s most sought-after writers and speakers.
Harvard has him now, decades removed from his untraditional path to a Ph.D and one-time leadership of one of the nation’s top think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute. Today he teaches some of America’s finest students concepts like “human flourishing” and “thriving.” He’s an academic concerned about America, the family, the role of faith, education and the need for connection.
Simply put, he’s on a mission to teach happiness and he uses the power of science, faith and love to share the wisdom he’s gained from thoughtful scholarship and experience. The path he walks comes with equal parts warning and optimism. Here then is my conversation with the professor of happiness.
Deseret Magazine: You’ve compared America to a married couple going through a bad stretch. What did you mean by that?
Arthur Brooks: One of the interesting things about all conflict, whether it’s people who can’t get along politically or a couple on their way to divorce court is it’s all based on the same kind of conflict. And that conflict is this mistaken idea that I love but you hate. That’s called motive attribution asymmetry, which is a real fancy, complicated sounding thing for a very simple idea that there’s an error in the way that we communicate. Most conflicts are based on this error. For example, someone in a political disagreement might be thinking, “You know I love this country. I love it and you hate it. Obviously, you’re unpatriotic and your values are weakening my country.” And the other person says, “No, I’m the one who loves this country and this people and you’re the one who hates it and is not acting in the right way.”
Couples do the same thing. Research shows when couples are on their way to divorce court, one might say, “I love our family, but he hates me. He actually hates me,” and the husband is like, “Are you kidding me? She’s the one who hates, I’m the one who loves.” If you can resolve that it’s a huge opportunity for people to actually express how they really feel. Unfortunately, most people don’t. And that’s what’s going on in America today.
I do a lot of public opinion work and I’m privileged to see a whole lot of data on people’s attitudes about this country. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to live anyplace else. They’re proud and they love living in this country.
DM: So how do you impress upon Americans that they need to change?
AB: When people actually understand what the nature of the conflict is, you can do a lot better. One of the things we find is that couples can reconcile if they can be willing to say what they really think. Most people think that you’re going to ruin a marriage if people actually say what they think. The truth is the opposite. Because most married couples love each other. But they think that the other one hates them and so they’re very defensive and their defensive reaction makes the other person think that their partner hates them.
When people are willing to say what they really think, it’s better. A lot of experiments that I’ve done on public policy are bringing people together. I’ll bring Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump supporters together to talk about their common loves, which activates parts of the brain that are dedicated to affection, love and positive emotion. And they can’t really find their way back to bitterness and polarization and hatred after that.
So for example, I’ll bring people together who are on opposite sides of the most contentious debates of the time — abortion, guns, immigration, whatever it happens to be — and I’ll say, “We’re going to talk about this stuff, don’t worry. But in the meantime, I’d like you to tell each other about your kids and grandkids.” And oh, man, I mean, it’s like they grew up together. You never hate somebody who’s telling you about their kids and their grandkids and the problems that they’re having with their teenagers.
And after that, they can talk about abortion and they want to understand each other in an entirely different way. And this is a lot more of what we need to do. We need leaders that are willing to do this as opposed to leaders in politics and media and academia and the schools and even corporations who are dining out on setting us against each other.
Hate is very profitable. Anger is profitable. Fear is unbelievably profitable. And we have a motive in our outrage industrial complex in this country, and the political system and the media that feed it, to get us to not really express what’s written on our hearts. And the result of that is that more than 90 percent of Americans hate how divided we’ve become. We don’t like our politics. We don’t respect what’s going on in most of the media and that’s a big opportunity. That’s even a profit opportunity, quite frankly, and we just need to figure out a way for people to understand how to do it and how to run with that opportunity.
DM: You teach at Harvard. Can you describe your course and what you’ve observed among your students?
AB: I teach at the Harvard Business School and I have a class called Leadership and Happiness, which sounds kind of weird, you know, how is that a business subject? But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a core competency to worldly success. We have this conception that if I’m successful, I have money, power, admiration. And if I’m successful, then I’ll get happiness and it’s actually not true. According to data, the truth is exactly the opposite. What you find is that people who pursue their happiness in the right and healthy way, they tend to be more successful in terms of the other things.
And so what I’m trying to do is change the direction of causality with my students to help them understand what they really hunger for is faith and family and friendship and service to other people. They want love and to be loved. And that’s what I talk about in a very scientific way.
This is not just self-improvement or counseling or psychotherapy or woowoo. We’re talking about cutting-edge neuroscience and social scientific evidence on how their romantic life can be healthier, how the relationship with their parents can be better, how they can be less lonely and have more enduring friendships, and how they can have a transcendental metaphysical walk in their life. Perhaps that’s the religion of their childhood, and how all of this can be put together like bricks into a wall that can make them into a complete person who also not incidentally winds up being very successful in business.
Happiness is not a destination. It’s not a destination in the mortal coil. I believe that happiness is only a destination in the supernatural, in the eternal sense. While we’re alive on this earth, happiness is a direction.
DM: Are your students cynical about this or are they eager to embrace it?
AB: It’s not a requirement. They don’t have to take this class, but I have about 400 students on the waiting list. There’s also an illegal Zoom link they think I don’t know about. So this is a popular class.
They’re not cynical about it at all. Look, if I came in and said, “Let me give you my opinion on what your family is supposed to look like,” nobody’s going to take or get college credit for that. This is the real stuff on what research is telling us. I’m talking to them about the neurophysiological structure of the brain, on how neurotransmitters are actually the reason that they feel the way they do, or how the limbic system can be managed by the prefrontal cortex of the brain so you can manage your emotions and they don’t manage you.
DM: How do you manage you? It really starts with knowledge, it starts with science.
You were a professional musician. But you’ve said there was a moment you stopped getting better, and it was a turning point in your life.
AB: As a kid, I thought I was going to be a professional musician for the rest of my life. My ambition was to be the world’s greatest French horn player. And for a while it looked like there was actually a chance that I could do a lot with it. I was pretty proficient. I went professional when I was 19. I was in a very good symphony orchestra and I was starting to get a lot of work that was, by my own judgment, where I wanted to be.
The trouble is that by about my mid 20s, I wasn’t getting better anymore. It was a very alarming thing. And I couldn’t quite figure out what’s going on. Now, subsequently, I’ve studied this a little bit more and a lot of classical musicians and athletes and people pursuing interests that require a lot of skill early on in life find that they have an early turn in their skill and they don’t get better. It’s quite mysterious, but it’s very common as it turns out. And for me, it was just the end because what else can I do as a college dropout?
All I cared about was the horn. Music was everything. But my wife saved me. And the reason is because she didn’t marry me because I was a French horn player. She married me because of the man that I was and the man I was going to be. And she said, “You know, you’re my husband and you’re a complete person. And you’re a hard worker, and you care about doing things that really matter. And you can do that.”
DM: Do you describe that as faith? And where did that come from?
AB: I don’t know. Where does that kind of faith come from? I don’t know. I mean, you need to have somebody who loves you and believes in you. It’s really important. I chalk this up to the fact that I had a team, me and my wife, we were a team. And you know, she really believed in me. It was the most amazing thing.
DM: One more about music: What is the best music?
AB: My favorite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. He’s sometimes called the fifth evangelist. And the reason is because he was somebody who used music to express his faith in a more effective and penetrating way than probably anybody ever has. He was a very devout Christian. His family Bible was dog-eared and he was writing in the margins. At the end of every single score of the 1,000 pieces he published he would write, “to the glory of God.” When asked before the end of his life why he wrote music, he said, “The aim and final end of all music should be nothing more than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”
He knew something about the cosmic nature of how these harmonies affect us. So what’s the best sound? Bach, man, it’s Bach. If I’m going to listen to one thing for the rest of my life, I hope I’m listening to Bach when I pass on.
DM: How does the glorification of God inform your life?
AB: The most important thing in my life is my Christian faith. And it’s funny because a lot of people, they sort of believe that, but it takes a little bit of focus to say that right? But it’s really true. I grew up in a Christian family. I’m a very lucky man in this way that my parents passed on their faith to me. I was raised in a Christian home and I converted to Catholicism as a teenager as an act of teenage rebellion and my parents quite wisely were not that alarmed. They probably acted a little bit alarmed to give me the satisfaction, I suppose, but they were happy I was still going to church.
And I married a Catholic girl from a nonpracticing family, who subsequently pursued graduate education in theology and is teaching to immigrant women in native Spanish on Christian teaching. And to us, this is just, fundamental. It’s who we are as people. We raised our kids as Christian people, and they love God a lot. And they’re working to refresh the souls of others in different ways. I got one who is a middle school math teacher, I have one who’s in the U.S. Marine Corps. And I have one who is still in college, and they’re all glorifying God in their own ways. And it’s the most important thing in their life, too. And I’m really, really grateful for that.
DM: That’s really lovely. It leads me to my final question. Arthur Brooks, are you happy?
AB: Happiness is not a destination. It’s not a destination in the mortal coil. I believe that happiness is only a destination in the supernatural, in the eternal sense. While we’re alive on this earth, happiness is a direction. The promise that I can give to my students is not that you’re going to find happiness like some mythical Shangri La, some city of Eldorado. I believe that you will, but not in this life.
However, I can promise that you can get happier if you understand what happiness is and how to pursue it. If you commit yourself to good and healthy practices that involve faith and family, love of others and service, and if you commit yourself to sharing these ideas, you will get happier.
Am I happy? Not yet. Am I happier? Every year.