BOSTON — When it comes to happiness, Americans have been on a downward slide, with depression and mental illness spiking since the 1990s and people feeling less connected. This trajectory mirrors the decline in four main areas of our life — faith, family, friendships and work — says Arthur Brooks, a social scientist and professor at Harvard Business School who recently co-authored a book with Oprah Winfrey, “Build the Life You Want.”

“We find that people are less likely to practice any sort of faith, spirituality or life philosophy, that people are less likely to get married and form families. People are less likely to say that somebody knows me well and have deep friendships, and people are less likely to see their work as a calling and vocation less and less,” Brooks said Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Harvard Catholic Forum, an organization that fosters engagement between Catholic tradition and science, arts and scholarship.

The rise of social media, the growing political divides and the COVID-19 pandemic have made things that much worse, said Brooks, who was raised as a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism when he was 15 years old.

The modern culture has offered ideas to combat these challenges, but they often involve the pursuit of material things and professional success, often at the expense of relationships with people: “Love things, use people, worship yourself — that’s the world’s formula,” Brooks said.

In his talk, Brooks proposed a new formula: “Love people, use things, worship God.”

“We need to subvert the culture with our love,” he said, offering three practical ways to do this.

  • Make your faith public

The pull to be among like-minded people who share our values often means avoiding the challenge of being among those who don’t, Brooks said. “It’s a tendency to only be in this sort of company, in church, in community organizations that share our values,” he said. “And the reason is because it’s the most comfortable thing to be around people just like us.” 

While venturing out of these familiar circles, there is a tendency to shy away from our beliefs and values. Brooks said he found it easier to be public about his faith on purpose, rather than spontaneously. He suggested, for example, saying a blessing before a meal in public places, or praying before an exam. “Just do it publicly and be natural,” he said. But living your faith in public — at school, work and throughout mundane moments of the day — also means realizing that others are watching. “You need to be excellent at your work — no cutting corners, no laziness, no excuses — excellence is the only way we can live our lives.”

  • Make your faith normal

Why can living out your faith in public feel so awkward? Brooks said he asked himself that question and that he believes that being religious today is perceived as unusual or “weird.”

“Our culture normalizes the pathological and pathologizes the normal,” he said. “We’re made to feel as if we’re doing a weird thing.” 

Brooks has found ways to incorporate the fact that he goes to daily Mass into conversations about his workout regimen. He has made the sign of the cross before giving a speech to a room full of CEOs. “We have to make our faith normal and natural — as normal as wearing-a-shirt-to-work normal, natural,” Brooks said. “When we make things normal, people are pretty shocked and then they find it winsome, and then they want to follow.” 

  • Make your faith magnetic

It’s not anger that plagues our polarized society today, Brooks argues, but an emotion that’s even more destructive. “It’s actually a complex emotion called contempt, which takes anger, a hot emotion, and mixes it with an ice-cold emotion called disgust,” he said.

Contempt comes into play when we see another individual as worthless, he said. Brooks believes contempt is at the root of recent clashes on the Harvard campus over the Israel-Hamas war and broader divisions in the nation. “If you look at our political conflicts around today, they’re all characterized by contempt, eye rolling and sarcasm,” Brooks said. 

Related
Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey’s recipe for a happier life
What does it take to be happy? Arthur Brooks can give you a clue

Showing love in the face of contempt is how you make your faith attractive, Brooks said. “When you go out and you find hatred, when you find contempt, you meet it with love, notwithstanding your feelings,” Brooks said. “This is our secret weapon — loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us,” he said. 

‘Speaking love into divisiveness’

Brooks’ message was warmly received by the audience of about 100, many of whom were Catholic.

For Marta Antoniv, the ease of being open about her faith depends on the context. “With my colleagues, my comfort has grown and I’ve started being more open and straightforward about my faith and with what I do and how I practice,” said Antoniv, a Catholic who attended the event. “But it can be hard sometimes.”

Max Farrington took Brooks’ class when he was a student at Harvard Business School and came from Baltimore this week to hear him speak. “The class changed the direction of my life,” said Farrington, who grew up Catholic and returned to the faith after taking the class. Although Brooks didn’t talk about his personal faith in class, the class helped Farrington reframe his priorities as he was pursuing his career. “I realized I had the wrong formula,” Farrington told me.

“All of our innovation and all of our devices and all of the things that we have managed to rely on to dull the pain, to distract us from the tragedy and, and to divert us from all of the brokenness of the world has only made things worse,” said Ruth Okediji, a professor at Harvard Law School and founder of the Program on Biblical Law and Christian Legal Studies, at the closing of the event. Okediji recently spoke at Brigham Young University about integrating faith in the public life. “What God has called us to do as Christians is to take the good news of the gospel into a lost and dying world,” she said.

“A lot of what Brooks is speaking about is timeless,” said Tim O’Donnell, executive director of the Harvard Catholic Forum and a deacon in the Catholic Church. “But the most timely part is that Brooks is speaking love into divisiveness.”