When Arthur Brooks’ three kids turned 18, they each handed over a business plan to him. But not the kind of plan you might think. It was a business plan for their lives.

“They are startup founders of themselves, incorporated,” Brooks said. “That’s their firm. They’re the founding CEO. Now, the currency of their life is not money. It’s love and happiness.”

Brooks, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and columnist for The Atlantic, intended for this plan to help his children answer two questions — questions he believed that if they could answer, they would be on their way toward happiness. And before an overflowing audience at Brigham Young University on Thursday, he asked those very questions and unveiled the four most important strategies to find happiness.

BYU’s Wheatley Institute and the Marriott School of Business hosted the lecture in conjunction with the University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Along with Wheatley Institute Director Paul Edwards, University of Utah President Taylor Randall spoke at the start of the event. In a luncheon following the lecture, Randall and Brigitte Madrian, dean of the BYU Marriott School of Business, had a conversation about how to foster happiness among college students.

“It is always an honor to be here at Brigham Young University,” said Randall. “I see our institutions as collaborators in the great cause of educating both our state and our country and our world.”

Brooks has ties to both the University of Utah and BYU. He’s one of the University of Utah Impact Scholars and since 2005, BYU has periodically hosted Brooks as a speaker.

Of his time in Utah, Brooks said, “Part of the thing that I’m learning is that this is a distinctive place in our country and in our world. And a big part of what I want to do is I want to bring the magic that’s right here, and I want to bring it to the rest of the country.”

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The science behind Happy Valley

Kicking off his lecture, Brooks said he would explain the science of Happy Valley and how happiness works.

Though happiness is accompanied by feelings, it is not itself a feeling. “Happiness is a combination of enjoyment and satisfaction and meaning,” Brooks said, adding that it’s “not a destination, it’s a direction.”

“Build the Life You Want,” by Arthur C. Brooks, is available for attendees after Brooks spoke about happiness at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center at BYU, hosted by the Wheatley Institute, University of Utah and the Marriott School of Business, in Provo on Thursday, March 28, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Enjoyment. “Pleasure is an animal phenomenon,” Brooks said. “Enjoyment is a human phenomenon, almost a divine phenomenon.”

Brooks said that it’s not a good idea to do something just because it feels good — and that’s what pleasure is. Pleasure is incomplete and doesn’t lead to happiness.

Enjoyment, on the other hand, involves more than just pleasure.

“This is an important thing with your eating and with all of your habits,” Brooks said. “It’s the pleasure. Plus the people. Plus the memory. At least you enjoy it. And that enjoyment leads to your happiness and that’s a gift.”

Satisfaction. Humans want to struggle for rewards, according to Brooks. “You want to even suffer for things. And the reward is sweeter, the more you struggle.”

Brooks gave college as example. Most people don’t want to stroll into college, not study one thing and then walk out with a diploma 10 minutes later, because the process of earning the degree gives the satisfaction, not the degree itself.

Single events don’t bring lasting satisfaction. “But we’re always fooled. We’re always fooled into thinking that it will, because Mother Nature, she’s playing a trick on us.”

In life, Brooks said, there are things we already have and things that we want. In order to have lasting satisfaction and work toward happiness, he said we need to trim down the amount of wants we have. In other words, it’s more effective to manage what we want than what we have.

Brooks referred to this as a reverse bucket list. On his birthday, he writes down a bucket list and instead of chasing down those dreams, he crosses them out. Something he’s putting on his next reverse bucket list are his political opinions.

“I need fewer political opinions because I need more friends,” Brooks quipped to audience laughter. It’s not that Brooks will abandon his views, it’s that he said he’ll open himself up more to others and detach himself more from his opinions and the idea of being right.

Meaning. It’s not enjoyment and satisfaction alone that help lead a person to happiness. People need to find meaning and purpose in life, Brooks said.

Brooks asked the audience two questions: Why are you alive? And for what would you give your life for on this day if you were called to do so?

Along with having his kids write business plans for their lives, Brooks asked them these two questions. That was the whole idea behind the plans. When one of his sons gave him back a plan saying he would go to college and play sports, Brooks sent the plan back for revisions.

When his son gave him the plan back, Brooks said he found something he could believe in. “He came back with this idea of working hard by himself with his hands outside. He went to work on a dry wheat farm in Grangeville, Idaho,” Brooks said.

Now a few years later, Brooks’ son has served in the Marine Corps and is married with a baby along the way. He found his answers. Brooks related those answers to the audience, “‘Why are you alive?’ Because God made me to serve other people. ‘What are you willing to give your life for?’ My faith and for my family and for my fellow Marines and for the United States of America.”

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While these answers might not be the right ones for everyone in the audience, Brooks said, he admonished them to find their answers.

To find enjoyment, satisfaction and meaning, Brooks said there are four key areas of your life to examine: your faith, family, friends and work. And what you can control about your happiness isn’t necessarily your circumstances or genetics, it’s your habits.

“If you go on a mission for your faith, you are spreading happiness. I have the data. I have science that shows you that you’re a Christian apostle and witness, but you’re also a happiness apostle and witness,” Brooks, a Catholic, said.

Keeping your family close, cultivating tight-knit friendships and finding a career where you believe you are earning success and serving other people will lead you to more happiness in your life.

We are destined to be beings in service to others, Brooks said. “And the best way that we can do it for most of us is the way we earn our daily bread.”