You may not feel that you are happy, but anyone can focus on ways to get happier, says faculty member Arthur Brooks. He coauthored a book last year with media executive Oprah Winfrey, titled “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier” and spoke about his findings at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Brooks is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at HKS and a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Tarek Masoud, the Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Governance, moderated the conversation.

Brooks, who spent his early decades as a musician, re-examined his life and changed his career when he realized that he did not feel happy. He studied and then taught public policy and management, and then led the American Enterprise Institute, a major Washington think tank. Since 2019 he has been at Harvard, where he teaches nonprofit management and brings together experts on the social science of happiness at the Leadership and Happiness Laboratory, based at the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.

In his years investigating happiness, Brooks has concluded that “happy people have three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning.” Enjoyment, he argued at the Forum, is not straightforward and is not the same thing as pleasure. “The pursuit of pleasure is a great way to ruin your life,” he said. “Enjoyment takes the source of pleasure and adds two things: people and memory.” As an example, Brooks mentioned beer commercials: they don’t show people sitting alone drinking. Instead, they feature people in the company of others, smiling, making memories, as they clink bottles in a toast.

Arthur Brooks.

“Happy people have three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning.”

Arthur Brooks

Above enjoyment and satisfaction, however, “you need meaning for than anything else,” Brooks said. There are three parts to this, in his view: “Meaning is about coherence—why do things happen the way they do? Purpose. What is my direction and goals? And significance. Why does it matter that I am alive?” Both Brooks and Masoud said their personal answers are in part inspired by their religious faiths—they are Catholic and Muslim respectively—although Brooks provided the caveat that everyone’s sources of meaning will be different and not necessarily based on religious faith. What is concerning to him, however, is that Americans today aren’t encouraged to ask themselves these deep questions about their lives.

Brooks argued that happiness has been in decline for the last three decades or so because four habits of happiness that he identifies—faith, family, friends, and meaningful work—have been eroded. “When I say faith, that’s a handy way for me to talk about transcendence,” he said. “Transcendence is thinking about something bigger than our everyday lives.” People today are less likely to be religious, spiritual, or even philosophical, Brooks argued. And family relationships and friendships are harmed by increased political polarization and a culture of shutting down people with different opinions, along with the growth of social media, which he sees as isolating people. Brooks also cited the coronavirus pandemic as being harmful to relationships. “It was pretty grim,” he said, “a lot of people haven’t gotten their social chops back.”

Arthur Brooks and Tarek Masoud speaking on the JFK Jr. Forum stage

Despite this daunting outlook, Brooks believes people can build the habits of happiness and make their lives more meaningful, serving others and “lightening their loads.” When asked about the state of happiness at Harvard, he offered encouragement. “You have a lot of happiness in your lives. Harvard is not a single unitary organism. It is a lot of people doing a lot of things,” he said. “That does not mean we have a happy culture right now … . I believe we do not, and I believe that we can. I am actually more optimistic about this place than I have been in the five years I have been here. The reason is because the discomfort we are feeling as a community is a spur to our growth.”

Brooks pointed to Masoud’s work as example. Masoud is a scholar on democracy, especially in the Middle East, and has hosted a series of recent events on the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Masoud is no stranger to the hard work of talking about challenging issues, Brooks argued. He cited a metaphor that Masoud has made about engaging in hard conversations: it’s like going to the gym. You may not want to, but you will get stronger and even, perhaps, enjoy it.

Photos by Martha Stewart

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