Arthur Brooks takes happiness seriously. Formerly a professor of public policy at Syracuse University and then president of the American Enterprise Institute for 10 years, Brooks is now William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, where he teaches on nonprofit management, leadership, and happiness. He wants social science and public policy not to treat the question of happiness as an afterthought, but rather spend more time understanding how we can bring happiness into our lives and less on what he calls the widgets of a machine we might not even understand. Besides his “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic, and his “Art of Happiness” podcast, he is currently finishing a book titled “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life,” which focuses on how people can build the foundation for happiness as they grow older.
Q: Why does the study of happiness matter?
As social scientists, we're trying to look at the things that matter most for people's lives. And when you ask people what they want the most from their life, almost everybody will talk about wanting to have a happy life, or a happier life, and more happiness for the people that they love. When they complain about what's going wrong in the United States, many people will talk about the fact that people aren't happy, that the country isn't happy enough, that the world isn't happy enough. And so the study of happiness is absolutely appropriate for somebody who's a social scientist, particularly somebody who is really interested in lifting the country up and making the country better off.
There is very little going on in academia that ties leadership to creating greater happiness, that talks about the happiness of leaders, and how leaders can bring more happiness to other people. So, I have dedicated my work to the science of happiness in a way that's really very different than how it's ordinarily taught in most places.
You can get better at happiness, but you have to do three things. Number one, you need to understand it. So, you can be happier, but you have to understand it and do the work, do the reading, do the studying, do the thinking, do the analysis. The second is that you need to apply the things that you learned in your life. That's actually what the real work is. And the last part there is you have to share what you know. If you do these three things—understand, apply, share--happiness will come to you in greater abundance. You won't be happy all the time, but that said, to have more happiness in your life, you've got to do those three things.
Q: In a public policy school, where the guiding stars are often quantitative analysis and hard data, the study of happiness seems almost out of place. Why does it belong there?
Well, policy schools are schools of what and how, and my work is all about the why. So, why are we trying to get better public policy? Is it because that we inherently care about, for example, the structure of healthcare? No. We want people to have more healthcare. Why? So that people can actually avoid this major source of misery and unhappiness. Why? So they can lead better, happier lives. That's why. And so, we need more material on the big why of trying to make the world better, to make the country better, to make our communities better. And this is really the kind of foundational stuff that I'm doing.
If we don't understand the why, I'm afraid that we'll always be just looking at the little widgets and we won't understand why we have a machine in the first place. The leadership of happiness takes us back to first principles. I spent my whole life working in public policy, I have a PhD in public policy, I ran a policy think tank, I've taught at policy schools my whole career, and that's great as far as it goes. But if you don't understand the underlying equations of all this stuff, it can become frustrating, and you can go in the wrong direction.
Q: How do your students react?
They love the class. They love studying this material. They're intensely interested in it. But there's no big difference between the level of interest of older people and younger people on happiness, it's just that we're all in different stages of our journey. The thing that the students like about it is that somebody's paying attention to the why of their careers, and the why of the way that they're trying to build their lives. We really focus a lot in universities on saying, ‘Here are the things you need to do to attain worldly success.’ And they have a sense that the world is giving them a bill of goods. ‘You want to be happy? Let me tell you the secret to happiness: money, power, pleasure, and prestige.’ Well, that's a bill of goods.
I can show you reams of data that those things will bring dissatisfaction, not satisfaction. They put you on what we call the hedonic treadmill, where you run and run and you never make any distance. And furthermore, there's a guy turning up the treadmill. So pretty soon, you're just afraid to fall off the back. So they want—they need—somebody to start telling them the truth about what's going to bring satisfaction in life. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't help them to be successful in their careers, but we should be talking to them about the big picture, about how to lead happier lives and how they can bring more happiness to other people. They see their parents that are not satisfied. They see graduates of all these great universities that are 10 years out and tremendously successful by worldly standards but who are not satisfied, and they don't want that. But they don't know what to do. So when we’re talking about something like this, it's really popular. They finally feel like they're getting the truth.
Q: Your upcoming book looks at finding happiness at every stage of life, so beyond students?
When you work at a university, it's very easy to focus on young adults, as they go out into their careers and into their lives. And I think that's really important. But I also want this work to be a service to people at every stage in life. But the most underserved population, when talking about success and happiness, are people my age: people who are in their 40s, 50s, even 60s. Nobody's talking about how they can be happy and successful going forward in their lives. And when you look at the data, it's really grim. You find that about half of the population gets happier after 65 and the other half of the population gets worse and worse until they die. And again, there's no roadmap. What should you be doing in your 40s and 50s and 60s so that your 60s and 70s and 80s are a time of flourishing, a time of satisfaction, a time of love and achievement, and success?
When you do the research on that, there are real answers, there's a code to crack. The title of the book I’m currently writing is “From Strength to Strength,” which comes from the Psalms in the Bible and is a good wish in Jewish culture: may you go from strength to strength. And I’m looking especially at the second half of life. I'm dedicating my career not just to the young strivers who are going out in the world, but the older strivers that want their life to be better. And this is part of the ongoing mission at the Kennedy School: to make life better, to create the conditions where people can make their own lives better no matter where they are.
Q: When looking at the problems that people in middle age and beyond are facing, social science looks at the so-called “deaths of despair,” at the economic and social fractures that many face. How is your approach different?
The problem is we're materialists. The quintessential death of despair is suicide. And there's an epidemic of it from men age 45 to 64. And it's really not breaking down in socioeconomic terms. There's something about the nature of how we build our lives, how we point ourselves in the wrong direction. We have the wrong goals: money, power, pleasure, and fame. Talking about faith, and family, and friendship and work in which you can serve other people for the rest of your life—these are the sources of deep satisfaction.
Brain science tells us about our natural strengths when we get older, how can we de-complicate our lives so that we're not distracted by the baubles of everyday life. And we can focus on the things that matter the most, like how we can repair our relationships. That's what this research is about. It really has opened my eyes and it's truly changed my life.