HKS Professor Arthur Brooks studies happiness—what it is, how to achieve it, and how it can repair our weary souls and our toxic politics.
Featuring ARTHUR BROOKS
JULY 30, 2021
46 minutes and 30 seconds
Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School Professor Arthur Brooks studies happiness: Where it comes from, how to achieve it, and how it affects our lives, our decision-making, and the world around us. But how do we define happiness? Is it how we feel? Is it an approach to life? And how much control over it do we really have? What percentage of our happiness comes from, say, our environment, or from genetics? Can government make us happier? Should it? In a time of strife and division when the world is seemingly desperate for more happiness, he joins host Ralph Ranalli to explore some of those questions.
Arthur Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. He has also been the president of the American Enterprise Institute and a member of the City Orchestra of Barcelona. He is the author of 11 books, including “Love Your Enemies” (2019), “The Conservative Heart” (2015), and “The Road to Freedom” (2012). He is a columnist for The Atlantic, and host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks.
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Arthur Brooks (Intro): So the big mistakes that people make are thinking that happiness A) is a feeling and B) that happiness happens to them. Those are the two big mistakes that people make. So if you think that happiness is feelings that sometimes you get and you don't know why, you're doing it all wrong.
Ralph Ranalli (Intro): What is happiness? To the novelist George Sand, it was to love and to be loved. To the Buddha, it was a path, rather than a destination. To Charlie Brown and his friends, it was two kinds of ice cream and walking hand in hand.
To Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School Professor Arthur Brooks, happiness is a field of academic study—and an almost endlessly fascinating one at that. For one thing, there's its universality. Our happiness—or lack thereof—is something virtually all of us think about all the time, and it can have a big impact on our decision-making. But how do we define happiness? Is it how we feel? Is it an approach to life? And how much control over it do we really have? What percentage of our happiness comes from, say our environment or from genetics? Can the government make us happier? Should it? Can corporations? Brooks, whose career has included stints as a classical musician and as head of the free-market American Enterprise Institute, is here to help us sort through some of those questions. And we are happy to have him. I’m your host Ralph Ranalli of the Harvard Kennedy School. Welcome to PolicyCast.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, Arthur, welcome to PolicyCast.
Arthur Brooks: Thanks. Great to be with you.
Ralph Ranalli: You've led a really interesting life. You were a classical musician, you've been a college professor studying behavioral economics, you ran the American Enterprise Institute, which is the free market think tank, and now you study the science of happiness and teach it. Can you give us the abridged story of that journey, how you got from there to here?
Arthur Brooks: The through line that starts with being a French horn player and winds up teaching happiness at Harvard? There's not a coherent through line, except insofar as this is a great country where you can reinvent yourself a whole bunch of times, and that's effectively what I've done. I tend to have a ten-year cadence in my career where, every decade or so, I take it down to the studs and rebuild it around learning new things and pursuing new interests, trying to create new kinds of value.
So I started off as a classical musician, as you mentioned. I actually started that when I was really a little kid, eight or nine years old, I realized I wanted to be a classical musician. My ambition—this is so American—my ambition was to be the greatest French horn player in the world. Everybody's got a dream, right? And I wound up not succeeding in college, in my one abortive year of college, and I wound up on the road pursuing my dream. And it was fantastic. I played chamber music and made several seasons in the Barcelona Symphony. I actually went to Barcelona not because of the job in the Symphony. I took the job in the Symphony so I could be in Barcelona to try to convince a woman I was in love with to marry me, that I had met on the road on a chamber music tour. And she happened to live in Barcelona, so I was just being very entrepreneurial. But she didn't speak a word of English, I didn't speak a word of Spanish or Catalan and ... anyway, that was 30 years ago and now we have three kids and all is well that ends well. The French horn career didn't last that long, but the marriage till-death-do-us part did, which is fantastic.
We came back to live in the states and I started college when I was 28 by correspondence and finished about a month before my 30th birthday. And then at 31 left the French horn and started my PhD in public policy analysis. I did it at the RAND Graduate School, where I focused on mathematical modeling, operations research, and it was a brand new field for me just because I didn't have any background in it. I wanted to learn about it. It was an area of weakness. So the whole idea was to make it into an area of strength. And it fascinated me. I mean, I come from a background of academics and artists. So my father was a professor. His father was a professor. My mother was an artist. And so these things come together in the DNA. This is not plucked out of... This is not especially creative for me to pick this field.
And then I did that for 10 years and then ran a think tank for 10 years, the American Enterprise Institute, which is a full spectrum policy think tank in Washington, D.C. and did that. And then sort of retired from that in my mid '50s and looked around at the next thing to do. And I thought about it and all I really wanted to do was to dedicate myself to lifting people up and bringing them together for the rest of my career. My area of interest is love and happiness.
Ralph Ranalli: Where did that come from? Where do you think the origins were of that movement to that subject area of happiness and fulfillment?
Arthur Brooks: Well, I think everybody wants that, but to think very specifically about where that might come from, when I was in the music business, my favorite composer was Johann Sebastian Bach. Everybody loves Bach. Who doesn't love Bach? I mean, if you know anything about music at all, you've heard of Bach and about half the population thinks he's the greatest composer. So that's not an especially distinguished opinion or unusual or esoteric opinion. But what really impressed me about him was his dedication to the why of his career and the why of his life. He's a great composer, but when he was asked why he wrote music by a minor biographer… and this is really interesting thing to me… not like: ‘What's your compositional process?’ That would be the typical question. Instead it was ‘Why do you write music?’ His answer was... obviously he thought about it a lot. And everybody listening to us: People will always ask you what you do, but if they ask you why you do what you do, you have to have an answer.
Bach's answer was that the aim and final end of all music is nothing less than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the soul. I heard that when I was in the music business myself. How many souls am I refreshing? And my answer to myself was ‘not enough’. And I wanted to do that. I really wanted to answer the why of my vocation like Bach. And so I went out in search of something that I could do. It's weird Bach drove me out of music. I went from the sublime to the dismal, into economics and social science, because of Bach, because I wanted to answer it in that particular way. And I think about them a lot. And when I'm writing a book or I'm writing my column on the science of happiness for the Atlantic, which is my main area of research expression as a professor of practice at the Kennedy School, I listen to Bach and I say, I want to be like Bach. This is my inspiration. I want to refresh souls. I want to lift people up and then bring them together. The point of my work is service. And yeah, so I got it from Bach.
Ralph Ranalli: Let's talk a little bit about the science of happiness and what your research and the research you've accumulated that was done by others has shown about what we know about where happiness comes from, how we achieve it, how we keep it. And you say it is a science. It would seem intuitively that it might be an art, but you're calling it a science. Why?
Arthur Brooks: Well, it's both. It's actually both. And like most things that we really want, you can study it and get better at it, but also has a lot of beauty and a lot of serendipity to it. So the big mistakes that people make are thinking that happiness A) is a feeling and B) that happiness happens to them. Those are the two big mistakes that people make. So if you think that happiness is a feeling that sometimes you get and you don't know why, you're doing it all wrong. Happiness has feelings attached to it and happiness produces feelings and is influenced by feelings. But fundamentally, happiness is a combination of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Those are the three big pillars. Those are the three macronutrients of the feast that is subjective wellbeing. Subjective wellbeing is the term of art that we in the social science business use for happiness. So we can't just say happiness because it would be too easy and nobody gets tenure from using an easy word, so … subjective wellbeing.
And the macronutrients like the fat, carbohydrates, and protein are enjoyment, and enjoyment is what people are automatically good at. That's a combination of pleasure with elevation. So think of it as pleasure with education. Enjoying Bach is something that requires ... it gives you tons of pleasure, but you have to do a little work. It's not just in a bottle of gin. And so enjoyment is a really, really important thing. The second is satisfaction, which is the reward for something. Something that you want, something you work for. Satisfaction is what you get as a result of that. And then purpose is probably the most paradoxical and interesting of the three macronutrients of happiness. Meaning in life. It comes largely from sacrifice, from challenge, even from pain and trauma. And so one of the great paradoxes of true happiness is that to get it, you also have to have a lot of unhappiness in your life. This current trend that we have, this tendency that we have, another mistake that people make, because they're thinking that there'll be happy if they eradicate all suffering. No, no, no. That's actually the fast route to not having a balanced macronutrient profile and feeling empty about your happiness, feeling empty about your life. Now, you don't want to be submerged by unhappiness, you don't want to have your boat capsized. That can be a medical problem, obviously. But the idea of ‘if it feels bad, run away from it or treat it’ that's actually not the right approach for true happiness. So that's really what it's all about.
Ralph Ranalli: You say that you have to have those three things, enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose in balance in the right combination. And for people who are in a state of imbalance, is purpose the one that's usually out of whack?
Arthur Brooks: Not necessarily. So a good way to think about this is that there's nothing new about what I'm talking about here. Almost always, social science is building on something that's been elucidated and exposed in spirituality, or ancient wisdom, or just basic philosophy. The philosophers have gotten at all the right questions, and we social scientists are basically looking for the empirical evidence to expose these theories to scrutiny. So what you find is this kind of balance beam, largely between enjoyment and purpose, because there are a lot of people who have this pure enjoyment life and not very much purpose. So we'll call that your undergraduate experience, just in shorthand. And there are a lot of people who have lots of purpose, but not that much enjoyment. So they're sort of grim and hardworking.
The ancients talked about this as kind of the epicurean approach versus a stoic approach. And those were the two schools in ancient Greece, and in Rome later. Those were the two schools that were most at opposition with each other as the solution to the happiness conundrum. As a matter of fact, they were explicitly lobbing bombs at each other—rhetorical bombs—at each other. The Stoics were passing around all these rumors that Epicurus, and his followers were hedonists that were dedicated to having orgies and all this kind of stuff. And that was completely false. Epicurus did believe that enjoyment and peace of mind were the way to happiness and the way that you would do that is by getting rid of conflict and surrounding yourself with friends and all these things. And having elevated forms of enjoyment. But it wasn't just that hedonism, as we currently understand it. Hedonic or Hedonia from Greek actually, is that particular school, but it requires a lot of balance in your life, and it requires a lot of discipline as well.
On the other hand, the Stoics felt that true happiness came from living a moral life with no loopholes. That eudaimonia, which is a good life well lived, meant knowing who you are, having prudence by putting up with the things that you can't change and suffering when you need to. It's sort of a stiff upper lip kind of philosophy. Some people are more hedonistic and some people are more stoic in their lives. And the important thing to keep in mind is to—and I have a column that I wrote for the Atlantic about this where you can actually take a test—to find out where you are on this balance sheet.
Ralph Ranalli: On the stoicism-to-hedonism spectrum?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, exactly.
Ralph Ranalli: That would be an interesting test.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, for sure. And what you find is that if you're more of a hedonist that you need to actually do things to develop your eudaimonic muscles, your stoic muscles. And if you're more of a stoic, then you need to do things that will exercise you as a person, not hedonistically, but let's just say hedonically, in a more Epicurean type of way, and I actually give examples of things that people can do. Everybody fits on there—the important thing is understanding who you are, and then bolstering the part of the macronutrient profile that you have in least abundance.
Ralph Ranalli: Speaking of who you are, one of the things you say is that 50 percent of how happy you are comes from genetics. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because that surprised me a bit. And it almost concerned me a bit, as if we want to believe that we're the captains of our own happiness ship, but maybe we're not?
Arthur Brooks: Well, it's funny. As Americans in particular, we're really, really geared toward wanting to control everything in our lives. It's like, yeah, it's up to me, man. I don't want to be born happy or unhappy, for Pete's sake, I want it to be on the basis of my hard work and merit and personal responsibility. I mean, that's just how most people are wired. I mean, not everybody thinks that way, but most people I know do.
But we have to face facts. And there's been a series of studies looking at twins and siblings, and including some identical twins. There's a database of identical twins that were separated at birth and adopted to separate families, and then reunited as adults, who volunteered for personality tests. And so it's really great. Now you would never do this on purpose, because it would be horribly unethical, but it just happened because of the way policies were working back in the old days between the '30s and '60s of the 20th century. And then they voluntarily got back together on this joyous occasion when they met their identical twin they didn't know they had. It's really interesting hearing stories about how remarkably similar their lives are. And what you find is that you're able to use, based on the personality tests, you're able to use relatively straightforward statistical techniques to figure out which part of their personalities are nature, and which parts are nurture. And what you find is that most parts of the personality—I mean, there's the big five: personality characteristics of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—that those things tend to be between 40 percent and 80 percent genetic. And happiness is somewhere—depending on which tests you believe in and which papers you read—between 44 percent and 52 percent genetic.
Now, at first, I'm thinking: "Oh man. It's true. My mother did make me unhappy. Literally." But that turns out to be the wrong way of seeing it. Of course, there's a big genetic component. Of course, if you have gloomy parents, I mean, there's going to be something. Of course, there's epigenetic expression of personality characteristics. There's nothing wrong with that. That's perfectly fine. The interesting thing is the other half. If it were 100 percent, then my work here would be done, or I wouldn't believe it in the first place. But the fact that half actually comes from circumstances and habits, that's a really, really interesting thing. And so that's where I spend all my time.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. And you actually have tested your own happiness, right?
Arthur Brooks: Many times.
Ralph Ranalli: And you've found you're below average?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, for sure. I'm below average for the population. And part of it is just because I had really ... my parents died young and they were really gloomy. I mean, artists and academics. I mean, they had good lives as far as it went, but both sides of their family were pretty dark as well. And that actually was incredibly freeing for me to see what the baseline is and to look for strategies such that I can kind of nudge myself above my baseline and have the best life, the happiest life, that is my lot on the basis of the things that I can change without worrying about the things I can’t.
Ralph Ranalli: Let's switch gears and talk about the world out there for a second. To varying degrees, we're coming out of COVID, starting to come out of COVID, and it was very traumatic for virtually all of us. We lost over 600,000 people in the United States alone. Probably no one hasn't been touched in some way, some people in major ways, by COVID. It would seem that we would be starved for happiness. Is that what you're finding is that... What do you think is the happiness market out there these days?
Arthur Brooks: Business is good, you know. What can I say? I mean, it's like I accidentally happened to come across this particular line of research and work when I came to Harvard at weirdly just the right time. I teach a class at the Harvard Business School called Leadership and Happiness, which at some point I will bring across the Andersen Bridge to the Kennedy School. Right now, I'm really dedicated to Kennedy School to teaching nonprofit management and leadership, which was what I wrote a textbook on last time in my last tour through academia. And it ran it for a long time, so it's an appropriate assignment. But the happiness stuff is super popular at HBS. It has got hundreds of people on the waiting list for the class, because that's what they want. And my column at the Atlantic gets five or six hundred thousand unique readers a week. And I have a podcast that's doing really well and a television show under development. And HarvardX, which is part of edX, is making the happiness class into a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Class.
People want this. And people want to manage themselves. And the core message is really empowering, which is that you can't just wish for happiness, you got to work for it. But if you do, if you work to understand what brings the happiest life, you apply the lessons to your own life, you practice it in other words, and you have to share it with others to make it truly metacognitive that man, you're going to get happier. I don't care where you start. I don't care who you are. I don't care how unhappy you feel. You're going to get happier if you do these things. And I can't guarantee you're going to be the happiest person who ever lived. I can't even guarantee I'm going to be the happiest person who ever lived, but since I've been doing this work, I'm much happier than I was in the past. It holds tremendous promise. And so at a time when happiness … because we've been looking at happiness surveys across the population, and we find that the average happiness level in the American population is lower than it's ever been since we've been keeping records. That's a huge opportunity for people to work on their happiness hygiene and to come back better than when they went into the virus.
Ralph Ranalli: I was actually reading the course description for your HBS course. First you teach the students how to understand their own happiness. And then I think the way they put it was you teach them how to manage to happiness. And that managing to happiness is a win-win. People are more productive, more productivity leads to better business results.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, totally. So there's a... One of the great happiness researchers is a psychologist at University of California, Riverside, named Sonja Lyubomirsky. She's one of the great visionaries of the field actually. And one of her papers and one of her research questions is: What happens first, happiness or success? For people—for leaders, but also for just ordinary people doing ordinary things in their lives, whether it's raising their kids or working in their communities, or teaching at the Kennedy School or whatever it is— what happens first then? And she finds that they're kind of jointly determined. If you're successful, you'll tend to be happier. But more interestingly than that, happier people then create the conditions for their own success.
So this a really interesting thing, because we're in a country where there's a lot of unhappiness right now. But we're also in a country where everybody's encouraging each other to be unhappy. If you want to show appropriate social concern, are you bummed out about injustice in the world? Well everybody's concerned about injustice in the world. You got to show it by being really super unhappy, by being outraged. I mean, there's even a bumper sticker called “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.” I've seen that actually in signs, in people's yards, and on their cars. And I know I've seen it actually on the bumpers of both Democrats and Republicans. And so it's like a bi-partisan exhortation toward unhappiness. That is a terrible idea. The more that you say you're unhappy, the more you pretend to be unhappy, even as for a concern, number one, you will get unhappier and number two, you will be less effective in your activism. That's absolutely shown in the results as well. In my column, I wrote about it last week in the Atlantic, and anybody can go look at it, and go read the studies. I mean, this is not stuff that I'm making up, because what I do is I synthesize usually 10 big meaty pieces of research and create lessons that people can use in their lives. That's why I'm doing the column and as an academic, that's my bailiwick. And it's just amazing to me how people don't understand this at this point and how much people think that somehow unhappiness is the appropriate response to what's going on in the world, whereas the appropriate response is enthusiasm for social activism, for social entrepreneurship and gratitude for all the good things that are happening that have never happened historically in our lives. And I mean, there's so much that militates against this philosophy of strategic unhappiness.
Ralph Ranalli: That's an interesting point that you mentioned enthusiasm. Because when I was looking through some of the prep materials for this conversation, it almost struck me that happiness—or maybe how we commonly understand happiness—that it might be the wrong word, because happiness has a tendency to have a very passive connotation where something like enthusiasm is a very outward concept. Enthusiasm is sort of happiness expressed outwardly, and people maybe understand happiness as something that comes to you. Is that a valid distinction? Is it hard to get people to understand that outward dimension of happiness?
Arthur Brooks: That's one of the reasons that scholars who do work in this field don't actually talk that much about happiness in the research, because it tends to be a very blunt instrument. It tends to be something that's harder to find. Now, one of the areas that we often see in journalism about this is: What's the happiest country in the world? And you always see it, so the United Nations, believe it or not, has its own index of this. What's the happiest country in the world? The way that you measure this is by going into a 100 countries or 150 countries, I don't remember, and you ask a thousand people in each country how happy are you about your life? And that's just insane. I mean, that's just basically like going into a hundred countries and saying: ‘How much do you like your local music?’ And then averaging it and saying who has the best music on the basis of that. It doesn't even make any sense. And the result is that they're non-comparable. And you always find like Finland, which has a super high rate of depression, clinical depression, and anti-depressive use and even suicide always comes out on top because of the way they define happiness, the way that they answer happiness surveys. And my favorite country in the world, outside of the United States, Spain, where I've lived off and on and where I have all my family, it's number 36. It's like, are you kidding? I've been to all these places. People define happiness differently and that gets to the crux of your question. How do people define happiness?
There are a bunch of different sort of categories of happiness definitions that people tend to use around the world. And some of the big ones, for example, number one in the West, especially in the United States, we do think of happiness in terms of success and enthusiasm. Whereas largely when people answer those happiness questions in East Asia, they answer it in terms of peace and personal equanimity. So it's interesting. And then there's another dimension of whether or not it's a psychological definition or whether it's a relational definition. So some people are thinking about how many positive feelings they have. Other people are thinking about the quality of their family and friendship relationships in different countries. And so those are the kinds of the two dimensions, whether there is inner peace or outer enthusiasm, and whether it has to do with psychological definitions or relational definitions. And based on that, you've got four different concepts that we see around the world, and it sort of depends. So when it comes to subjective wellbeing, you have to ask the question in much more specific ways if you want to get some comparability. The general truth is that—because we all have our own personal definitions of it—you can get some good comparability inside countries. But it's a fool's errand to compare countries with each other.
Ralph Ranalli: Getting back to the economic tie in to happiness, I used to work next door to HBS over at the Harvard Innovation Labs. And we used to talk a lot about marketing. And what's always struck me about marketing is that they're really trying to make you unhappy, in a directed sort of way. We used to talk about the concept of FOMO a lot: Fear of Missing Out. They're not telling you if you buy our product, you're going to be happy. They're saying, if you don't buy our product, you are not going to be happy. So I think that leads to a bigger question about structurally about our society and our economy, government, everything. What is the role of the structural versus the role of the individual? The individual, like I'm responsible for my own happiness, or the structure? Should we be trying to change ourselves, or should we be trying to change the structure around us?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So there's a lot to unpack in that question. And really the answer to that question begins with a key distinction, between happiness and unhappiness, that you're kind of touching on when you're talking about marketing. They're not opposites. So in my HBS class, they take personality profiles for positive and negative affect, which is to say levels of mood. And what you find is that you can be an incredibly good-mood and bad-mood person, because you're just a high-affect, a high-feeling person. Or you can be high-low or low-high or low-low. And the reason is because, largely, good and bad affect, positive and negative affect, and for that matter happiness and unhappiness are processed in different hemispheres of the brain. They're really very different sensations. And so what brings happiness is not the same thing that lowers unhappiness. What lowers unhappiness is not that which brings happiness. The biggest mistake that people make in their happiness strategy is thinking they're going to get happier, that they need to get happier when their real problem is they have too much unhappiness. So people will say things like, ‘Ah, my commute is so terrible. I'm going to move closer into the city. Then I'll get happier.’ I'm like, ‘No, you won't.’ Because that won't bring happiness. That will lower your unhappiness, which might be a really good thing to do. But don't kid yourself. There are people who think they need to get happier when unhappiness is their problem, or they think that unhappiness is their problem when a low level of happiness is actually their problem.
So the key things to keep in mind is that happiness really comes from four sources. So I talked about the macronutrients, but let's think of it in a different way. If a meal is subjective wellbeing, then you can think of it also in kind of dishes as well, or the things that you would serve that the macronutrients are embedded in. And those things are basically your faith—and by that, I don't mean it particular religious faith, or even organized spirituality, I mean a philosophy or something transcendent to the self—your friendships, your family life, and your work or where your work serves others and where you earn your success. In other words, where you feel like your skills meet your passions. And you're creating value with your life and value in the lives of other people. Those are the big four—faith, family, friends and work—that bring happiness.
There are lots and lots of things that will lower unhappiness. And that's where the marketing for for-profit products comes in, and that's where bureaucracy comes in. And that's where a lot of the stuff that we actually do at the Kennedy School and in the Business School. So I sit on both sides of the river. I'm a professor in both places. And so I study both private sector and public sector in my work. And interestingly, I teach non-profit, which is sort of the nexus of these two. And what you find is that people will think that if you open a Coca Cola, you'll get happier, that if you make more money, you'll be happier. If you get a Buick, you'll be happier. It's actually not true because none of those things is actually feeding into faith, family, friendship, or work. What about money? I mean, one of the things that we know is that there's a famous study that shows that you don't get any extra happiness after $75,000 a year in annual income. The problem with that is that it's looking not at happiness but at affect balance, the balance between good and bad feelings. What's really happening is that at very low income levels, you can lower the sources of unhappiness in people's lives. The deprivation, the need for healthcare, the hunger, the need for adequate and safe housing. You can wipe out a lot of those needs, those needs that can be met, and therefore you will lower unhappiness. But they tend to be satiated around $75,000 or at $100,000 a year. That's what we find. And then it stops eradicating unhappiness. And it never gave you happiness to begin with. So that's the first thing to keep in mind.
The second big principle is when we get back to the HKS side of the river, which is looking at public policy. Politicians and policymakers have forever been promising greater happiness. We didn't in the United States, by the way. We talked about the pursuit of happiness and creating the conditions so that every person could pursue their happiness—a very big and very adroit distinction on the part of Thomas Jefferson. Or he cribbed that language so you have to credit it to somebody else, probably George Mason or somebody. And it's important to keep that in mind because ... I was actually having a conversation with a speaker of the Danish Parliament, and I asked him for a documentary film I was making called “In the Pursuit,” I said, ‘You, Danes, everybody says you're so happy. What's the government doing that’s making everyone so happy?’ And he says, ‘No, no, no, that's a mistake. The government can't bring happiness. The government can only alleviate the sources of unhappiness in people's lives.’ And that is exactly right. That is what we should be thinking about. That is what we should be thinking about as consumers. And that's what we should be thinking about as citizens. Not looking to the government to make us happy, but to alleviate the sources of unhappiness. And there's lots of ways to do that. That's where the competition of ideas comes in. That's where political left and right should be really duking it out. Do we do that with more generous welfare benefits? Or do we do that with a bigger small business administration? Or do we do that by getting rid of regulations, or getting more regulations? But what's the competition of ideas: How we can lower the barriers to people to pursuing their happiness? Because the barriers are really the sources of unhappiness.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. But our politics seems to be much more interested in selling grievance than happiness. We're just marinated in grievance.
Arthur Brooks: Oh yeah, right now in particular. Right.
Ralph Ranalli: And we can see where that's gotten us, right? So I guess that raises the question of well, they wouldn't sell it if people weren't buying. So why do people seem to be wired to choose anger over happiness?
Arthur Brooks: So it's not a problem with anger, it's a problem with fear. Any society, community, family, company, university, any grouping of humans that has a culture to it, which is to say all of us all the time, there's two basic cultural polarities, fear and love. Fear and love are opposites. They're philosophical opposites, they're theological opposites, and they are psychological opposites. Fear is the master negative emotion. There are the four negative emotions, and my colleague, Jen Lerner, is really the big expert on this. I mean, she's one of the world's leading experts on this field. And emotion researchers actually disagree on which are the primary emotions, but generally speaking, they will pull us around the idea that the primary negative emotions are anger, disgust, sadness, and fear.
Of those negative emotions, fear is the master emotion. And when it clears the deck from everything else and it makes evolutionary sense that it would. I mean you don't want to be having primary positive emotions like interest and joy and love that are blocking everything else out when a saber-toothed tiger is sneaking up behind you and saying, ‘Oh, that looks like lunch.’ You want fear to dominate everything and so that your amygdala will be stimulated. And when you have a threat to your safety, your amygdala will kick into action in 74 milliseconds. That will send a signal through your hypothalamus, to your pituitary gland, which will stimulate your adrenal glands and literally in less than a hundred milliseconds, you'll be pumping stress hormones into your system before your prefrontal cortex, your conscious brain will even know what's going on. That's a really, really great thing. We should all be grateful for it. The problem is that it can dominate in all sorts of social situations, and it can be used by demagogues and dictators, which they do all the time.
Now that said, let me be an economist for two seconds, forgive me for this. One of the things that we know is that from all the best research on the influence that economics has on the political cycle—there's a paper in the European Economic Review from 2017 that lays this out really convincingly that looks at 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies—that when you have a financial crisis, which is very different than an ordinary recession and happens once every 50 years ago or so in most countries, the big problem is you can't recover from it symmetrically or evenly. So the 80 percent of the wealth gains of the 10 years after the financial crisis tends to go to the top 20 percent of the income distribution, which creates all kinds of bitterness. And there's not economic policies that we know about that are going to correct this very well. I mean, it doesn't matter how redistributive or collectivist you are in your sentiments, there just aren't good ways that we've figured out to do this.
And the result is that you almost always get political populism. And the backlash that you get in political populism is always based in fear. And so a financial crisis can take any love polarity in a country—which is not a 100 percent love, this is not Berkeley '68 but basically we're working for each other, we're aspirational, we're not envious—and flip it. You can flip the polarity to a fear polarity, which is exactly what we've had. And once again you can... anybody thinking about this thing is like, yeah, yeah, yeah, and they're thinking about the rhetoric of the politician on the other side from them. But the truth is that both sides are all in, on the fear business right now. And my view is, and what I'm really, really dedicated to is changing the polarity in American politics and American public policy into American community and back around to the law of polarity. Again, that doesn't mean everybody's saying ‘Bless you, I love you’ all the time, but it does mean that we actually are working more for each other, that we're better able to collaborate, that we remember that persuasion is a higher art than coercion. And that we're basically not more afraid of our fellow citizens than we are hostile foreign enemies, which is what's really going on right now.
Ralph Ranalli: Right. I thought the mask metaphor—getting back to COVID—was a really interesting one in terms of this concept of what we do for each other, and how much does being selfless actually make us happy? Or give us satisfaction? Because unless you were wearing an N95 mask, which actually does protect you, the cloth mask that my daughter sewed for me only protected you. It didn't protect me. But if you were wearing a cloth mask that your daughter sewed for you, we were protecting each other. So what have you found is the role of trying to make the other happy and putting the interests of the other above our own in giving us happiness?
Arthur Brooks: So there's two questions embedded in that. Number one is what is the role of other serving behavior in love? And then the second is what is the role of love in happiness? So it is kind of two steps. To begin with, other-serving behavior is the essence of love. Love is not a feeling. I mean, St. Thomas Aquinas really pointed this out nicely, but it's been validated eight ways to Sunday in the empirical social science world. And St. Thomas Aquinas said: ‘To love is to will the good of the other.’ It's a commitment. Martin Luther King put this really, really nicely. He is our great American orator and he gave a sermon in 1957, a very famous sermon on the Gospel of St. Matthew, the fifth chapter, the 44th verse. Love your enemies. I mean, everybody knows that, love your enemies. I mean, it's the most transgressive subversive teaching in the past 2,000 years. Literally changed lives and changed societies. And if we lived according to it, it would be a completely different world. Incredibly wonderful. And Martin Luther King said, Jesus didn't say like your enemies, because like is a sentimental something. He said love your enemies, because when you love your enemies, then you can redeem your enemies. It's ‘to will’ their good. And that is the essence of what love means. Thomas Aquinas's understanding of that is he knows deep philosophical roots that actually gets back to Aristotle.
Okay. So that's really the essence of love. Now, how does love relate to happiness? We at the Harvard Study for Adult Development—and when I say we, I just mean my colleagues—and it's run by a guy, a friend of mine who's at the Medical School named Bob Waldinger. He also is a psychiatrist at Mass General. He's the director of the Harvard Adult Development Study, which is a multi-generational longitudinal study that started with graduates of the Harvard College in the late '30s and early '40s and then it branched out by matching up people that didn't go to Harvard and then their kids and grandkids. So we brought in people with different races in both genders and so it's actually pretty representative at this point. It didn't start out that way, but it is now.
And what they find on the basis of this is the number one predictor of dying happy is love. As a matter of fact, the guy who ran it for 30 years, who's still alive named George Vaillant, over at the Medical School, he says the whole study, 80 years of data can be boiled down to five words. ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ And that means friendship, that means romance. And again, what does a fear polarity look like right now? We can talk about in terms of politics, but that's way less interesting than what's going on in people's lives. I look at twenty-somethings, and I have somebody that I work with sometimes named Jean Twenge. She's a social psychologist at San Diego State University. She does the best work on this. And she finds that the people in their 20s today are something like a third less likely to be in love than people were when you and I were in our 20s. That they're 50 percent less likely to be married, but also less likely to be cohabitating. They're even having less sex in their 20s than we were. So that's less love and that means less happiness.
You also find that … we have this wonderful surgeon general named Vivek Murthy, who's President Biden's attorney general. He's also President Obama's... Sorry, surgeon general, not attorney general. Surgeon general. And Vivek Murthy has written a book on loneliness, races, and epidemics. And one of the things he points to is that young people, Gen Z and millennials, are disproportionately likely to say ‘No one knows me well.’ So in other words, they have less romance and they have less friendship, which is to say that there's less love in their lives. And that's what happens when people our age are creating a climate of fear, when politicians are saying that you should be afraid of people you disagree with that. That if you hear something you disagree with, you disagree politically. You shouldn't say, "Oh, I disagree. How interesting let's have a conversation. Let's debate that." It's to say, "I feel unsafe." I mean, people my age have done this incredible violent disservice to the well-being of people in their twenties by making them more fearful. And that's, as far as I'm concerned, the worst, most deleterious manifestation of a culture of fear. It's not politics. It what's actually going on with young people in our culture.
Ralph Ranalli: Coincidentally, you do have a book titled ‘Love Your Enemies.’ And I really was interested in the subtitle though, which is ‘How Decent People can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.’ And I guess I just wanted to wrap up by asking you: What is your definition of a decent person and how do we become decent people?
Arthur Brooks: I’ll bring that back to what we were just talking about. I've asked, when I was doing primary research for that book, ‘Love Your Enemies,’ one of the things I wanted to know is: what do you think a decent person is? And sometimes I would hear, ‘They're civil,’ right? ‘They're tolerant. And I think that's just complete garbage. If I told you that my wife, Esther, and I are civil to each other, you'd say that we need counseling. And if I told you that my employees tolerate me, you'd say I have an enormous human resource problem on my hands. These are just not high enough standards. Decent people or people who treat other people with love. That's the standard to which we're actually called as far as I'm concerned. And that's what I'm dedicating the rest of my life to, is loving people with whom I disagree, loving people with whom I have difference, loving people with whom I apparently have nothing in common, which it's this like psychic and emotional and moral adventure.
I feel like a happiness Lewis and Clark. Let me find somebody with whom I disagree and let me go sit down next to him and listen to what they have to say and not be defensive and to actually show love. It's such an exciting, and it's such a wonderful way to be. And the good news is that most people are actually like this. It just takes a little bit of cajoling and a little bit of coaching. And so what I've done in my research is I brought people together, decent people together, and including people with really, really strong, either progressive or conservative opinions. I mean, I'm not somebody who has really strong political opinions. I have opinions about capitalism and American national security and policies, and the best way to organize our lives and treat people with dignity and respect and all this stuff. I got opinions. Everybody's got opinions. But I don't think that people who disagree with me are stupid and evil. At all. On the contrary. I think that those are the people that I have the most to learn from. But when I bring people together in my research, who are ardent Bernie Sanders and Trump supporters, it turns that you can get them to be really decent to each other. You want to know how you do it? You want the secret? Get them to start the conversation by talking about their shared loves. And the way you do that is to tell each other about your kids. That's the way you do it. And if they have teenagers, it goes just lickety-split, because it's like: common enemy. They'll be like, ‘Oh yeah, you think your son is bad. Let me tell you what I found. And last week after my kid had a party …’ I mean, it's just unbelievable.
And of course the love that we have for our kids is so intense that telling somebody about your love, I mean, it changes your brain, it bonds you to the other person, it helps you understand that fundamentally we're all sisters and brothers. We just are on the basis of our shared loves and our shared humanity and our shared sense of dignity. And we have a bunch of... I mean, I think a lot of people are mistaken and I think I'm mistaken, but if we can start with shared loves, then we can actually move on to things that are way less important, like politics. We have a tendency to blow up politics as if it were the most important thing. It takes the place of religion in all of these extremely damaging ways. So we know. Love is the answer. I mean, I hate to sound like I'm singing a song from the '60s, man, but more and more and more, I mean, I've been credibly accused of being a hippie in the first place. But more and more, I mean, they had it on the nose. If we want to bring the country together, we have to do it around finding opportunities for people not to fall in love with each other, but to discover that they loved each other all along and for us to turn away from the outrage industrial complex that's profiting. And I'm talking about media, cable news networks, and social media, and politicians, and even academics who are profiting from setting us against each other and telling us that the differences that we have are so unbridgeable as to make us not understand each other as fellow humans. That is something we got to turn off and turn on to the love that is inside all of us.
Ralph Ranalli: Well, thank you very much, Arthur. This was a great conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Arthur Brooks: Thanks a lot. Thanks to everybody who listens to this and thanks to you for making this podcast for our community. I really appreciate it.
Ralph Ranalli: Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join us for our next episode. And if you'd like more information about other recent episodes or to learn more about our podcast, please visit us at hks.harvard.edu/policycast.