Online Conversation | Strength in the Second Half with Arthur Brooks
As we start to approach middle age (or beyond), how do we think about our vocation and purpose? Should our sense of mission change? What should we do to equip ourselves for a joyful, purposeful, and meaningful second half?
On Friday, February 25th we hosted an Online Conversation with Arthur Brooks to discuss ideas in his latest book Strength to Strength, which weaves together philosophy and research on human flourishing to illuminate the inescapable fact of change as we grow older — and to offer practical guidance on flourishing in new stages of life.
We are grateful for this event’s sponsor:
Fred & Rika Clark
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Online Conversation Transcript | Arthur Brooks | February 25, 2022
Cherie Harder: And I’ll just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Arthur Brooks on “Strength in the Second Half.” I’d also like to thank our sponsors who have helped make this program possible. David Campaigne, Fred and Rika Clark, Clark Durant, and the Georgia Center for Opportunity. We so appreciate your support of this effort, and we’re also delighted that so many of you have joined us today. I believe we have nearly 2,700 different registrants from all over the world, so I believe we have nearly 350 first-time registrants. Thank you so much for joining us, as well as nearly 200 people from at least 31 different countries. So tell us where you’re joining us from. Put a note in the chat box. It’s a lot of fun for us to see from where in the world you are. And we also know that we have at least a few registrants from Ukraine who are joining us today. And if you are live with us, just want to let you know that we are praying for you, your safety, and your country.
So for those of you who are new to the Trinity Forum, one of those 350 people who are joining us for the very first time, a word about who we are and what we do. The Trinity Forum seeks to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offers programs like this Online Conversation to do so in hopes of coming to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
I’m so excited to introduce our guest today who we’re actually welcoming back—we’ve been able to host him before—someone who has used his varied and creative career to make a study of human happiness and flourishing. And in his latest work, he makes a provocative argument that draws upon both extensive social-science research, as well as ancient wisdom, that flourishing in the second half of life looks quite different than it does in the first half, that the stars and strivers of early adulthood often flounder as middle age approaches, and that the way to the good life lies not in doubling down on successful past efforts to acquire, achieve, and dominate, but embarking on an altogether different path that includes embracing weakness, deepening connections, properly ordering our loves, and even worshiping God. It’s an argument both deeply challenging and deeply hopeful. And it’s hard to imagine someone who can make it with more energy, eloquence, or expertise that our guest today, Arthur Brooks.
Arthur is an economist and social scientist who serves as a professor of leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and on the Faculty of Harvard Business School. After a remarkable decade of service as the president of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the world’s most influential think tanks, he’s a columnist for The Atlantic, the host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks, the recipient of six honorary degrees, the author of dozens of scholarly journals and the textbook Social Entrepreneurship, was named one of Fortune Magazine’s “50 World’s Greatest Leaders” and did all of this after starting his career as a professional classical-French-hornist. He’s also the best-selling author of 12 different books, including his recent book Love Your Enemies, and of course, his new release, the brand-new, number-one New York Times–seller, From Strength to Strength, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Arthur, welcome.
Arthur Brooks: Thank you, Cherie. How lovely to be with you. And to all of our friends in the Trinity Forum from all around the world, thank you for joining us. What an opportunity to talk about happiness, everybody’s favorite topic. And for those of you who are joining us from Ukraine, we join our prayers to yours for a fast resolution to this and that you’ll stay safe with your families.
Cherie Harder: Now we’re really excited to have you here. So you start this fascinating book with a rather astounding story of eavesdropping that illustrated just how hard it is to go from strength to strength in life, and that often it is the stars and the strivers and the whiz kids who are those who sort of struggle the most as they approach middle age and beyond. Why is it that the whiz kids often struggle more than the others in adjusting to the second half of life?
Arthur Brooks: Well, Cherie, let me relate the story of the eavesdropping that stimulated the study. It’s a funny thing as a social scientist. You know, like any other social scientist, I have a lot of data that I’m looking at. I’m trying to look at the most interesting questions. But the world really is my laboratory, and I almost always start a piece of research on the basis of an experience, something that really stimulates my imagination—better yet, something that makes me afraid about my own life. And that’s what happened to me about eight years ago. I was on a plane doing what I always did. I was running a think tank and running from place to place, feeling very important and put upon, and I was tapping away on my laptop, on an airplane late at night one night. And I heard a couple talking behind me. I could tell it was a man and a woman. I could tell by their voices they were elderly, and I assumed it was a married couple because it was an intimate conversation. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but wow, I heard the husband telling his wife—I didn’t quite make out his words—but I could tell by her answers that he was confessing that he might as well be dead, that people had forgotten about him, that no one paid attention to him, or even had any sort of appreciation for him anymore. And I thought, “Wow, this is a guy who hasn’t lived up, probably, to his own expectations.” He didn’t get maybe the education he wanted or the business he wanted to start. And now he’s old, and it feels like the best possible years are behind him.
Well, we got to Washington Dulles Airport and landed and the lights went on, and I turned around just to get a look, and it was one of the most famous men in the world. This is somebody that we would all recognize, and, in fact, somebody who’s probably going to do ten times more than I’ll ever do with my life. And I thought to myself, “I’m a happiness specialist. This is literally the subject that I’ve taught over the years, and this is something that I need to understand.” I would think that somebody who did this much would bank that satisfaction and enjoy the rest of his life. But on the contrary, his feats of daring and heroism from decades past now leave him bereft with a sense of emptiness. It was his past success, ironically, that that makes him feel like a lesser person, less valuable today.
So I went on and I started looking at the basic data on it. And in point of fact, it’s true exactly what you said. About half of the population after about age 65 gets happier for the rest of their lives. There’s another half that gets less happy for the rest of their lives. We break up into two groups after that point, and the happier part is not the strivers, generally speaking. Strivers tend to struggle. You find that people who are identified as the high performers, they’re more likely to be more frustrated with their lives at the end of their lives. There are many famous case studies of this, as a matter of fact. And I thought, well, that’s when the fear came in, quite frankly, because I’ve worked pretty hard in my life, and so have all the people who are watching us today. What can I do? What are the happiness habits that I can learn from the happiest older people? Let’s just say I want to build my happiness 401K. What can I do to get on that upper branch? And I found actually the seven big habits that the happiest people engage in that gives them the highest likelihood of getting happier and being happier at 75 than they ever were, even at 25.
Cherie Harder: Hmm. Well, we definitely want to dig into some of those, but you alluded to this, and I am sort of curious. There is, of course, a great deal of social science research compressed within your book. And I’ve heard you say that for almost any social scientist, research is essentially “me-search.” And so I’m curious what led you to write that book and what you were yourself searching for?
Arthur Brooks: Well, quite frankly, at the time that I was writing this book, I wasn’t very happy. I had everything I ever dreamed of. I’d gotten my heart’s desire, at least my worldly heart’s desire, and I was engaging in my daily prayers to ask God to give me some wisdom, to give me some discernment. Now, discernment is a funny business in a Christian sense. Discernment is actually not about—and I’m talking about Ignatian spirituality, for example, but in Protestant traditions as well—it’s not a question of finding out what you’re supposed to do. It’s actually trying to figure out what exactly it is that you want. God puts desire on our hearts, and one of the interesting things that I find in my work as a social scientist is that people pretty much get what they want. And so when things don’t turn out right, it’s because they wanted the wrong thing. So discernment is to say, “What, Lord, should I want? Please help me to want the right thing.” And that’s what I was asking God about. Now we all know, those of us who are practicing Christians, we all know that woe be unto you if you pray to God to show you your path and you don’t mean it because he’s going to show you your path. And that’s what I was praying when I heard this man on the plane who became inadvertently my teacher. He set me on the road to figuring out what I could do with the second half of my life, so that I could be happier, so that I could serve more. This is the reason that I think that this was laid out before me, to do the research that led to the seven habits of people who get happier later in life.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Now you talk a lot about happiness and you are a happiness expert. The Bible talks a lot more about joy. And just so, as we sort of start our discussion, I’m curious about how you would define happiness in this context relative to joy.
Arthur Brooks: Happiness as a social-science concept is often mistaken for a feeling, but that’s a mistake. Just as saying that my Thanksgiving dinner is the smell of the turkey. It’s not. The smell of the turkey comes from the turkey. The turkey is the Thanksgiving dinner, and happiness is not a feeling. Happiness is a combination, we could say, a three macronutrients. Just as food is made up of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, happiness is made up of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. That’s really the three things. And if you don’t have them in abundance and in balance, you won’t feel happy about your life. You won’t get the happy feelings, as it turns out. And so when I’m working with students, and I teach an oversubscribed course at Harvard called “Leadership and Happiness,” and they’ll come into my office hours and say, “OK, OK, doctor, what ails me?” And I’ll dig into their three macronutrients and find if they’re too stoic or too epicurean, and I can do all these types of things for sure. And so this is the way the social scientists see it.
In the biblical sense, however, it’s more transcendental than all that because what do we believe as Christians? What do we believe is the promise of the Bible? We believe in the beatific vision. Look, what are we working for? What is the—as we Catholics like to say, the mass is the source and summit of the Christian life. What is it? It’s a moment of of lucidity. It’s a moment where you can glimpse paradise. We all know that feeling as Christians where, as we pray or as we worship, and especially as we worship together, something catches in our throat because it is this moment of the realization that the beatific vision lays before us. What do we believe that heaven is? All satisfaction, without actually going back to the way that you were. It’s the happiness that comes and doesn’t go. It’s the tide that comes in and doesn’t go out.
Look, life is not that way on this Earth. Our brains are not wired that way, so we need to understand the mechanics and the science and the neural modulators and all of the the parts of the brain that go into it. But what do we believe as Christians? When all of this falls away, we see the face of God and then true happiness is ours, which we call joy.
Cherie Harder: You know, you talk in the book not only about the habits of happiness, but about many of the things that impede our happiness. And one of the things I thought was so interesting is you describe them not as errors or even character flaws, but as idols, in a sense. And you even mentioned a rather intense dinner party practice that you and your wife have sometimes where you kind of use Thomas Aquinas’s naming of money, power, pleasure, and honor, you know, as the chief idols and ask everyone to identify theirs, which is a fascinating practice. But would love to kind of hear you talk a little bit more about that idea of misplaced love being the key causes of the impeding of our own happiness.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So remember that we just talked a minute ago about the nature of discernment. The nature of discernment is actually trying to uncover desire and align it with right desire. That’s the nature of discernment, and this is really about love. What do I love? What should I love? You know, in our prayers we are to say, “Lord, make me love the right things.” Why? Because the world sells you a bill of goods. You know, this is what Thomas Aquinas talked about in his Summa Theologica. And in the Summa he talks about the fact that there are these four things in life that look kind of like God. Look, we all want divinity. We’re all drawn toward truth. But let’s be honest, the truth is pretty inconvenient. You know, the truth is—it’s like religion. All the rules, one-sided conversations. People don’t like it, right? And so they go for these things that have these divine characteristics, but they’re counterfeit. They’re fool’s gold. He defines them as money, power, pleasure, and honor, by which he doesn’t mean—I mean, I have a son in the Marines who serves with honor, but that’s not what he means. He means fame. And for those of us who are actually trying to do something and be admired by particular people, it’s prestige, which is this localized fame. This is what we’re driven to. The world tells us it’s good. Mother Nature tells us it’s good. Our brains are wired to that because—newsflash—Mother Nature doesn’t care if we’re happy. Mother Nature just wants us to pass on our genes and be successful here in the mortal coil until we die at whatever particular age. That’s our job.
Our job as Christians, our job as ethical individuals who love each other, is to bring out happiness. That’s a different kind of responsibility. And if you follow the way your brain works, which is to say the way Madison Avenue and the entertainment industry and the whole world works, you’re going to pursue money, power, pleasure, and fame. These are not terrible things, but never as intrinsic things. These are disordered loves when they’re the intrinsic goal. They should be an instrumental goal to the four things that truly do bring lasting satisfaction. And this is as an empirical matter; this is not a theological point. I’m not a theologian. That’s above my pay grade. I’m a simple, you know, blue-collar, PhD social scientist. And I can tell you that if you boil the ocean of 10,000 research articles, you’ll find the happiest people, they pursue four things every day: faith, family, friendship, and work that serves others. In other words, love, love, love, and more love.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Along that point with relationships, I mean, you even have argued just that: that happiness is love. And even that the people who are healthiest at 80 are the people who are the most satisfied with their relationships at 50. And yet we are in such a lonely time, you know, which certainly has been exacerbated by, but also precedes, the pandemic that we’re in. We spend, just as a people, far more time on social media shouting at each other, even though what we presumably really crave and really would make us happier is to spend time connecting with other people. And I thought about this sort of phenomenon and what the Apostle Paul said, which is, you know, “for what I want not to do, I do, but I hate what I do.” Just, you know, the paradox of persistently even habitually engaging in the very kind of behaviors that destroy not only our soul, but even our happiness. And so what’s going on here, as a social scientist? What are we doing and why do we do this?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, the Apostle Paul was an astoundingly good psychologist, and, you know, just all you need to know about the paradoxes of human behavior you can get from Romans 13. It’s—my goodness. It’s like, not only do we sin, we plan to sin, and then we do it and we’re miserable about it. My goodness. What complicated creatures we are. It really once again has to do with the fact that Mother Nature does not have your happiness at heart. You know, we are a fallen species in a fallen world as a theological matter. But as a social scientist, we actually find that there’s nothing in the study of neuroscience or social science that would indicate that we are driven toward happiness or that we sexually select or naturally select on happiness. Evolution doesn’t even smile on happiness per say necessarily. It’s a “nice to have,” as far as Darwin would be concerned. We have to be all about that ourselves and bring that to other people, which of course, is one of the great blessings of life, that we’re not wired toward the best thing, that we can bring the best thing through our own free will, that we can transcend ourselves by bringing the best thing to others. This is a wonderful thing about gift-giving, per say, is that it has to be a free act and one of grace. And so that’s actually what we find in social science. And not, by the way, it’s not a big coincidence that social science always actually goes to the same place that scripture got to a really, really long time ago.
Cherie Harder: Well, let me ask you a little bit about friendship, because in some ways you are in the demographic that in some ways struggles the most with it. You know, apparently middle-aged men, especially those who have been overachievers early in life, are among those who are most likely to report that their best friend is their wife, and there really aren’t many other friends. And yet the need, whether or not it’s a felt need, the need is apparently quite great. So you mentioned different habits. What practical advice would you offer to older people who realize that, you know, say their friendships are either few or with positions rather than people?
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So this is absolutely right. You find that strivers really struggle when it comes to human connection. And the reason for that is actually something that I explain, not just to older people, but younger people as well. My class at Harvard is for MBA students at the Harvard Business School and their average age is 27. And I say, “Look out, because the world wants you to have a lot of ‘deal’ friends and does not care if you have real friends.” Now this is a really Aristotelian concept. Aristotle talked in the Nicomachian Ethics about the types of friendships, and at the lowest level are what he called transactional friendships. These are “deal” friends. At the highest level are the perfect friendships, the virtuous friendships. These are the real friendships. And what do virtuous friendships have in common? He says that they’re “atelic.” Now the atelic is the opposite of “telic” from the “telos,” which is purposeful. And so the best friendships are sort of, you could say, they’re cosmically useless. They involve a shared love for a third thing. You don’t need your best friend.
My closest friend lives in Atlanta. His name is Frank Hanna. He’s a fellow Christian like me. I just love him so much. He doesn’t need me for business. I don’t need him for business. We sometimes do business together as nothing more than a transparent pretext to talk about things and be together. It’s just an excuse to be with my beautifully useless Christian friend. And that’s what they really have in common.
So this is what I tell my students. I say, “Look, the Harvard Business School is helping you fill out your Rolodex with connections. Deal friend, deal friend, deal friend. Do not get to my age incapable of making real friendships and not remembering how it’s done in the first place. You need to bring your practice to real friendships because if you do not, you will be bereft of the love that you need.” And this is one of the key practices, the key seven practices, of people who get on the upper branch of happiness in the second half of life, is that they have a lot or at least enough real friendships.
Cherie Harder: Well, let’s talk about some of those practices. And you also offer a bit of hope to those who are kind of engaging in some of those practices, that there’s actually, even as one’s sharpness or processing speed declines, there’s hope because there’s a different intellectual or cognition curve as well as happiness curve. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that, as well as some of the interesting practices that you have recommended, including such counterintuitive ones as meditating on death.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So the first big practice that’s really important for people to recognize is they go from—and it’s called from strength to strength, obviously taken from the 84th Psalm. It’s an ancient Judaic blessing. It’s mechayil el chayil in Hebrew. “May you go from strength to strength.” You got to know how to do that. It’s one thing to say it. It’s something else to have the skills to do it. And this actually gets back to a deep area of both psychology and neuroscience about the two types of geniuses. Now in the middle part of the 20th century, people started to recognize that there seem to be two types of geniuses out there: the young ones and the old ones, the early bloomers and the late bloomers. And the early bloomers, they had a certain kind of genius of analytic capacity and speed of cognition. They could figure things out faster than other people. They could focus longer. They could work harder. The second type of genius came much later, and they just had a lot of wisdom. They were the ones who could look at the landscape, understand immediately what it meant, combine the facts together, describe them, and teach them to other people with lightning speed. So you’ve got your Elon Musk geniuses and you’ve got your Dalai Lama geniuses, basically is what it comes down to.
Now, later on what we figured out, this was interesting, but what makes it useful is the fact that it turns out we all have both. Each one of us has both. Now, I don’t have Elon Musk’s brains or the Dalai Lama’s wisdom, but I got something. And I have an ability to think quickly and to work harder when I’m younger and have the ability to develop my wisdom and become a teacher when I’m older. And these are two types of curves. The first is called the “fluid intelligence curve,” which increases through your twenties and your early thirties and starts to decrease in your late thirties through your forties. The second curve is called your “crystallized intelligence curve,” your Dalai Lama, your wisdom, your master-teacher curve. That increases through your forties and fifties and stays high through your sixties and seventies and eighties, and even beyond if God gives you your marbles. This is critically important to remember because the second curve, the second success curve, the crystallized intelligence curve, many people don’t even know they have it. And so they’re fighting and struggling and striving and panicking about staying on that old curve that’s declining, not realizing that the better curve lays ahead of them. If they could just let go of the first and have the faith to jump, to have the faith to jump onto the second curve, to retool themselves, their interests, their abilities—you don’t have to quit your career, you simply have to see yourself differently to cultivate those skills. The second curve is more satisfying, brings more happiness, and ultimately can give you even more worldly success than the first one. But you’ve got to go there first, and that’s the first big skill.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So let’s talk about some of the practices you recommend because they are clearly geared towards the second curve rather than the first one. And, you know, in particular, so much of early success in life, it is about acquisition, achievement, winning, domination, and instead one of the practices that you recommend is to make weakness your strength. What do you mean and why does that encourage happiness?
Arthur Brooks: Well, to begin with, it’s incredibly counterintuitive because we’re taught early on and our general intuition, our evolved intuition, is to only emphasize our strengths and not to emphasize our weaknesses. That makes sense if you’re basically trying to dominate, to win a particular competition. You don’t come out of the gate as a football player and say, “My knee hurts today, so don’t hit me there.” I mean, that’s not actually how you’re going to win the football game. But the truth of the matter is that for us to be ultimately successful as people, we need to connect. We need other people’s help. How do you get that? By connecting with them and actually to stimulate their compassion toward you and us toward them. And the only way you can connect with other people is through defenselessness. The only way you can connect with other people is the fact that you, like them, have feet of clay. Look, I can say to everybody, “Hey, I’m a man of the people. You want to know evidence of that? I’m a professor at Harvard.” I have eviscerated the quality of that message entirely. Look, it’s not such a big deal to be a professor at Harvard, but it’s not an ordinary thing either. And every single one of us on this call has some incredible distinguishing characteristic that is admirable but not relatable. What’s relatable about me? All the ways that I fail, all the ways that I’m weak, all the ways that I’m sad.
There’s a reason that the greatest entrepreneur in history, the Apostle Paul—I mean, look, you can say it’s Steve Jobs, but we’ll see how many iPhones are out there in the year 4000, shall we?—the Apostle Paul, laying the seeds for this incredible entrepreneurial faith. The Christian faith is such an entrepreneurial faith because it’s like more markets, more souls. I mean, it’s wonderful in this way. I love it so much. And what did he talk about? In my weakness, I find my strength. The thorn in my flesh. It’s the worst marketing in history. “Hey, everybody, you want to follow my religion? I’m a weak, fallen man.” Yeah, actually. Yeah, actually. This guy who is coming to me with this is just like me. This person who wants to teach me about something beautiful is somebody who has my problems. And so the great secret of what are some of the happiest people is they can finally relax into the truth of their weakness and stop hiding everything, and they find that they’re happier and they’re more relatable, and they go to their grave actually relaxed, maybe for the first time in their whole lives.
Cherie Harder: So in the conclusion of your book, you summarize its findings in seven words, and you said this: “Use things, love people, worship the divine.” And in some ways this struck me as almost a restatement of St. Augustine’s order of the loves or even, you know, Jesus’s summation of the law: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. But you’re obviously writing this book for a broad audience and a secular audience, not a faith-based one. And so what do you say when you’re asked, “Why is worship essential for a happy life?”
Arthur Brooks: Worship is inevitable in every life. The great philosopher and writer David Foster Wallace, who is not one of us in faith, he had this insightful comment at one point where he said, “All people worship something.” That’s very insightful because it’s absolutely true that we actually see in all of anthropology, all of sociology, it’s a psychological truism. It’s not just an empirical regularity. We always look to the transcendental. The great social psychologist, Abraham Maslow, not a believer, in the 1940s he put together his hierarchy of needs, and this is early on in his career. And he said that, you know, people will pursue food and shelter. And then when they get that, then they’ll start looking for security. And then when they get that, they’ll start looking for belonging and community. And then at the highest pinnacle is self-actualization. And he lived with that for a long time. But as an older man, he said, that’s not right. That’s not the pinnacle. The pinnacle is ultimately when people, they look for the truth, they look for transcendence, which is the same thing as David Foster Wallace saying that everybody worships something. So we got to choose. You know, you can worship something not worthy of worship or you can worship something that is worthy of worship. And that’s the point.
The unhappiest people, they have this formula and the formula is it’s sort of like Aquinas’s idols. They have a little bit of divinity in them, but they’re counterfeit and the counterfeit formula from the world that comes from the limbic system of your brain and also from the advertising that you see and all these stimuli, it basically says, “Love things, use people, and worship yourself.” That’s what the culture tells us. And it’s not capitalism, it’s not any of that stuff. It’s the human brain and all of human secular life. The beautiful thing is that you can just transpose basically the verbs and the nouns to get a divine formula that—it takes a lot of work and the devil’s in the details, as they say; that’s why I wrote a 75,000-word book and not just seven words—but the formula that we can follow that I encourage my students to follow is “use things, love people, and worship the divine.” Worship God.
Now when I say this, it’s really important to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with using things. The abundance of the world, to subdue the world, to enjoy the world, what a beautiful thing it is. But don’t love it. Your car is not worthy of love. Your boat is not worthy of love. Your beach house. Your clothes. By the way, your political opinions are not worthy of love. These are just more worldly attachments. People are worthy of love, and the way that you love the Lord is through worship, and this is the transcendent formula. This is the—truly as a social scientist, I say this, not as a Christian—that is the formula for happiness.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Arthur, that’s been fascinating. As you might imagine, there are a lot of different questions lined up, and we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a second. And if you are watching, just a reminder that you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question, and that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So several are lined up. I’m going to take one from Laura Erickson, who asked, “In terms of the four things that assist our happiness, do you see a trend of more people desiring work that serves some larger purpose? And if so, does this correspond to the great resignation?”
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So a lot of people, in fact, are finding more and more purpose in their work, and this is good and bad. It’s a very good thing in so far as that we have an enterprise system that makes it possible for us to align our skills with our passions more efficiently than we ever have in the past. It’s very unlikely that 100 years ago that coming from a lower-middle-class background in Seattle that I could wind up doing the things that I’ve done in my life and that can love and serve and that are fun and interesting and that use my talents maximally. The danger of this is that we can look to work to get all of our satisfactions, to get all of our meaning, all of our purpose, all of our identity. It becomes a cult. You know, work, it can become a cult called “workism.” Anything that you put before God is a cult. You know, this is the reason—and it goes down hard for us to recognize the truth of the fact that many people, if you ask them honestly, “would you give up God first or your family first?”—you’ll never have to do this, but if you put your family before God, that’s “familyism.” There’s lots and lots of cults that seem good, but they really aren’t in their way.
Workism is arguably the most dangerous one to which we all can fall prey, and I have fallen prey to it many times. When I’m not on my game, when I’m not on point, I become a workist. I become a work cultist. And so this is the whole idea. So absolutely—but only see your work as a vehicle. Your work is an instrument to do the good. Your work is an instrument to the things that you really should care about, which is serving other people, earning your success, and lifting up other people so that they can earn their success. Sharing your values. By the way, I teach my students in my class at Harvard not to get happier, but to make others happier, to see themselves as happiness professors. You know, that’s the whole point of it. Why would you learn about happiness? Not so you can be happy. That’s good, but that’s a side effect to lift other people up with these ideas as well. And that’s really where work can become transcendent.
Work should be a prayer. You know, somebody I deeply admire and a movement with which I’m associated is that of Saint Josemaria Escrivá in the Catholic Church. It’s a movement called Opus Dei, and Opus Dei means “work of God,” and the motivation behind it is that your ordinary work is priestly work. Your ordinary work is prayer. But it only is such when it is used as a refractory mechanism to describe agape, to bring people to something that’s higher and better through your own excellence.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So a question from Claude Presnell, and Claude asks, “Talk about happiness in the later years when someone is suffering from grief after having lost a spouse after 63 years of marriage?”
Arthur Brooks: My goodness. The sadness that actually comes from deep, friendship-based, companionate love obviously [is] so devastating because it’s taking—if you’re one flesh, it’s cutting off part of yourself. We have to recognize that that’s actually not replaceable. So much of life is built on suffering, and it’s an interesting truth about happiness that the last part, which is meaning, meaning requires suffering. One of the things that’s advantageous about being a Christian is that we have a religion that’s in no small part based on suffering, that we understand that an understanding of ourselves is actually experiencing suffering. And I never tell my students, “Go look for suffering.” Because the truth is suffering will find you. Suffering will find you. It is finding meaning in that suffering, ultimately, that helps us to understand what the suffering of our savior really meant.
So how do we think about this as Christians that actually is completely consistent with the teachings of social science and social psychology on how to manage bereavement? Finding meaning in it, finding transcendent meaning in your suffering is everything. To say my suffering has no meaning, well, this is just a way to never learn from it and never to find the pathway forward from it. But to say “I lay this at the foot of the cross” or to say “I’m carrying one sliver of the cross on my own via crucis,” then it actually can have a meaning for us transcendentally or as Christians. And even if people who are not religious, to understand that there is a great deal of learning and that my suffering can be joined to the suffering of the whole world, and as such, I can suffer alongside men and women who have enjoyed so much less happiness than I have all throughout life—this gives a sense of meaning that perhaps we otherwise wouldn’t have. And I pray for whoever wrote this, and I know that at some point either I or my wife will be in exactly that same place.
Cherie Harder: So, Susan Zilli asks, “How do we, and how do we help others to, reorder our own loves?”
Arthur Brooks: Part of this is—there’s really great news about this. This is one of the things that I teach. You have two choices in life. You can be managed by your loves or you can manage them. Now this is a neuroscientific, a neurophysiological point that I’m about to make. Your emotions, your feelings, they come in basic types. There are four negative basic emotions; they’re disgust, sadness, anger, and fear. And three positive basic emotions which are joy, love, and interest. If you’re interested in the conversation that Cherie and I are having right now, it’s actually stimulating dopamine in your brain. And that’s a basic, positive emotion. Now, all of these emotions exist for evolutionary reasons. They keep us alive, they keep us healthy, they keep us on the right track to prosper and go forward. The problem is that they’re processed through the limbic system of the brain, which is the automatic processing system in the brain that responds to stimuli, outside stimuli. Now, if you stop with your feelings there and just regret them or enjoy them and let them go away, you’re being managed by your feelings. But there is a solution to this.
The Buddhist philosophers have always said, and the Buddha himself said, that what we need to do in life is to observe our feelings at some remove as if they were happening to another person. Now what this is called in Western social science is metacognition. Metacognition is being aware of the things that are happening in your feelings. And what that does literally is it takes the feeling from your limbic system of your brain and moves them to being processed in the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the meaty lobes behind your forehead. What does that do? Where can you manage feelings? In your prefrontal cortex. And so when you observe your feelings, when you think about your loves, when you discuss and journal your impulses, you’re moving them to the prefrontal cortex, your executive center, to your CEO brain. You want to manage you, ultimately.
If you just say, “I regret my feelings, I do things because I have these feelings,” you know, people do this all the time, but that’s no better than my dog, Chucho. My dog Chucho is incredibly limbic, extremely mindful. He is not very metacognitive. He sees the cookie. He eats the cookie. He does not have ordered loves. He has automatic loves. He can’t process it because he doesn’t have a prefrontal cortex. But God gave me a prefrontal cortex. I have to move my passions and think about them and manage them and offer them up and discuss them with my loved ones and journal them. And in so doing, that metacognition is the ultimate tool for managing these things. These are the on-board hardware given to me by God to manage my loves.
Cherie Harder: So a question comes from an anonymous viewer and they ask, “Do you have some suggestions for those of us who have real friends but because of the need to move nearer to family late in life, are now in a new place and are thousands of miles away from those real friends? What are some of the best ways for us to reach out to others in our new community to find and nurture new friends?”
Arthur Brooks: I can relate to this so much. You know, my wife, Esther and I, we’ve moved 19 times since we’ve been married. And part of that is that we’re kind of peripatetic, you know, we have—
Cherie Harder: [Inaudible], Arthur?
Arthur Brooks: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m not on the run from the law or anything like that. But, you know, we’ve moved a lot and we’re both highly social people. You know, the longest we ever lived someplace was in Washington, D.C., which was 11 years and it was spectacular. But any time we move—we moved to Boston three years ago when I took my professorship at Harvard—we have a technique that we use and that is that we act as if we’d been living there already for ten years. By the second week living in a place we’re inviting people over to our house. And when they get there, we have a saying, we say, “go deep or go home.” We’re going to have a conversation with you. We’re going to ask you about your religious views. We’re going to ask you about your relationship with your mother. We’re going to ask you about— We’re going to go super deep. We’re going to drill to the center of the Earth. And if you can pass that test, if you can be our guest and go deep, you’re going to come back. If you want to! Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe you’re like, “Wow, Mr. and Mrs. Intense, that’s pretty unpleasant.”
But look, we have tons of friends and we have a group—my wife is Spanish—and so we always have this deep group of Spanish friends. We have a Bible study that we run out of our house, but we’re pretty new. And the people who have lived here, been here 20 years, they’re like, “Wow, we’ve never had friends like this before.” That’s because we have technique. We actually have the chops. We have the skills because we’ve actually gone through this. And so this is what I recommend. Keep your old friends, keep them close. And that means you have to participate in the friendship. Use modern technology, what we’re using here, whether it’s Zoom or FaceTime or Skype, so that you can talk to them and you have to talk to them at least once a week. If you want real friends, you’ve got to talk to your real friends at least once a week, and then get new friends by acting as if new people were already real friends. And see how that goes.
Cherie Harder: Interesting. So Reese Brown has a question about one of the interesting parts of your book that we didn’t have a chance to get to. She asked, “Talk about the phenomenon in which people would rather be special than happy, and why, even when they identify that problem, can they not take their own advice or yours and become happy?”
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. So if I’m not mistaken if this is Reese Brown, this is Reese Brown who’s actually my research assistant and who is responsible at Harvard University for most of the success that I have these days. So if that’s you, Reese, thank you very much because I have a lot to be grateful for just you. And by the way, a Christian believer who keeps me on the path of righteousness as well. So—special versus happy. Why would you have to choose? When I was writing this book, I was interviewing a lot of people, a lot of really successful people. Some happy, some not. Because I wanted to look at best practices and worst practices, and I wanted to see how they fit with the data. You get the picture.
And I was talking to this lady on Wall Street, very [inaudible]. I mean, this person—my age, late fifties—and she had been tearing it up for decades. She had her own firm. She’s worth eight or nine hundred million dollars. I mean, it’s a dream! But she wasn’t happy. On the contrary, she was kind of missing a beat. She was burned down on her work. She hadn’t slept enough for a long time. She probably drank too much. Her relationship with her husband wasn’t really—they were kind of roommates. Her relationship with her adult kids was cordial at best. And she said, “You know, what do I do?” I said, “What are you asking me for? It’s obvious. You told me what you need to do. You need to step back from your job. You made all the money you’re ever going to need. Take a souvenir in your company and stay involved in the leadership. But get involved in your life. Start managing your life. You know, start working on your marriage. Get to know your kids. Cut down on your drinking. Get to the gym. You got the picture. You know exactly. You don’t need a guy with a PhD to tell you this. Why don’t you do that?” She said, “Yeah, I know. But you know, I think I’d prefer to be special than happy.” I thought, “Whoa, that reminds me of something, because I’ve done a lot of research in addiction, and I remember talking to a guy one time who said, “You know,”—this guy who had been addicted to drugs and alcohol for many years—he says, “every addict knows that they’re not happy, and the reason they’re not happy is because of their addiction, but they keep getting high.” And I said, “So why? Why? Is it because it’s too hard to quit?” He says, “Nope, it’s because we prefer to be high than happy.”
Now, in other words, it’s a decision. The blockage is something that you’re choosing in many cases, and I know a lot of people that they say, “You know, frankly, deep down, anybody can go to Disney World with their kids, but not everybody can start this company. Everybody can take that weekend away, but not everybody’s capable or willing to put in the hours to do something extraordinary. When I’m dead and gone, people are going to say that person really did something special and nobody when I’m dead and gone is going to go ‘wonder what happened to her kids.'” That’s special versus happy. And there’s a little bit of that in all of us. Boy, did that ever ring true. That rattled around in my brain for a month because I had been doing that too. I’d been doing that so many times, where the 14th hour of work took precedence over the first hour with my children when my children were little. I have so many regrets about that at this point—which I’m not dying about these regrets. I mean, I’m learning from these regrets because that’s what regrets are all about, is an opportunity for us to learn. And now when I see this, I have to call it out. I talk about that to my students. I say, if you’re going to choose special over happy, there’s nothing we can do in this class. And it’s really eye opening, has been for me and for many other people as well.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Gasby Brown. Gasby asks, “How do we navigate the second half during dramatic disruptions like a pandemic?”
Arthur Brooks: So the disruption of the pandemic has been a really interesting case study in how people can survive and thrive. Many people haven’t, frankly, just haven’t done so well. And you asked a minute ago about the great resignation at work. The great resignation is a case study in us not knowing ourselves very well. And what I mean by that is that about early on in the pandemic, by about the summer of 2020, 60 percent of Americans who were working remotely—which was 70 percent of Americans at that time—6 in 10 said that they were considering quitting their jobs because they were lonely. And, you know, they just— it was horrible. It was lonely. At this point, 60 percent say they don’t want to go back to work in person. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’ve learned how to not be lonely. It means that there’s this iron law of human resource physics, which is that people at home tend to stay at home and people are much lonelier and more depressed than they think.
We have a major wave of mental illness based on depression and loneliness that’s coming at the United States like a tsunami at this point. I look at the data. Ordinarily, about 9.5 percent of Americans are exhibiting symptoms of clinical depression at any particular time. Right now it’s 28 percent of Americans are exhibiting symptoms of clinical depression. Many of those are like, “I’ll Zoom forever into work.” This is a mistake. I teach my students something called the “opposite signal strategy,” when your executive center is is impeded. Loneliness impedes the executive center of your brain. It makes you limbic in your tendencies. When you’re very lonely, what do you do? It’s like, “I don’t know. I’ll just cocoon by myself on the couch. Feel sorry for myself. Eat some Haagen-Dazs and watch Netflix.” Exactly the wrong thing to do. When you’re lonely, you call a friend. When you’re lonely, you go outside and get some sunshine and ride your bike. You do all the things that you don’t want to do because you have to recognize that your executive center, your prefrontal cortex, is being impaired by this very set of sensations of loneliness. And this is what is happening on a massive scale.
Why are people quitting their jobs? Because their jobs just became jobs. You know, when people work in person, 70 percent of workers have a best friend on the job, and 6 in 10 say they wouldn’t quit a lower paid job because they don’t want to leave their friends. That’s love. You know, that’s what really matters. This is the lifeblood of our happiness is this love. And when we get rid of it, it might be convenient, but a great job simply becomes an OK job and people are starting to walk away and they’re not well.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Wow, that’s fascinating. So a question from Ross Little, which is somewhat related. And he asked, “What advice and practical tips do you have for healthily managing fear of major occupational change during the second half of life? I see fear of the unknown as preventing people from making significant work changes that would actually be good for their happiness.”
Arthur Brooks: It’s a great question, because this is actually one of the practices, one of the seven habits, of people getting happier as they get older is fighting and beating their fears. Fears are what hold us back all throughout life. One of the great insights of course of the Apostle John is that perfect love drives out fear. And what he’s saying here is something that we’ve learned both from philosophy and modern psychology, which is that fear and love are opposites. Now they’re neurophysiological opposites. The ultimate negative emotion is fear. It literally takes up more physical tissue space in the human brain than any other set of emotions. Love is the ultimate positive emotion. These are the warring emotions, love and fear. It’s not love and hatred. Hatred is downstream from fear. Any place where you see hatred, it marks fear, is what we see.
Now, what does this tell us? Most of the time when you have a particular problem, it’s best not to take it on its face if it’s an emotional problem, but to find the opposite emotion and bolster the opposite emotion. Why? Because it’s much better to make something bigger as opposed to trying to make something bad smaller. Take something good and make it bigger as opposed to taking something bad and making it smaller. It’s an easier thing to do. It’s intuitive, but it’s also empirically true. If I find fear, I need to build love. That’s the bottom line. If you’re afraid of change, you need more love in your life. If you’re afraid of failure, you need more people in your life who will love you notwithstanding your failures. You see the point that I’m making, right. Anything that’s fear-based requires greater love. That’s the signal that you need more real friends, that you need deeper family relationships, that you need a better relationship with God. When you build up these things, you build up your relationship with the divine in your life, you build a more personal relationship with God. When you actually get more in touch with your family members, extended family members and direct family members, and when you’re serious about your real friendships, it’s weird, it’s like fear starts to dissipate after a summer rain, almost. It’s almost like magic, as a matter of fact. But of course, it’s not. It’s just basic brain science.
Cherie Harder: We’ve been talking about work. We have a question from an anonymous viewer who asked, “What are your views on retirement and what do you think God has called us to later in life?”
Arthur Brooks: So retirement is simply an opportunity to do something that plays better to our strengths. Now here’s a funny thing that you see in the data: half of the people who retire get happier and half of the people who retire get less happy subsequent to retirement. What’s the difference? People who are happy when they retire are retiring to something. The people who are less happy are retiring away from something. So you see what I’m saying, right? If work chases you off and you just don’t like it and you say, like, “Well, when I finally got this monkey off my back, I’m going to be able to do something else. I don’t know. I like to golf or like to go hang out at my beach house or whatever. Hang around and watch the television”—you’re not going to be happy. You’re simply not taking the happiness path. On the other hand, if you say, “I just can’t afford to keep working in that job anymore because I’m too busy. I’m too busy doing what I’m really, really good at, which is the volunteer work, which is working on my community, which is teaching youngsters, which is hanging out with my grandchildren.” These are crystallized intelligence activities. Parenting is fluid intelligence. Grandparenting is crystallized intelligence.
So if you’re doing something, and you don’t have time to work: “I can’t afford to work anymore.” That’s the right way to retire, when you can’t afford to work anymore. But that requires lots and lots and lots of preparation. The Hindus have a theory of the quarters of life. The first quarter is the student part, learning part of your life called Brahmacharya in Sanskrit. The second, Gṛhastha, which is the householder. You’re building your life. You’re doing your work, you’re raising your kids. The third quarter is called Vanaprastha, where you’re stepping back and you’re learning about the new skills for the back half of your life, getting ready for the fourth quarter, which is enlightenment and worship. So here’s the deal, folks. We have to get in, as we get into the second half into Vanaprastha, which is elite training, so that when we retire, we can do what we truly can do best and what God wants most for us.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Maggie Dellahoyde and, Maggie, if I have mangled your name, apologies there. And Maggie asks, “In your teaching of the four things or the four habits, how do you explain ‘worship the divine’ to your students at Harvard Business School?”
Arthur Brooks: It’s, yeah, it’s tricky, isn’t it? Because it sounds like I’m being apostolic or I’m evangelizing, and basically I am insofar as I believe this in my life, but I’m basing these teachings on fundamental truths revealed through the sciences that I’m dealing with in every day. I mean, part and parcel of my work is neuroscience and social science practices. And, again, I talk about the fact that people tend toward the transcendent. Whether you believe in God or you believe in the truth of stoic philosophy or you’re a French existentialist, you know, smoking a filterless cigaret. Fine. What they all believe and what they all have in common is that there is some essence to life. Now, the existentialists believe that existence precedes essence. This is Sartre’s famous book Being in Nothingness that— it’s a thousand billion pages. Don’t read it. The bottom line is we, as Christians, believe that essence precedes existence, that we have a soul and meaning of life even before we’re born. He believes, as an atheist, that existence precedes essence, which means that life does have meaning but we have to invent it. One way or the other, we’re going to worship something. One way or the other, we can and should have something that’s transcendent to ourselves, even if it’s completely secular, stoic, and epicurean philosophy to understand the essence of life. Even if it’s nothing more than reading the Nicomachean Ethics to become a virtuous person based on the concept of eudaimonia, that is the sense of the transcendent. That is the sense that there’s something bigger than us. That is the sense in point of fact of the divine, whether the divine is a living being and the Heavenly Father, or whether it’s a concept of consciousness that’s exterior to my day-to-day experiences.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So sadly, there are so many questions and we’re rapidly running out of time. But a question from William Laughlin, who asked a summarizing question, which is “How does the intentional cultivation of virtue, say the cardinal and Christian virtues, direct and fuel happiness?”
Arthur Brooks: Hmm. That’s a great question that was taken on even before Christian theology and Christian philosophy informed it, and largely by the stoic philosophers who talked about the fact that a good and virtuous life is a happy life. They literally defined happiness in terms of virtue. Eudaimonia, you know, this word that almost doesn’t have a translation properly in English is in opposition to hedonia. Hedonia, from which we get “good feeling,” from which we get “hedonism.” It actually didn’t mean that in Epicurus’s time and epicurean philosophy when it was coined. It really meant a good and morally ordered life toward peaceful and good feelings. So what he believed is that—and what hedonists at the time would believe—is that happiness actually comes from feeling good. But that’s actually not how the Stoics saw it. And the Stoics were much more informative on early Christian philosophy, and, by the way, still inform a lot of our philosophy today. A good life is the happy life, and I’m happy to report to you that that’s more consistent, that philosophy is, in point of fact, more consistent with what we understand in the social sciences.
Arthur Brooks: Carl Jung. Carl Jung, who is not known as a strong religious believer, the Swiss philosopher and disciple of Sigmund Freud, he believed that the secret to happiness is a) knowing your values, and b) living according to your values. Now this is very heavy, and he did this on the basis of his empirical study of thousands and thousands of patients. If you know what you stand for morally and you live up to your moral standards, then you will be happy. He didn’t say, “Forget the moral standards and go have a good time and feel good all the time.” That’s exactly the opposite of what Jung was saying from an entirely psychotherapeutic standpoint. This was psychoanalysis. This was not Christian belief. And so the Christian belief, the proto-Christian belief from the ancient Stoics and going back to Aristotle, the psychoanalysts, the pure social scientists, the neuroscientists, we all agree: know your beliefs, act according to your beliefs. Properly ordered morality will make you a happier person.
Cherie Harder: Arthur, this has been a lot of fun. Really appreciate you coming on and we really appreciate all of you joining us. In just a moment, I’m going to give Arthur the last word in today’s Online Conversation, but before that, a few things to share with each of you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d really appreciate your thoughts and input. We read every single one. We try to take your suggestions and incorporate them to make these Online Conversations ever more valuable. And as a special incentive for filling out that online feedback form, we will send you a code for a free digital Trinity Forum reading of your choice. There are several titles that would dovetail very well with the conversation we’ve just had today. So if you’re trying to think of one that would be particularly relevant, we’d recommend “On Happiness” by Thomas Aquinas, “On Friendship” by Cicero, “Two Old Men” or “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy, or “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
In addition, we understand that over 200 of you have signed up for our discussion groups, happening immediately after this online conversation. If you would like to participate but have not yet registered, you can do so in the link right now in our chat feature. For those of you who have registered, just exit this meeting as you normally would and then click on the link provided and we will have those discussion groups going right afterwards.
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In addition, we’d love to invite each of you to join the Trinity Forum society, which is the community that furthers the mission of the Trinity Forum in connecting thinking leaders with leading thinkers and providing that space for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life. There are many benefits to joining the Trinity Forum society, including a subscription to our quarterly readings, where you can get titles like “On Friendship” with Cicero or “On Happiness” with Thomas Aquinas, as well as invitations to events, our podcast, and as a very special benefit for all of you joining today or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Arthur’s book From Strength to Strength, which we highly recommend, so we hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation and join the Trinity Forum society.
In addition, a few upcoming invitations we want to make you aware of. We will actually be hosting Arthur in person in Nashville on March 28th. There should be a link in the chat feature where you can sign up for that as well. Our next Online Conversation, I believe, our 64th since the pandemic started, will be on Friday, March 11th, where we’ll be partnering with Comment Magazine and discussing gift logic and the abundant life, about how generosity and grace can change our civic, even our economic structures.
Finally, I’m delighted to announce that we will be releasing a special Lenten podcast series starting next week on Wednesday, with one podcast coming out each week thereafter. There should be also a place on our website where you can access more information about that as well.
Finally, Arthur, the last word is yours.
Arthur Brooks: You know, the last word that I think should come from the mouth of any Christian social scientist is one that we learned and that you’ve quoted before from the Lord. When a Pharisee asked the Lord, “You know, look, the Ten Commandments, it’s a lot to remember, Lord. Boil it down for me.” He said, “Ok, fine. Love God and love your neighbor.” And then 300 years later or 350 years later, when Saint Augustine was asked, “You know, look, even those two, give it to me simpler,” he said, “Love and do what you will.” So let me paraphrase it in the terms that we’ve been talking about here, which is the search for happiness: all of the data, all of your heart, and your grandmother’s wisdom comes together in one basic truism, which is that happiness is love. Full stop.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Arthur, and thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.