This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Arthur Brooks doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but he has remade his life at least three times.
During his twenties, he played the French horn in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and then (after studying economics and working as a professor) led the American Enterprise Institute, an influential conservative think tank, for roughly a decade. Now 58 and a Harvard professor as well as a regular contributor to The Atlantic magazine, and podcast host, he has remade himself again as a sort of “happiness revolutionary.”
Brooks specializes in delivering lessons that are not entirely novel (buying more stuff doesn’t result in long lasting satisfaction, faith and family can help create meaning), and writing about the scientific research that backs them up. His missives serve as a gentle reminder to take a step back from the hectic world of striving and survival.
In one piece on satisfaction – or rather, its elusive and slippery nature – he quotes both Ralph Waldo Emerson and social psychologist Phillip Brickman.
Brooks is also now an impact scholar at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute. As part of the gig, he will spend three or four days each semester in 2023, and in the next three years, talking to students, U. scholars and local leaders.
On Wednesday, Brooks visited Utah and spoke to a class of roughly 200 undergraduates for a lecture dubbed “Teaching Happiness 101.” Dressed in a three piece herringbone suit, Brooks flashed to a slide with the words “hedonic treadmill.” The room full of mostly freshmen students appeared transfixed.
“Hedonic means feelings,” Brooks said. “And treadmill is an obvious metaphor.”
You can keep running (toward money, power, fame, etc.), but if you’re on the treadmill you won’t be moving forward and you won’t be able to stop wanting and getting things that beget more wanting.
After his lecture, young people swarmed Brooks to ask questions. “Have you ever been on the hedonic treadmill?” one student asked.
Brooks sat down with The Tribune after his lecture to talk about why he is spending time in Utah, his friendship with the Dalai Lama and how to be a little bit happier each day.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to spend more time in Utah for the next few years?
I made the decision when I retired as CEO [of the American Enterprise Institute] to live up to my own principles: work is something that should serve other people and lift them up. I’m in a privileged position where I’ve had a good career and I don’t need to think about money all the time. I can do the things I really want to do and go to the places where I think I can have an impact. I’ve been to Utah a lot in my career and I’ve found the people have strong values that are focused on other people. It’s not like there aren’t problems here — every place has its problems and disagreements. But there’s a lot more constructive spirit here than I see in other places. So I’m going to the places where there’s action and I’m talking about the things that I think matter.
You’ve said the four pillars of happiness are faith, family, friends and work. Can you explain a bit more about faith? What’s your advice for someone who isn’t or doesn’t want to be part of an organized religion?
What it means is a focus on the transcendent things, the things bigger than our everyday existence. I’m a Catholic and it’s the most important thing in my life, but as a social scientist I know there are lots and lots of ways to get the benefit, whether through traditional religious or non-religious or just philosophical means. You can get a lot of this by a serious study of stoic philosophy, by walking in nature once a day without devices, studying the works of Johann Sebastian Bach or by practicing the faith of your youth.
What’s your advice for ambitious young people who are still building their careers and feel pressure to put in long hours to achieve some of the success you’ve found?
It’s good to work hard. It’s good to have a mission. But it can’t be in first place. A lot of people who are choosing specialness over happiness are choosing the 14th hour of work before the first hour with their children. That’s the mistake. It doesn’t have to be that way. I counsel a lot of junior faculty and I say ‘think carefully about what will actually bring you happiness in life and make sure that what you’re doing professionally is compatible with that because your career is not going to keep you warm at night and it’s not going to be at your bedside as you’re dying.’
Some jobs are more fulfilling than others, but for many work is a means to survive and pay rent. How can people find meaning and ultimately happiness from a job they don’t like but need?
It’s a blessing to have a job that is satisfying to you but one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that a job should be satisfaction. That’s a cult — it’s called work-ism. And people fall prey to that cult all the time. Family-ism is another cult — it’s this idea that I should get all of my happiness from my family. Marriage-ism is a bad cult because it puts too much burden on yourself and on your spouse. You shouldn’t raise these things to the level of divine. I really love my work because I see it as an apostolate and I’ve designed it in my own particular way. But there are tons of times in my life when I didn’t. You have to lower your expectations and think more about the people you’re touching. So if you want your work to bring you more satisfaction don’t go from job to job to job. Focus on two things: earning your success, which is creating value with your job, and serving other people.
What are a couple things you do each day to feel happier?
You need to maintain a protocol, where your life is sufficiently open to the things that make you happy. There’s a distinction between happiness and unhappiness, which aren’t opposites. Unhappiness is processed in a different hemisphere of the brain. For managing my happiness I’m [working on] my relationships with God, my family and friends. To moderate my unhappiness I start every morning when I’m home by getting up at five o’clock in the morning and working out for an hour. Then I go to mass. I have coffee, which is very important to moderating my unhappiness. Then I have three uninterrupted hours of deep work. It’s uninterrupted by devices, by meetings or by people. So it’s wake, prayer, exercise, mass, coffee, then three hours of work. That’s really important for me to have that particular protocol. I also get at least 30 minutes of actual sunlight in my eyes in the first half of the day so I can manage my adenosine levels.
You mentioned you’ve worked with and have a relationship with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama told me one time he believes we’ve known each other since the 14th century. My views are different because we don’t have reincarnation in the Catholic faith, but one way or the other we have a strong connection. He’s a beautiful man. It can be disappointing sometimes to meet heroic figures. He’s not disappointing, he’s much better. He’s taught me a lot.
What are some of the things the Dalai Lama taught you?
He’s taught me that when you meet another person your baseline should not be skepticism. Your baseline should be acceptance and love. That’s changed the way I interact with other people all the time. It’s just made me so much happier and a much better person.