The Good Fight
🎧 The Pursuit of Happiness

🎧 The Pursuit of Happiness

Arthur Brooks and Yascha Mounk unravel the elusive science of living happily.

Arthur Brooks is a leading authority on the science and philosophy of happiness. In his books—most recently, Love Your Enemies—and his regular contributions to The Atlantic, he urges us to act smarter in our pursuit of the good life. Combining insights from social science with wisdom from ancient sages, his unique blend of practical advice and philosophical depth serves as the perfect antidote to what he calls our “culture of contempt.” He holds professorships in the Practice of Public Leadership and Management Practice at Harvard, and was formerly the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Arthur Brooks discuss the biological and circumstantial origins of happiness, debate the necessity of transcendence, and explore Stoic philosophy’s relevance for today’s polarized politics.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Arthur Brooks, welcome to the podcast. 

Arthur Brooks: How have you been? 

Mounk: It’s been a strange year. But let me answer this in a substantive way that speaks to your interests. I’m a big believer in psychological fixed points. When I broke my ankle four or five years ago, if you’d asked me before that how it would affect my happiness, I would have said, “Oh, my God, I'm going to be so miserable for three months. I’m an active guy, I like to go and meet people and go around.” Actually, I don’t think it had a huge impact on my well-being. I rearranged my life a little bit: I read a little bit more, I had people come to my house. And there’s some research that shows people are wired to be a particular way: If they win the lottery or [experience] a breakup, it might make them happy for a few months or less happy for a few months, but then they sort of go back to normal. 

So what do you think about the psychological fixed point? And can we improve our happiness despite that?

Brooks: That’s been a big question for a lot of people during the coronavirus epidemic because they thought that coronavirus shuts everything down, and that’s going to depress our mood forever. A lot of people have found that they’re actually not remarkably unhappier, notwithstanding many of the mental health challenges that people face, which is a different category. [This is informed by research] on the baseline—your genetic proclivity toward happiness. There’s a body of empirical data on identical twins who were separated at birth and adopted by separate families. They were reunited very joyfully as adults and given personality tests. What [the researchers] found is that almost every aspect of personality—between 40% and 80%—is genetic, and about 48% of happiness is genetic. So the other half is circumstantial. 

[People think that if] that person I love falls in love with me too, then I’ll finally be happy; that if I get into an accident, I’ll be unhappy. That’s all wrong. That’s about a quarter of your happiness at any particular time. But it doesn’t last. You break your ankle, you think, “I’m going to be super bummed.” You were pretty bummed for about two days, probably, and running at 80% of your happiness for about another week. And then after that, you were as unhappy or as happy as you ordinarily would be, because even huge circumstances don’t last.

Mounk: On one level, I find it inspiring that human beings are so resilient. On the other hand, there’s also something horrifying about this. I mean, you lose the love of your life, or perhaps a relative of yours dies, and a month or two later I ask you in an unguarded moment, “How are you feeling?” And the answer you’re likely to give is about the same as it was three months earlier. So should we be inspired by this, or should we be horrified?

Brooks: It depends on whether or not you think that your emotions are fundamentally different from any other part of you. There’s a phenomenon in all biological processes called homeostasis. Homeostasis basically means you tend back to your baseline. It’s in your circulatory system, your pulmonary system, and your lymphatic system. And that’s how you stay alive. If you went for a run and your heart was elevated at 160 and stayed there forever, you'd be dead within a week. You need homeostasis. Your emotions are like your circulatory system: They’re part of you and not something that’s exogenous. 

Mounk: What you’re essentially saying is that if your psychological baseline is 7 out of 10 happy, a lot of that is determined by genetics, but about a quarter is influenced by things that you have control over. So perhaps if your marriage fails, you’re not, from moment to moment, less happy six, 12, or 18 months down the road. But some important life project has failed. You don’t have the same life satisfaction as you might have had if the marriage had worked out. So is happiness always the right metric?

Brooks: Say I get a divorce. That’s not enjoyable; that’s anti-enjoyable. But that fact of actually having a big breakup, of having what would constitute a failure in most people’s lives, often is something they look back on and say, “That was one of the fundamental parts of meaning and purpose in my life. The bankruptcy, the trouble I had with my teenage child, the marriage that failed, the accident that I had—that [meant] I changed direction in my life. That’s what gave me a lot of meaning and purpose.”

There’s a very important phenomenon called post-traumatic growth, which requires the trauma. We talk all the time about post-traumatic stress, as if this were the salient phenomenon. [But] in the vast majority of really traumatic events in people’s lives, people experience post-traumatic growth, not post-traumatic stress. It’s something that reinflates your life, but also points out some things that you need to learn that you can only learn through pain. Pain in many cases, of course, can be overwhelming, and so terrible that it needs to be treated. But in many cases, pain is the only thing that gets our attention so that we can make progress in our lives.

Mounk: It seems to me that the moments when I’ve been happiest in life are not the moments when a long-held desire is fulfilled, because that [ebbs] away very quickly. I think moments of happiness come often from working to get nearer to something that you desire for good reasons. Isn’t the trick to find things that we should strive towards, and take pleasure in the road towards those goals? But that’s different from what you were saying.

Brooks: It is different, but it’s actually complementary. And that’s a different exercise, which I call “intention without attachment.” If there were not a book at the end, you’re trying to have intention toward the book without attachment to the book. You’re also elucidating, concisely and adroitly, a very common truth, which is that all of happiness comes from progress.

Mounk: I think of this in terms of Western philosophy and Stoicism, to which I’m incredibly attracted, but which also repels me. [There’s] a wonderful idea [in] Epictetus that we live life like a dog who’s bound to a chariot, and the dog can either drag its paws in the ground and be dragged along, with terrible suffering, or can choose to run alongside the chariot. But that includes the idea of giving yourself over to fate. Another key Stoic idea says that we should grow indifferent to everything around us— to material goods, to gold, to what kind of accomplishments we might have over the course of 10 years, and to loved ones. If you love somebody, then your happiness is bound up with their fate in the world. And that’s not something you can control. So it’s better to give up the person you love, because that truly allows you to be self-sufficient. I think that is something moving and appealing. But it’s also something really horrifying, because I don’t want to give up on friendships and relationships.

Brooks: The Serenity Prayer is the ultimate Stoic prayer. You know, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The “accept what I can’t” part is the dog running alongside the chariot. And that’s basically to say: Don't engage in an exercise in futility, because it will take away your peace.

But let’s layer on another philosophy that's contemporaneous with Stoicism, which is Epicureanism. Epicurus basically talked about enjoyment, [but] it really wasn’t about boundless reprobate pleasures. It was about actually living a highly disciplined lifestyle so that you can have happiness and peace in harmony with others. The truth is, all of us have a proclivity toward either more Stoicism, like you, or more Epicureanism, like others. 

Mounk: We’ve been philosophizing. But give us some concrete advice. One of the things I’ve admired about your writing on this topic is that you do actually help to orient people in a way that is based in social science and serious research about what they can do to lead more meaningful and satisfied and happy lives. 

Brooks: For people who want to get happier, the good news is you can. You actually can get happier. But it requires work and not just wishing. The funny thing about happiness is that everybody wants it, but most people actually don’t do anything to get it. Everybody has a friend who hates his or her job: She’s like, “I hate my boss, he’s an idiot, they don’t appreciate me, I haven’t gotten a raise in five years.” And you say, “Well, sorry, wishing is not going to solve the problem.” Or people who are stuck in bad relationships. The same thing is true with happiness: You have to do the work and not just wish that you were happier. 

Mounk: How do I analyze the parts of my life where I’m not as happy as I could be? How do I come up with a plan?

Brooks: When it comes to satisfaction, we’ve already talked about strategies: the chipping-away exercise by managing your wants, and trying to practice intention without attachment where you have audacious goals. All of these are very concrete strategies. But it starts with a diagnosis of your life. There are four dishes that you think are the dishes of happiness: money, power, pleasure, and fame. Those are the wrong dishes. The right dishes are faith, family, friendship, and work. 

When I say “faith,” I don’t mean a traditional religious faith, necessarily. You don’t need my faith. You need something that is more transcendent than the boring TV program, something that zooms you out from your own individual life. It gives you the adventure of the transcendent. [Another] dimension is family, the ties that bind kin. Never make the stupid error of not talking to a family member because of politics. One in six Americans, by the way, is doing that right now. And then there’s friendship. Vivek Murthy, our wonderful surgeon general, talks about the epidemic of loneliness. It’s the most important avoidable problem that we have in public health today, he believes. And one of the reasons is that people actually are getting more and more incompetent at romantic love and are denying themselves the psychological nutrition of friendship. And then the last [dimension that people] don’t understand is that you’ve got to have two parts of work, which is earning your success and believing that you’re serving other people. 

Mounk: Let’s talk about friendship for a moment. [There is a] difference between how I see friendship in Europe and how I see it in the United States. Friendship in Europe is an obligation: It’s a natural element of friendship that you do each other favors. If you’re sick at 3 a.m., you can ask a friend to go run to the pharmacy for you, and there’s nothing strange about that. 

It seems to me that in the United States, often friendship is much more modular: “We both have some free time, let’s go grab a beer together.” The implied mutual obligation isn’t part of a social contract of friendship to the same extent. Obviously, you choose your friends. But it seems to me that there are meaningful friendships which at some point take on a kind of givenness: You’ve been friends for so long, you’ve been friends in such a close way, that it acquires [some of the characteristics of] a familial relationship. And even if your friend is no longer the person whom you would choose to make friends with, or if your life circumstances start to diverge, there is a kind of imperative, which gives you satisfaction and purpose in life, to [maintain] those links. 

Brooks: Marriage is the only true blending between friendship and family life. You find that the happiest marriages are ones that start off with really passionate love. But the healthiest marriages evolve into what we call companionate love. Companionate love is when spouses are truly best friends. That’s one of those ties that starts off in a friendship kind of way, and then it turns into kin. And so you can get a simulacrum of that for the person who lived next door to you, as long as you’re never going to move away. We give people a lot of advice about how to fight the loneliness that comes from the isolation, from moving around a lot. The key is to act as if you’d always live there.  

Mounk: That’s a really good piece of advice. The area of those four [dishes] that is hardest for me is faith. Religious faith just isn’t something I grew up in. 

Brooks: When I say “faith,” that's shorthand for something transcendent. And when I say “transcendent,” I mean it transcends your own unique experience—the focus on your own life. Trying to get deeply into the philosophical masters, even if it’s really atheistic, it’s something that transcends the here and now. It presents you with the adventure of something bigger. As the Dalai Lama always says, “Just remember that you are one in 7 billion.” 

Mounk: Is [politics] a danger because we can get so drawn into it, and it is so bound up with negative emotions and with things that we don’t have control over?

Brooks: Politics is necessary in our democratic capitalist society, and particularly one in which we honestly believe that competition can bring out the best in people. The problem is when [politics] takes the place of ethical systems and religion; then it becomes a weird kind of unhealthy obsession. One of the empirical regularities of the study of happiness is that the more time you spend thinking about politics, the less happy you will be. Now, it’s very easy to become obsessed with politics. But the truth is, nobody actually gets happiness from politics. Politics is something that we need to do to get something else that we want. If it becomes a substitute for systems of ethical belief, a substitute for actual citizenship—if your attention to MSNBC or Fox News is substituting actually being an involved citizen—you will be less happy, you’ll be less effective, and you will be lowering the happiness of other people. 

Mounk: Let’s leave everybody with something actionable. What is one thing about happiness that people tend to get wrong? 

Brooks: We have made a huge mistake in our society over the past 30 years by turning the keys to our progress and prosperity over to engineers and bureaucrats who are basically technocratically looking for complicated solutions to human problems. Why is that a problem? We often talk about the difference between complicated and complex problems. They look like synonyms in the dictionary. They’re not. A complicated problem is wicked: It’s hard to solve, but with adequate computational horsepower and brains, you can solve it. Complex problems are very easy to understand, but they’re impossible to solve because they’re adaptive, and because they’re human. Love is a complex problem. A cat is a complex problem: You never know what it’s going to do, you never know how it’s actually going to act. 

We’ve [turned] over the keys to our own prosperity and happiness to technocrats who are looking at complex human problems like love and security and belonging—all of the societal things that truly will bring us happiness—and what do they give us? They give us social media, and they give us vast welfare programs. I’m not saying these things are bad. I’m just saying that these are not the things that we want. We’ve had 30 years of nonstop, expensive, ruinously complicated toasters, courtesy of the people who are the most educated elites in our society who have gotten the complex-complicated [distinction] wrong. 

If there’s one thing to remember, it is this: Happiness is love, full stop. That’s a complex thing. And it requires being fully alive in the world and fully participating in your life. Social media is not going to give it to you. The government’s not going to get it to you. The only thing that’s going to give it to you is if you’re totally committed to giving your heart away, and living your life as such.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Rebecca Rashid

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.