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Arthur Brooks and Happiness

Arthur Brooks, not Frank Carter

Charlottesville, Virginia

May 8, 2020

Shout out to my friend Don Smith for recommending to me that I should check out Arthur Brooks.

Now I will admit I was skeptical at first. When I saw that he was formerly the president of the American Enterprise Institute, I thought Don had me confused with a conservatist (look, even my computer is wondering about that word!). I guess I used to be, but then conservatism moved to the right and I stayed where I was. Enough about politics!

Brooks' biography for those of you, like me, who do not know who he is (thanks Wikipedia):

Arthur C. Brooks (born May 21, 1964) is an American social scientist, musician, and contributing opinion writer forThe Washington Post. He was the president of the American Enterprise Institute, for a decade. As of July 2019, he joined the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School and HBS. Brooks has researched the junctions between culture, economics, and politics. He is the author of 11 books, including two New York Times best sellers:The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise and The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. Politically, he is a center-right independent.

At HBS, Brooks teaches a class on happiness. What? He has also just started a biweekly column in the Atlantic on "how to build a life." His first column was on happiness. Hmm. That's a topic I have some interest in, n'est pas? I've shared the article below. It's a great read. (It is followed by the three articles that he references). I have added the emphasis.


The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic

“How to Build a Life” is a new column that aims to give you the tools you need to construct a life that feels whole and meaningful.


APRIL 9, 2020

It seems strange to launch a column on happiness during a pandemic. The timing is, well, awkward, isn’t it?

Maybe not. We’re stuck at home; our lives on COVID time have slowed to a near halt. This creates all sorts of obvious inconveniences, of course. But in the involuntary quiet, many of us also sense an opportunity to think a little more deeply about life. In our go-go-go world, we rarely get the chance to stop and consider the big drivers of our happiness and our sense of purpose.

On second thought, maybe this is the perfect time to launch a column on happiness.

I teach a class at the Harvard Business School on happiness. It surprises some people when I tell them this -- that a subject like happiness is taught alongside accounting, finance, and other, more traditional MBA fare. Nathaniel Hawthorne once famously said, “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” This is not exactly the stuff of business administration.

But if you imagine my students sitting outside in a circle (or in a virtual circle on videochat, these days) hoping to have a butterfly land on us, you’re wrong. Here are a few of our topics: “Affect and the Limbic System,” “The Neurobiology of Body Language,” “Homeostasis and the Persistence of Subjective Well-Being,” “Oxytocin and Love,” “Acquisition Centrality and Negative Affect,” and “The Hedonic Treadmill.”

The scientific study of happiness has exploded over the past three decades. The Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton (both at Princeton University) publish extensively on the subject. The University of Pennsylvania has a whole graduate-degree program in positive psychology, led by Martin Seligman, one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world. A peer-reviewed academic journal called the Journal of Happiness Studies has been in operation since the year 2000 and enjoys high prestige in scholarly circles.

Religion, philosophy, and the arts have long considered happiness a subject suitable for study. The sciences have only recently caught up. This column, which we’re calling “How to Build a Life,” will draw on all these sources of wisdom in the hope of helping you identify the building blocks of happiness -- family, career, friendships, faith, and so on -- and giving you the tools to use them to construct a life that is balanced and full of meaning, and that serves your values.

This column has been in the works for some time, but my hope is that launching it during the pandemic will help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you. I hope this column will enrich your life, and equip you to enrich the lives of the people you love and lead.

To start us off, I want to give you three equations for well-being -- equations that, in my opinion, you need to know to start managing your own happiness more proactively.



Subjective well-being is a term of art usually used by social scientists. Why not happiness? Many scientists consider happiness as a term to be too vague and too subjective, and to contain too many competing ideas. In everyday language, happiness is used to denote everything from a passing good mood to a deeper sense of meaning in life. The term subjective well-being, on the other hand, refers to an answer to this kind of question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” (That is the actual wording from one of the most prominent surveys that address the subject, the General Social Survey.)

Read: The Yale happiness class, distilled (see bottom of this article)

Equation 1 summarizes a vast amount of literature on subjective well-being, starting with the question of the heritability of happiness. Personally, I dislike the idea that happiness is genetic; I dislike the idea that anything about my character or personality is genetic, because I want to be fully in charge of building my life. But the research is clear that there is a huge [I challenge that "huge" is the right word here] genetic component in determining your “set point” for subjective well-being, the baseline you always seem to return to after events sway your mood. In an article in the journal Psychological Science reporting on an analysis of twins -- including identical twins reared apart and then tested for subjective well-being as adults -- the psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen estimate that the genetic component of a person’s well-being is between 44 percent and 52 percent, that is, about half.

The other two components are your circumstances and your habits. Research is all over the map on what percentage each part represents. Circumstances -- the good and the bad that enter all of our lives -- could make up as little as 10 percent or as much as 40 percent of your subjective well-being. Even if circumstances play a big role, however, most scholars think it doesn’t matter very much, because the effects of circumstance never last very long.

We may think that getting a big promotion will make us permanently happier or that a bad breakup will leave us permanently brokenhearted, but it isn’t true, as a casual look back on your own life would surely attest. Indeed, one of the survival traits of human beings is psychological homeostasis, or the tendency to get used to circumstances quickly, both good and bad. This is the main reason money doesn’t buy happiness: We get used to what it buys very rapidly and then go back to our happiness set point. And for those of us lucky enough to avoid illness, even the unhappiness from the COVID-19 crisis will be in the rearview mirror before very long.

Genes and circumstances aren’t a productive focus in your quest for happiness. But don’t worry, there’s one variable left that affects long-term well-being and is under our control: habits. To understand habits, we need Equation 2.



This is my summary of thousands of academic studies, and to be fair, many scholars would dispute it as too crude. But I am convinced that it is accurate. Enduring happiness comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life.

A little bit of clarification is in order here. First, faith doesn’t mean any faith in particular. I practice the Catholic faith and am happy to recommend it to anyone, but the research is clear that many different faiths and secular life philosophies can provide this happiness edge. The key is to find a structure through which you can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others.

Similarly, there is no magic formula for what shape your family and friendships should take. The key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people. One extraordinary 75-year study followed Harvard graduates from 1939 to 1944, into their 90s, looking at all aspects of their health and well-being. The principal investigator, the psychologist George Vaillant, summarized the findings as follows: “Happiness is love. Full stop.” People who have loving relationships with family and friends thrive; those who don’t, don’t.

Finally, there’s work. Maybe it shocks you that work is part of this equation; it shouldn’t. One of the most robust findings in the happiness literature is the centrality of productive human endeavor in creating a sense of purpose in life. Of course, there are better jobs and worse jobs, but most researchers don’t think unemployment brings anything but misery.

Read: Meaning is healthier than happiness (see bottom of this article)

What kind of work? White collar or blue collar? Stay-at-home parenting? Work requiring college? A super-high-paying job? My own research as a social scientist has focused on this subject, and I can tell you that these are the wrong questions. What makes work meaningful is not the kind of work it is, but the sense it gives you that you are earning your success and serving others.

Equation 2 is especially worth considering during our pandemic isolation. Ask yourself: Is my happiness portfolio balanced across these four accounts? Do I need to move some things around? Are there habits I can change during this pause?

I asserted above the old claim “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” It’s not quite that simple, of course. I should say, “Money doesn’t buy satisfaction.” Homeostasis sees to that, in the form of what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill: People never feel they have enough money, because they get used to their circumstances very quickly and need more money to make them happy again. Don’t believe it? Think back to your last significant pay increase. When did you get the greatest satisfaction -- on the day your boss told you that you were getting a raise? The day it starting hitting your bank account? And how much satisfaction was it giving you six months later?

You might be tempted to conclude that satisfaction is out of reach. But that’s not quite right.

Equation 3 provides a better way of thinking about satisfaction.



Many great spiritual leaders have made this point, of course. In his book The Art of Happiness (written with the psychiatrist Howard Cutler), the Dalai Lama stated, “We need to learn how to want what we have not to have what we want in order to get steady and stable Happiness.” The Spanish Catholic saint Josemaría Escrivá made the same point in a slightly different way: “Don’t forget it: he has most who needs least. Don’t create needs for yourself.”

This is not just a gauzy spiritual nostrum, however -- it is an intensely practical formula for living. Many of us go about our lives desperately trying to increase the numerator of Equation 3; we try to achieve higher levels of satisfaction by increasing what we have -- by working, spending, working, spending, and on and on. But the hedonic treadmill makes this

pure futility. Satisfaction will always escape our grasp.

Read: How happiness changes with age (see bottom of this article)

The secret to satisfaction is to focus on the denominator of Equation 3. Don’t obsess about your haves; manage your wants, instead. Don’t count your possessions (or your money, power, prestige, romantic partners, or fame) and try to figure out how to increase them; make an inventory of your worldly desires and try to decrease them. Make a bucket list -- but not of exotic vacations and expensive stuff. Make a list of the attachments in your life you need to discard. Then, make a plan to do just that. The fewer wants there are screaming inside your brain and dividing your attention, the more peace and satisfaction will be left for what you already have.

Perhaps decreasing the denominator of Equation 3 is a little easier for you than normal during your isolation, because your expectations have diminished along with your physical ability to meet them. Can you find a way to continue this after the material world begins to beckon again in a few weeks or months?

Think of these three equations as the first class in the mechanics of building a life. But there is much, much more where all that comes from. Hence, this new column. In the coming months, I will pull back the curtain on the art and science of happiness to show how the brightest ideas can illuminate new solutions to our ordinary challenges.

Stay tuned. In the meantime, while you are still stuck at home, go study your equations.



The Yale Happiness Class, Distilled

The psychology professor Laurie Santos delivers the “shortest possible crash-course version” of the university’s most popular course ever. JOE PINSKER

JUNE 25, 2019

The most popular class in the history of Yale University was inspired by a paradox: Even when people, conventionally speaking, succeed -- get into a top college, make lots of money, or accumulate prestige and accolades -- they are often left feeling unsatisfied. It’s a problem that may be particularly acute at a place like Yale, but the lessons of the class, called “Psychology and the Good Life,” are widely applicable -- they address fundamental features of the human mind that make it difficult to appreciate things that seem like they’d be great. “Our minds are filled with a ton of little glitches that make it hard to enjoy the great things that we have,” as Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, puts it. On Monday morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Santos presented the “shortest possible crash-course version of the class,” covering two primary “glitches” (and how to counteract them) in less than an hour. “You can’t just shut off the kinds of biases that I’m talking about,” she said. “But we can understand them.” The first glitch has to do with how the brain acclimates to things it’s repeatedly exposed to. This happens in terms of sensory perception -- a recurring noise can fade into the background after an extended period of time -- as well as with perceptions of more abstract things. One category of this latter phenomenon is what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation.” “When we first get something that’s awesome, it feels really awesome. But then we get used to it pretty quickly,” Santos explained. She said this can apply to buying an enchanting new house or a fancy new car, as well as getting into Yale (which feels a lot better on the day admissions decisions come out than it does, say, by the time midterm exams roll around). What to do with this information about how the brain works? Santos had a couple of prescriptions. One was to spend time and money on things that don’t last as long—that is, things that are harder to adapt to. What this ends up translating to is the by now well-known consumerist commandment to “buy experiences, not things.” A vacation to a novel destination might last only a week, but the benefits -- and the memories -- can be longer-lasting, whereas the second year of owning a fancy car is a lot less exciting than the first. Another of her prescriptions has also risen to the level of a meme in recent years: Set aside time to be grateful for what you already have. This may come in the form of a gratitude journal or a period of brief reflection, and could be as basic as acknowledging the luxury of taking a hot shower or having a choice about what to eat for dinner. Whatever the ritual is, Santos said, there are benefits to “this simple act of pausing to pay attention.”

“The second way our minds suck,” she went on, is that they dwell on relative comparisons instead of absolutes—in other words, how what we have compares with what others have, not whether what we have is plenty for us. She pointed to research that looked at Olympic medalists: Those who won gold were of course visibly thrilled after their event, but bronze medalists appeared happier on the medal stand than silver medalists. That’s because of, the psychological theory goes, each medalist’s reference points. The silver medalists were probably fixated on the gold medal they didn’t get, but the bronze medalists were probably thinking about how their alternative reality was receiving no medal at all. “Our mind just happens to [pick] whatever reference point seems to be salient at the time, whatever reference point we happen to notice, and it tends to particularly [pick] reference points [involving people] who are doing better than us, which kind of sucks,” Santos observed.

But again, there are some ways to interrupt this process. One is to periodically force oneself to try living without the amazing thing one has become accustomed to. For instance, a summer night or two without air conditioning might make the rest of the season much more enjoyable.

Short of actually depriving oneself of something nice, engaging in short thought experiments can help, asking “What if I didn’t have this thing?” For instance, people might ask themselves: What if I didn’t have this house? Which friend or family member would I have to ask for help? This “negative visualization” might help them appreciate their home, even for its faults.

Santos’s recommendations are derived primarily from research from the past couple of decades, but her talk was peppered with references to several philosophers from long-ago eras, such as John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, and Seneca. These thinkers and others identified many of the same tendencies of the human mind that modern-day researchers are interested in. The outside markers of status and success may change, but people’s response to them has remained highly predictable.



Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness

People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity. EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH

AUGUST 1, 2013

For at least the last decade, the happiness craze has been building. In the last three months alone, over 1,000 books on happiness were released on Amazon, including Happy Money, Happy-People-Pills For All, and, for those just starting out, Happiness for Beginners. One of the consistent claims of books like these is that happiness is associated with all sorts of good life outcomes, including -- most promisingly -- good health. Many studies have noted the connection between a happy mind and a healthy body -- the happier you are, the better health outcomes we seem to have. In a meta-analysis (overview) of 150 studies on this topic, researchers put it like this: “Inductions of well-being lead to healthy functioning, and inductions of ill-being lead to compromised health.” But a new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) challenges the rosy picture. Happiness may not be as good for the body as researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Of course, it’s important to first define happiness. A few months ago, I wrote a piece called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” about a psychology study that dug into what happiness really means to people. It specifically explored the difference between a meaningful life and a happy life. It seems strange that there would be a difference at all. But the researchers, who looked at a large sample of people over a month-long period, found that happiness is associated with selfish “taking” behavior and that having a sense of meaning in life is associated with selfless “giving” behavior.

"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors of the study wrote. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.” While being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way. As Roy Baumeister, one of the researchers, told me, "Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy.” The new PNAS study also sheds light on the difference between meaning and happiness, but on the biological level. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher who specializes in positive emotions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA, examined the self-reported levels of happiness and meaning in 80 research subjects. Happiness was defined, as in the earlier study, by feeling good. The researchers measured happiness by asking subjects questions like “How often did you feel happy?” “How often did you feel interested in life?” and “How often did you feel satisfied?” The more strongly people endorsed these measures of “hedonic well-being,” or pleasure, the higher they scored on happiness.

Meaning was defined as an orientation to something bigger than the self. They measured meaning by asking questions like “How often did you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?”, “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?”, and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group?” The more people endorsed these measures of “eudaimonic well-being” -- or, simply put, virtue -- the more meaning they felt in life.

After noting the sense of meaning and happiness that each subject had, Fredrickson and Cole, with their research colleagues, looked at the ways certain genes expressed themselves in each of the participants. Like neuroscientists who use fMRI scanning to determine how regions in the brain respond to different stimuli, Cole and Fredrickson are interested in how the body, at the genetic level, responds to feelings of happiness and meaning. Cole’s past work has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern. When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses. “You have a forward-looking immune system,” Fredrickson told me, “If you have a long track record of adversity, it prepares you for bacterial infections. For our ancestors, loneliness and adversity were associated with bacterial infections from wounds with predators and fights with conspecifics.” On the other hand, if you are doing well and having a lot of healthy social connections, your immune system shifts forward to prepare you for viruses, which you’re more likely to contract if you're interacting with a lot of people.

What does this have to do with happiness? Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity. That is, the bodies of these happy people are preparing them for bacterial threats by activating the pro-inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is, of course, associated with major illnesses like heart disease and various cancers.

“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — ”are about as good for you for as adversity,” says Fredrickson.

It’s important to understand that for many people, a sense of meaning and happiness in life overlap; many people score jointly high (or jointly low) on the happiness and meaning measures in the study. But for many others, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants. Only one quarter of the study participants had what the researchers call “eudaimonic predominance” -- that is, their sense of meaning outpaced their feelings of happiness. This is too bad given the more beneficial gene expression pattern associated with meaningfulness. People whose levels of happiness and meaning line up, and people who have a strong sense of meaning but are not necessarily happy, showed a deactivation of the adversity stress response. Their bodies were not preparing them for the bacterial infections that we get when we are alone or in trouble, but for the viral infections we get when surrounded by a lot of other people.

Fredrickson’s past research, described in her two books, Positivity and Love 2.0, has mapped the benefits of positive emotions in individuals. She has found that positive emotions broaden a person’s perspective and buffers people against adversity. So it was surprising to her that hedonistic well-being, which is associated with positive emotions and pleasure, did so badly in this study compared with eudaimonic well-being. “It’s not the amount of hedonic happiness that’s a problem,” Fredrickson tells me, “It’s that it’s not matched by eudaimonic well-being. It’s great when both are in step. But if you have more hedonic well-being than would be expected, that’s when this [gene] pattern that’s akin to adversity emerged.”  The terms hedonism and eudaimonism bring to mind the great philosophical debate, which has shaped Western civilization for over 2,000 years, about the nature of the good life. Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think? From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.



How Happiness Changes With Age

Becoming okay with being boring HEIDI GRANT HALVORSON

MAY 28, 2013

I'm just shy of 40 years-old. I spend most Saturday nights at home in yoga pants, rereading favorite novels or watching old movies, or playing Monopoly Junior with my seven-year-old. (If you think Monopoly is boring, then you haven't tried Monopoly Junior.) This way of spending my Saturday nights makes me happy. If you went back and told my cooler 20-year-old self about the typical evening that awaits the future her, though, she would be pretty devastated that her life turns out to be so ... boring. That a Saturday night spent reading a book -- not even a new book -- qualifies as a great time. "What the hell happens to me?" she would wonder. A lot of people feel that way to some extent when we look back at our younger selves and realize how much we've changed. The answer, of course, is that we all grow up -- and for many of us, what it means to be "happy" slowly evolves into something completely different.

Happiness becomes less the high-energy, totally-psyched experience of a teenager partying while his parents are out of town, and more the peaceful, relaxing experience of an overworked mom who's been dreaming of that hot bath all day. The latter isn't less "happy" than the former -- it's a different way of understanding what happiness is. Social psychologists describe this change as a consequence of a gradual shifting from promotion motivation -- seeing our goals in terms of what we can gain, or how we can end up better off, to prevention motivation -- seeing our goals in terms of avoiding loss and keeping things running smoothly. Everyone, of course, has both motivations. But the relative amounts of each differ from person to person, and can shift with experience as we age. Research from Northwestern University in the journal Psychology and Aging suggests that promotion-mindedness is most prevalent among the young, because youth is a time for focusing on your hopes for the future, what you ideally want to do -- you don't have much in the way of responsibilities, and you still believe you can do anything you set your mind to. That and you think you are immortal. This is more or less a recipe for strong promotion motivation.

As we get older, illusions of immortality vanish. There is a mortgage that needs to be paid, a home that must be maintained, and children to be cared for. (Speaking of children, new mothers are an especially prevention-minded group. They have the daunting task of somehow protecting a completely vulnerable, clueless, yet hell-bent-on-exploration infant from a world filled with germs, stairs, pointy objects, and electrical outlets. New motherhood is mostly about ceaseless vigilance.) The older we get, the more we want to hang on to what we've already got -- the things we've worked so hard to achieve. We also have more experience with pain and loss, having been knocked around a bit by life, and having learned a few lessons the hard way.

In a recent set of studies, psychologists Cassie Mogliner, Sepandar Kamvar, and Jennifer Aaker looked for evidence of how our sense of happiness changes with age by analyzing twelve million personal blogs. Specifically, they were interested in seeing what kinds of emotions the bloggers mentioned when they talked about feeling "happy."

They found that younger bloggers described experiences of happiness as being times when they felt excited, ecstatic, or elated -- they way you feel when you are anticipating the joys the future will bring - like finding love, getting ahead at work, or moving to a new town. Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved -- they way you feel when you are getting along with your spouse, staying healthy, and able to make your mortgage payments. This kind of happiness is less about what lies ahead, and more about being content in your current circumstances. (You can see these age-related differences in motivation very much reflected in the workplace, where older workers have more prevention-motivated concerns - like job security and flexible work schedules, while people under thirty have more promotion concerns -- like opportunities to develop skills.)

If you're like me, and you find that your life has become more about pursuing peace and relaxation than giddy excitement, rest assured that you aren't missing out on happiness. Your happiness has evolved, just as you have. Even though our version seems less fun by the standards of our younger selves, that doesn't mean it's less good.

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