On “Family Matters,” we tackle the most important questions related to our most important social institution: the family. For today’s webinar, we’re hosting a discussion with professor Arthur Brooks from Harvard University on his new book, “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.”
Professor Brooks’ book offers an incisive and engaging journey that helps us successfully navigate the second half of life. In this discussion, we focus on the subject of happiness — and, especially, the ways that faith and family shape human happiness today. As the happiness columnist for The Atlantic, he’s the go-to expert on this subject.
The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity:
Brad Wilcox: Welcome, Arthur.
Arthur Brooks: Thank you, Brad. And thank you for your work on this important subject.
BW: So let’s just begin with the basics here. How do you define happiness, and why is it important for us to think about?
AB: Happiness, in the general zeitgeist, when I ask my students at Harvard, “what’s happiness,” they generally start talking about feelings. And feelings are related to happiness. But happiness as we understand it in the modern world of neuroscience and social science is basically a combination of three phenomena. The first is enjoyment. The second is satisfaction. And the third is purpose. People who are truly happy — and what I’m saying is the people who have these things in balance and abundance — are the people who will report high levels of self-reported happiness. And so enjoyment means pleasure plus elevation. So it’s not just pure pleasure, it’s actually being able to enjoy things in a way that you understand what you’re enjoying, which is important. Satisfaction is the reward for a job well done, or a goal met. And purpose, which is maybe the most paradoxical of all, comes from actually understanding the coherence and meaning of your life. I suspect that most of the people watching this will know that it actually requires sacrifice, even pain and trouble in our lives. And so the great irony is that to have happiness, you need purpose, and to have purpose, you need sacrifice and pain. And that actually entails some unhappiness. So when people are going through their lives trying to avoid unhappiness, what they inadvertently do is they wind up avoiding a lot of their own happiness.
BW: I’m going to come back to that, because it actually relates to new book by Paul Bloom, as you may know. You and I both have a number of kids, and they’re all very different, including different levels of happiness. And this makes me wonder, as we begin our conversation here, how much of happiness is genetic? How much is it related just to good fortune and bad fortune, or things that are beyond our control?
AB: Yeah, it’s a good question. You have a lot of kids. I only have three, but three is enough to get a sample. When it comes to your children, you notice that they all have different levels of basic life satisfaction. And the truth is that there’s been very good research on identical twins separated at birth adopted into different families — it wasn’t an experiment run kids, of course, that would be unethical — and then who are reunited as adults and get personality tests. And what this research finds is that more of our personality than we ever thought possible is actually genetically based. So somewhere between 40% to 80% of most personality characteristics has a relationship to what’s passed on from our parents, and that includes happiness. So most studies find somewhere between 44% and 52% of our happiness is genetic. Let’s just say half. Half of our happiness is related to what we get from our parents. And that leaves the other half that’s in the other two big categories of what brings happiness. One is circumstances and the others habits. Now, I don’t want that to be true. As an American, I want all of my happiness to be under my control, basically and completely having to do with my habits. But I have to recognize the truth. So 50% is genetic. About another quarter is circumstantial, so the good and bad things that are happening in my life. The thing to keep in mind about that is that it’s a quarter, it’s a lot, but it doesn’t last, and so good things don’t last for your happiness, and bad things don’t last for your unhappiness. The part that endures, that we can truly manipulate, that we can truly affect is our habits, which is about a quarter of our happiness. And that’s based entirely on how we live our lives. And that can be extremely enduring. And that’s what we should therefore be focusing our energies on.
BW: So on the things that we can control, then, what do you think are the keys to happiness for the average person?
AB: In all the research on this, you can kind of boil it down to four big categories of habits, and we call these the ‘Four Habits of Highly Happy People.” You could say, it doesn’t mean that if you have these habits, you’re gonna be happy all the time, because once again, genetics and circumstances, but you’re going to be as happy as you can be on the basis of what you have control over. And they fall into four categories: faith, family, friendship and meaningful work. And meaningful work has nothing to do with money or prestige or job title or even education. It has everything to do with earning your success and serving other people. So faith, family, friendship, earning your success and serving other people — those are the portfolio of habits. And so one of the things that I recommend, when I look diagnostically at people who say, I can’t find a particular direction in my life, I don’t feel like I’m as happy as I could be, I look diagnostically at their happiness portfolio. And I almost always find that they’re over indexing on one thing, and under indexing on the other things. And for a lot of people who are really successful, people who work all the time, for example, it means they’re under indexing on their faith and their family life. And especially for a lot of people, especially men on their friendships. And you can get a lot of happiness by working on the hygiene of those habits.
BW: Now, you mentioned work here. But as we look at this kind of issue of happiness, in our recent survey with YouGov, we found a pretty big difference in terms of how women and men to relate to a paid work and happiness. So for men, there’s a clear connection between gainful, full-time employment and happiness in a recent survey. But there is no such clear pattern for women. There are plenty of women who are not working at least in the paid labor force, who are very happy. So how do you think about this gender difference when it comes to paid work and happiness? What’s the story there, from your perspective?
AB: It has everything to do with the tradition of how we value ourselves. So this is something that gets back to the psychological literature on what they call extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is where you’re motivated by outside things. And what happens is, if you’ve only ever done work that’s paid by the market, you start to value yourself in terms of the market returns to your labor. So for a lot of families that are set up in a more traditional way, a more conventional way, where dad earns salary outside, and mom does a lot of the work in the home, perhaps volunteer work, for example. Mom becomes really, really good at intrinsically valuing her time and the value that she’s creating. She’s able to get an accounting system that’s more helpful. And it reflects more of the value that she’s actually creating with her time. I mean, nobody would say that women who stay home with their children and raise their children are wasting their time. You’d say, well, that’s a really valuable thing to do. And yet, if it doesn’t bring in dollar wages, most women who do that would say, Well, yeah, that’s not how I denominate my time. Well, men get really, really bad at doing that. Which is why they’ll say, if I’m not getting paid more one job to the next job, something’s wrong with my career. So what’s going on is kind of a blinkered accounting system that’s based entirely on money for men. I think this is more of a problem for men than it is for women, generally speaking.
BW: Right. But as you know, there’s another wrinkle here. And that is today, as you know, your former colleague, Nicholas Eberstadt, has written — there’s a way in which a lot of men are no longer engaging with the workforce. And this is probably also a big part of the deaths of despair trend that we’ve been seeing in the U.S. in recent years. What do you think is driving this movement of at least a decent minority of men away from a regular engagement with the labor force, with work?
AB: What’s happening in the modern economy is that more and more people, not just men, more and more people are in a situation where they don’t feel that they have an opportunity to create value in the lives of other people. That’s how we earn our success. We earn our success by serving others and creating value with our lives and value in the lives of other people. And what happens is, when people are discouraged from forming families, discouraged from serving other people in their communities, discouraged from participating in the formal workforce, they don’t feel like they’re creating value. And that’s what actually leads to despair. Despair is really the opposite of dignity. And dignity requires one big thing, which is being needed. This is really, really important. I mean, there was a Roman Catholic Cardinal in Chicago for the longest time named Francis George. And one time, he was giving a famous speech to his wealthiest donors on the north shore of Chicago, talking about a South Side poverty initiative, saying, don’t forget the poor need you to pull them out of poverty. And then he said, and you need the poor to keep you out of hell, which is a pretty gutsy fundraising line, I have to say. I’ve never used that in my own fundraising. But the bottom line is, people need to be needed. That’s the basis of dignity. And when they’re not needed — whether it’s by a full-time job, whether it’s by children, whether it’s by community, whether it’s by other people — then they will lose their dignity, which is the basis of despair. And what we find is that people who are not involved in the workforce, that have no education, for example, so they have a hard time creating value in the workforce and are not involved in the workforce, don’t have children and they don’t have any of these other institutions. They’re way more likely to get involved in drugs and alcohol. There’s almost a 400% increase in drug overdose deaths. We find a significant increase in suicides. That’s why these things are called deaths of despair. What they should be called is deaths of the lack of dignity.
BW: I mentioned this book by Paul Bloom that just came out, “The Sweet Spot.” It talks about the role of suffering. And he actually talks about parenting, and the way in which there’s a certain measure of suffering that follows from being a parent. And yet, it seems like that makes one’s sense of meaning and happiness more salient. It’s kind of a U curve, in terms of sort of suffering. With tons of suffering, there’s more despair, often even meaninglessness. But no suffering also is linked to less meaning and less happiness. The sweet spot is having some degree, some portion, of suffering, connected to needful activity as a parent, or even as a worker too. So how do you think about the relationship between yourself — between suffering and happiness, or suffering and meaning in life?
AB: Some people will split meaning off from happiness, and I don’t do that. I think meaning is one of the components of happiness. And it’s the most paradoxical component because, as you suggest, suffering, challenge, resiliency, overcoming barriers — that’s really, really important. I mean, nobody ever says, You know when I found my purpose in life, Brad? I’ll tell you, it was that week with my friends. Nobody says that. They always talk about, you know, when my father died, or when I was thrown out of college and I had to find my way. You know, people always talk about these challenges are when they find the purpose in their life. And one of the most common kinds of challenges is when you’re raising children, and you have your first child, and there’s no manual. And you know, when we had our first child, and my parents were incapacitated and across the country, and my in-laws were in Spain, and we had nothing, man. And it was lonely, and it was hard. But we figured out who we were in our marriage. We figured out who we were as parents, who we wanted to be, and the child that we wanted to raise. And child by child, the challenge is augmented, to be sure, and the pain and suffering is really there. But your purpose and meaning strongly grow into those circumstances. So today, when people say, well, you’ll be happier if you don’t have kids, what they’re saying is, you’ll have more enjoyment if you don’t have kids. The problem is the trade-off. You’ll have more enjoyment; you’ll probably have less meaning and purpose. And so net-net, that’s actually not good for you on the happiness scale. Because both of those things, plus the satisfaction that comes from different rewards of life, are what you need to be a fully happy individual.
BW: Right. Now, your new book, “From Strength to Strength,” explores what it’s like to live a purposeful and happy life, when you’re kind of moving into the next stage of life, past the peak of your career. What’s the key message in the book that’s coming out, and what’s the link back to happiness?
AB: Well, a pretty strong majority of people find — particularly those who work hard and are successful in their careers — at some point, they start losing their edge. Ad it happens to most people before they think they’re going to. Most think that it’s only them, and something’s wrong with them. So what I show in this book is that particularly in thinking industries — you know, doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors, like you and me — that when it comes to the innovative capacity, to think of brand new ideas, that tends to go into decline between the age of 35 and 50. And that’s very, very normal. It has to do with something called fluid intelligence, from a psychologist named Raymond Cattell, a British psychologist from the 1960s and ’70s. What most of us don’t know is there’s another intelligence that lurks behind it that happens later in life, called crystallized intelligence: our ability to teach, to share, to pass on knowledge, to synthesize ideas into a big framework, to write better books, for example. To be better teachers, under the circumstances. Maybe not to be able to think of the new mathematical theorem, but to write the book that actually tells a story about what’s actually going on. So what I talked about in this book is how to design your life, no matter what business you’re in, to jump from your fluid intelligence curve to your crystallized intelligence curve so you can be maximally useful, happy and serve other people in a fulfilling way, all the way to the end of your life, which is, I think, what we all deserve, and we can do it. And what I show is that everybody actually can do this. And so it’s a step-by-step guide book on how to be happier at 80 than you even were at 30.
BW: And so again, it seems like part of the message here, based upon your notion of crystallized intelligence, if I’m getting this correct, is that there’s a way in which people who are kind of moving through their 50s and beyond can share a kind of accumulated life wisdom or professional wisdom that is valuable, and maybe in some ways, more developed. Or they may have a better capacity to be an elder in a profession or a community at that stage in their life, than they were when they were 35, for instance.
AB: For sure. I mean, one of the reasons — as you and I both know — that the best teaching evaluations at universities tend to go to people who are over 70 is because they have a high level of crystallized intelligence. It’s just easier to learn from an older professor than it is from a younger professor. You know, when I was brand new in academia, I remember it was just harder. And now, you know, young professors ask me, What’s the secret to good teaching evaluations? It’s like, wait 25 years, to no small extent. And so the trick, for all of us, if we want to grow old well — without frustration, without the discouragement and without regret — the key thing is going from innovator to instructor, whatever that means in our lives. And that’s a blessed thing. You know, the idea of going from being the inventor, being the star, or even the sole proprietor, to being somebody who passes on wisdom, somebody who’s beloved, for actually making it possible for other people to learn the circumstances. Not everybody can be teachers like you and me, Brad. But everybody can be more of an instructor than they currently are. And that should be the goal. And so I talk about how to get on that curve — the skills to actually develop, the things to be thinking about along the way. That’s the point of the book.
BW: Is there any connection between your book and that famous Harvard study of adult development, which tracks men and women over the course of their lives, and figures out what is linked to rich and meaningful and happy lives, as people are in the last chapter of their lives? Any connections there?
AB: There are, and you’re referring to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, also known as the Grant Study, that’s been running for 80 years. It looked at some famous guys who graduated from Harvard — JFK was in the study, Ben Bradlee was in the study — who graduated from 1930 into 1941. And then it mixed it with another study of people who didn’t go to college, so it’s more socioeconomically and racially diverse. And then it looks at the spouses and the children of the first cohort going forward. So it’s incredible crystal ball. It looks at, what did people do in their 20s and 30s, and how does that predict if they’re going to be happy in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s? And it’s astonishing. There’s a lot of different practices. It talks about alcohol use and exercise and rumination, and the tendency to be able to deal with problems and reading and all this stuff. But the bottom line is what the founder or the guy who ran the study for 30 years, of professor named George Vaillant, when he was asked to summarize it in just a few words, he said, “OK, happiness is love,” full stop. And this is a really important thing, and I talk an awful lot about it in my book. If you’re going to go from innovator to instructor, you need to develop your life around the principles of love. If you’re going to have the four happiness habits that I talked about a little bit earlier — faith; love of the divine; family, a love the people that are the ties that bind but don’t break and should never break; friendship, which is voluntary love-based relationships; and service to other people — it is. Happiness is love, Brad.
BW: Well, that’s a great note to end our conversation on, Arthur. I appreciate your time today and I’m looking forward to getting the book. And when is the book coming out?
AB: Thank you.