A Conversation with Arthur C. Brooks on Finding Purpose, Meaning & Happiness in Our Lives.

A Conversation with Arthur C. Brooks on Finding Purpose, Meaning & Happiness in Our Lives.

Arthur C. Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. Prior, he was the president of the American Enterprise Institute for ten years, where he held the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Free Enterprise. He has authored eleven books, including the bestsellers Love Your Enemies and The Conservative Heart, and writes the popular How to Build a Life column at The Atlantic. He is also the host of the podcasts How to Build a Happy Life and The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks. He is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on happiness and at the height of his career at the age of 50, Arthur Brooks embarked on a seven-year journey to discover how to transform his future from one of disappointment over waning abilities into an opportunity for progress.

The result of this journey is a remarkable book, From Strength to Strength, which was described by The Dalai Lama as a book that ‘…helps people find greater happiness as they age and change.’

In this interview, I speak to Professor Arthur C. Brooks on how we can find purpose, meaning and success as we age. We talk about how to understand and fight our demons, and how to overcome the sense of professional and social irrelevance that often accompanies ageing. In our conversation, he helps unlock happiness in a meaningful, and beautiful way.

Q: Why does life feel like so much of a grind?

[Arthur Brooks]: Life has always been a grind, the feeling of that is consciousness, it’s what it means to be human. Consciousness is awareness of awareness. It’s awareness of thinking. It’s the awareness of what’s happening in your mind. That imposes a certain self-management responsibility in a way that you don’t see in other species, as far as we’re aware. Consciousness is great, but it’s also a huge burden. We must live in a way that allows us to maximise our advantages and ameliorate some of the costs of being human so that we’re not making things harder on ourselves. This is one of the main roles undertaken by the contemplative traditions of major religions. They ask us to be purer, more observational. The Christian Bible says judge not, lest you be judged. Judging everything makes life hard. If you want life to be easier? Judge not. In so doing, you will be more observational, which is exactly what all the eastern contemplative traditions are trying to teach us to do from the beginning.

Humanity has great advantages, but great difficulties. This wonderful big brain, with a neocortex, is capable of such beauty, but with it comes a cost.

Q: Why do we feel less relevant to this world as we get older?

[Arthur Brooks]: Dogs, cats, chimpanzees…. They are not aware of middle age in the same way we are. They’re not aware of their own decline, they just notice that the females of the species no longer treat them with the kind of respect and interest they once did. As humans, we understand what our abilities once were and what our status was, we, therefore, have a much stronger social comparison reaction when our own status becomes less favourable. That is where the judgement engine of the neocortex kicks in, and it’s hard to stop that process.

Q: Does the nature of our intelligence change as we age?

[Arthur Brooks]: We have different kinds of intelligence. In the first half of our lives, we have this incredible fluid intelligence. It manifests itself in working memory… this innovative capacity… an ability to focus… indefatigable energy. It gets better and better through our twenties and thirties and then declines. For people who have their sense of identity tied up in all the things, they got good at when young? That’s terrible news. If you’re willing to roll with the changes, you can look at different ways to create strengths, and therefore create value as a person. To do this, you must be very comfortable with the concept of your own change.

The world is lying to you. It tells you that in 10,000 hours you can become excellent at what you do and that your strength will never wane. That is a complete, utter, falsehood. People have this idea that they will get better and better through life – and they forget that at some point, the party must end. At some point, the greatness that came to define who ‘you’ are will wane. The strivers among us feel this acutely, and they tend to be much more unhappy at the end of their lives than people who are not strivers. Those people who identify as excellent, hardworking, high performers… tend to be more disappointed with their lives at 80 than people who don’t identify in such ways. This is completely contrary to what the world expects us to believe yet it’s abundantly true in the data. We don’t have proper knowledge about the fact that our strengths are going to wane, and that new strengths are going to appear. What we need is a great deal of humility to understand that weakness comes to all of us – and flexibility in the notion of who we are is a strength.

A sense of entrepreneurial adventure in life is wonderful when combined with a sense of flexibility, humility, and adventure. If you can do that? The world is yours. If you don’t have those characteristics, you’re going to get humbled. You will end up bitter.

Q: Is success an addiction?

[Arthur Brooks]: The fruit of addiction to success is redefining yourself in terms of one activity. That’s what alcoholics do… that’s what methamphetamine addicts do… they define themselves in terms of the drug they’re addicted to. That drug is who they are. When you take the alcohol or the drug away, alongside the delirium and tremors, there’s a deep loss of identity – addicts often don’t understand themselves without that drug in their life. It’s their best friend. It’s their lover. It’s their consolation. It’s their partner.

To the striver, that addiction is success. It activates the same neurobiology and dopamine pathways as alcohol or drugs. To the striver, the more they work, the more they get to push that lever which delivers the cookie, right? With repeated behaviours of anticipation and reward, they get that hit again and again and again.

When something happens though; and that drug is taken away, the striver is left feeling dead. When the business collapses, their life ends not just in terms of work, but their whole sense of self is removed. All addicts are the same.

Q: Why is service to others so important to live a fulfilled life?

[Arthur Brooks]: Our lives have a first and second curve. The first curve goes up to your twenties and thirties, peaks around 40 and starts to decline. That’s fluid intelligence. That’s your me curve. The second curve is your wisdom curve. Your teaching curve. Your ability to synthesise information, and to communicate gets better. You get better at leading and bringing out the best in others. That’s through your forties and well into your seventies and eighties. This is your we curve. It requires you to serve others. You need to find ways of shifting your life from me to we as you transition in age.

If you’re a start-up founder in your twenties and thirties, you should be a venture capitalist in your fifties and sixties. If you’re a researcher in your twenties and thirties, you should be a master teacher in your forties and fifties. If you’re the star litigator early in your career, you should be the managing partner of the firm in your forties and fifties, bringing out the best in others and cultivating their careers.

Q:  Do we need to think more about our own mortality?

[Arthur Brooks]: Looking at life’s end helps you understand life’s meaning. This is something the great spiritual masters have found from the very beginning. You must free yourself from the fear of losing something such that you can enjoy that something. If you’re afraid of a relationship ending, you’ll never be able to enjoy the relationship. If you’re focusing on falling over on a hike, you’ll never notice the beauty around you.

The Theravada Buddhists have a death meditation which is a nine-part meditation on death. In this process, you must visualise yourself as a corpse, and think about that process of decay. It sounds morbid, but it brings a familiarisation which means you can come to terms with the fact that you will die. Internalising allows you to free yourself from the suffering of worrying about it.

Strivers don’t care so much about physical death, but rather, they worry about professional failure, their career coming to an end, or being forgotten, passed over or judged as incompetent. Those are the constituents of death to the striver.

I teach at a very famous business school, and these are some of the most failure-averse, failure-fearful people I’ve ever met. They’ve never failed before. I make them do a death meditation on their own failure- imagining their parents feeling sorry for them… often they start to weep because they’ve never been able to confront those ideas before but then, they’re free. That huge failure is probably never going to happen – but at some point, in your career, you will have to confront the reality of everything not being perfect, strong, and victorious. Once you’ve come to terms with that – and realise it’s not exotic or weird – you can be free. That’s what the spiritual traditions do, they give us permission to think about the essence of our own literal, or metaphorical, mortality. 

Q: How can we lighten the load of the baggage of comparing ourselves to others?

[Arthur Brooks]: Strivers compare themselves to a counterfactual version of themselves because they must live in a world of comparison. Social comparison is an incredible tyranny. Strivers feel they always have to keep score – the scoreboard is everything. You find people who are unbelievably successful who can still find someone richer, more good-looking, or who has some other quality that you aspire to.

Strivers also score themselves on what could have happened. If they’d only done X, then Y would have been even better… and they regret these decisions.

Success addicts are often stuck on what could have been, not what is. It’s the very definition of an unhealthy obsession and an unhealthy relationship with an identity which is a professional simulacrum.

Q: Can we be successful, and balanced?

[Arthur Brooks]: Success is hard, and it’s unlikely you can achieve a level of success without sacrificing balance, and that’s ok. We could also have some sort of super-meta-argument that says we’d still be living in caves if it weren’t for the miserable strivers!

The truth is, you can be a striver and still have a good, happy life, but often those people who strive hard sacrifice their love, relationships, friendships, spiritual path, and opportunity for service to others. That kind of striving may well create economic growth, but at what cost. Is it worth it?

Q: How can we prepare ourselves for happiness in the second half of life?

[Arthur Brooks]: To achieve success, you must do the work. You can’t just wish for it. Every entrepreneur, every striver, understands that in their discipline. However, when it comes to happiness… they leave it to chance and wishes. People work for technical ability and wish for happiness. That’s a mistake. You need to treat your happiness the way you treat all your skills – you need to work for your happiness – not just wish for it. That requires you to recognise a whole bunch of counterintuitive truths.

First and most importantly. Mother nature doesn’t care about your happiness. She wants you to pass on your genes, that’s it. Happiness is the result of your own actions. Every religious tradition teaches this and the literature in social psychology and neuroscience finds it to be manifestly true. Yet, the smartest people in the world sit around wishing they were happier.

Imagine saying I wish I spoke French, and then not buying a book to learn. You can’t wish knowledge into your head any more than you can wish happiness into your life? Knowledge and happiness are not immaculately conceived.

I truly believe that every one of the next generations should have a science of happiness class. It should be a required class for people to design their own lives, as much as they design their careers and business.

Q: What is the role of religion and spirituality in happiness in later life? 

[Arthur Brooks]: The typical finding is that people, particularly after the age of 40, recognise the inconsistencies and gaps in all religions but reconcile that with the inconsistencies and gaps in life. You approach your spiritual journey more like a child as you get older, and you’re willing to suspend disbelief. It’s a beautiful thing. I strongly recommend you go to a place where you can do a silent retreat, it’s transformational. From the work of retreats and meditation comes enlightenment. It doesn’t come in a flash; it comes from doing the work.

High performing individuals are chased by a ghost, a phantasm of their own creation. This hungry ghost can get very dark if you don’t take care of your spiritual hygiene.

Q: What are the keys to happiness? 

[Arthur Brooks]:  I study happiness because I don’t have a lot of it naturally. Half of your happiness is genetic, and we know this from identical twin studies. Half of your baseline mood from day to day is genetic. I have a very bad genetic happiness profile. I have a lot of mental illness and substance abuse issues in my family, a lot of gloominess, and a lot of unhappiness. I’m not blaming my parents or grandparents; they did a lot of wonderful things for me – starting by sneaking to the United States from Manchester almost 450 years ago (probably because they were chronically unhappy!)

The other half of your happiness is circumstantial. It’s based on your habits – by which I don’t mean mindless routines – but rather, conscious practices. I also don’t mean hacks. Today we’re given so many mental hacks, bio-hacks, and it’s really just laziness. It’s a lack of willingness to put in the effort. You need to work, not hack.

Since I’ve dedicated my life as a behavioural scientist to happiness, my happiness has gone up 60%. I know this because I keep extremely careful records and data on happiness across the key measures, enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. I’ve kept these records for 20 years, and I can say that the hard work of happiness has raised my life satisfaction. I understand myself better.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.