When we call Harvard Kennedy School Professor Arthur C. Brooks, he is driving through the mountain ranges of Utah. His voice, clear and energized, cuts across our shaky connection.
Brooks is a social scientist (and a podcast host, and a bestselling author, and a columnist for the Atlantic) who specializes in happiness. His mission centers around “lifting people up and bringing them together in bonds of happiness and love” through the use of “science and ideas.”
At Harvard, Brooks teaches on nonprofit management and leadership at HKS, as well as “Leadership and Happiness,” a course designed to reevaluate how students approach happiness in the workplace, at Harvard Business School.
Brooks discovered his interest in happiness in graduate school, while he was researching the effects of charitable giving and philanthropy. He found that when people give, they get “healthier, richer, better-looking,” a proposition that sounds both inconceivable and intriguing.
“Happier people are healthier,” he says. “Happier people are more successful in worldly terms. And happier people are more attractive to others.” To Brooks’s surprise, the positive effects of charitable giving “all came down to this happiness thing.”
Brooks’s research on happiness was also spurred by personal investments. “Frankly, I wanted to be happier,” he admits. “You know, this is not research. This is ME-search.”
Motivated by personal and professional interests, Brooks set out on a quest to find the scientific foundations of happiness. After all, in order to achieve happiness, Brooks first needed to define it. His definition takes the form of a percentage-based breakdown.
“Something like 25 percent of your happiness is due to your circumstance,” he says, noting how these don’t last forever. “Fifty percent of your baseline happiness levels are genetic. The last 25 percent or so, depending on the study you’re looking at, is habits.”
Brooks is undaunted by the components of happiness that seem out of our control — genetics and circumstance — and instead hones in on the importance of habits.
“I’m not going to go into an audience and say ‘woe is me,’” he says. “I’m going to be an agent of my happiness by working on good happiness habits, and I’m going to encourage everybody who listens to me that they should have good happiness habits too.”
Brooks arranges his happiness habits into four major categories: faith, family life, friendship, and work.
For Brooks, faith is “the sense of transcendent things bigger than you.” He lists atheism, Stoicism, and walks in nature as practices that fall under faith. “You must have something bigger than you. Because in truth, there’s a lot of things that are bigger than you,” he says. “But if you’re only paying attention to your own life, your life becomes tedious and boring.”
In family life and friendship, Brooks emphasizes the importance of relationships with people who will “take your 2 a.m. phone call” — real, emotionally meaningful relationships that go beyond the convenience of interacting in the classroom or the workplace.
To find happiness through work, Brooks recommends “earning your success” and “serving somebody who needs you.”
Though happiness is largely a personal journey, Brooks describes how social policies may influence how people move through this journey and if they have the resources to start making changes in their lives.
“You need to spend money as a society to give people a lot of opportunity, because opportunity is something that really does bring a lot of happiness,” he says.
Within Harvard, however, he thinks changes led by the College, or even students themselves, can have more influence on fostering greater student happiness. “We need to have a lot more of a focus on the main kind of addiction to which our students fall prey,” he says. “And that’'s an addiction to success.”
Although an addiction to success seems benign, Brooks has previously written about how success activates the same neural pathways as alcohol and drugs.Students, when focused on their success, hinder their relationships with others. “At the end of the day, happiness is love, full stop. You don’t love yourself, you don’t love others, if you’re just addicted to your own success,” he says.
Students should take the problem into their hands. Don’t blame Harvard for being demanding, Brooks says. He says that “the source of the problem is that we’re too exigent. We’re all in this pressure cooker. We need to recognize that we are human beings.”
In his own teaching, Brooks says that he wants to ensure his students are “not victims to their own expectations, because that will never, ever lead to happiness.”
One solution Brooks suggests is for students to “be honest about our secrets to success and happiness, and share them with others.” The other, Brooks says, is “not getting in the way of other people’s spiritual journey.”
The direction of the journey is always toward love. He says, “human beings are built for faith and family and friendship and for work that serves. We’re built for love.”