The Happiness Revolutionary

Arthur Brooks moved beyond policy—to something deeper.

Arthur Brooks stands behind a chair in his office, smiling

Arthur BrooksPhotograph by Jim Harrison

On a misty morning in February 2020, President Donald Trump sat on one side of the dais and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the other. In the middle, at the podium, was the keynote speaker, Arthur C. Brooks, sporting his signature pink shirt and skinny tie. Just the day before, the Senate had acquitted Trump in his first impeachment trial. “It was not exactly a friendly environment,” says Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a center-right Washington think tank. But if there were ever a time for reconciliation (or at least a chilly détente), it was that morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, a bipartisan gathering at the Washington Hilton where 3,500 Christian political, social, and business leaders pray together.

“Contempt kills relationships. Contempt kills love. Contempt is ripping our country apart,” Brooks said, echoing sentiments from his 2019 national bestseller, Love Your Enemies. A devout Catholic, Brooks said that sacred texts like the Bible, as well as social science and neuroscience research, identify fear as the opposite of love. America was caught in a “fear polarity” marked by hateful discourse, and the only way to neutralize it was to love one another—even the people with whom one fundamentally disagrees.

“Publicly insulting others simply fuels the terrible national addiction to political hate,” and it’s also unproductive, he added. True political transformation requires exiting our ideological echo chambers to speak respectfully with our political opponents. “That,” he said, “is the point at which our national healing can begin.” The crowd rose in a standing ovation.

Then, Trump took the podium. “Arthur, I don’t think I agree with you," he said. "I don’t think Arthur is going to like what I’m about to say,” he continued, and launched into a speech about the “dishonest and corrupt” people on the other side destroying the country.

Yet even as the president of the United States publicly disagreed with him, Brooks appeared profoundly unperturbed.

Scaling Happiness

There have been many iterations of Arthur Brooks. He’s been a think tank president, a professional French horn player, a tour mate of legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, an economist, an analyst running large-scale war simulations for the RAND Corporation, a college professor, the author of bestselling political commentary and self-help books, and a public speaker giving as many as 175 talks in a year. Now, having landed at Harvard, he is Bloomberg professor of the practice of public leadership at the Kennedy School (HKS) and professor of management practice at the Business School (HBS).

Brooks has been a force in Washington, D.C., policy discussions for years and a broadly appealing spokesperson for free-enterprise ideals, but he doesn’t have political aspirations. “America is not ready for a bald president,” he jokes. He’s a policy analyst who’s dabbled in Indonesian gamelan ceremonial dance, is well-versed in north Indian tabla drumming, and is good friends with the Dalai Lama. As former President George W. Bush said after reading Brooks’s resumé, “I’m just going to call you a weird dude.”

An energetic extrovert and polished speaker, he’s been a bridge of sorts: during his AEI tenure, he translated conservative viewpoints for a wider audience in books including The Conservative Heart and The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise. He connected the science of happiness to domestic policy, writing Gross National Happiness about the political and economic systems he felt most supported wellbeing.

But by 2019, the year he decided to come to Harvard, he wondered whether policy was the deepest solution he could offer America’s problems. People were polarized, unhappy, disconnected, and apathetic about their country. “I mean, for Pete’s sake, the only thing that the hard right and hard left can agree on is that the United States is in decline,” he said on The Remnant podcast. “So, what do we need? We actually need more happiness. We need a scientific study of it, we need to teach it, we need to embed it in the way that leaders lead, and I need to bring it on as big a scale as I possibly can.”

“What I’m trying to do is create not a supply curve for ideas, but a better demand curve for better ideas by creating more of a hunger for happiness.”

And so this economist by trade has become a happiness expert with a weekly happiness column in the Atlantic, a corresponding Atlantic podcast, an oversubscribed HBS course on “Leadership and Happiness,” and a newly published book, From Strength to Strength, about how to find happiness and purpose in middle age and beyond.

“What I’m trying to do is create not a supply curve for ideas, but a better demand curve for better ideas by creating more of a hunger for happiness,” Brooks says, mixing his disciplines. To put it simply, he says, “I’m starting a happiness revolution.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Becoming a full-time happiness expert might look like a departure, but for Brooks, it’s a culmination.

He grew up in Seattle, Washington, in a bohemian, Protestant, liberal family. His mother was a painter and his math-professor father the latest in a long line of scholars. At nine, Brooks started playing the French horn and felt, with characteristic intensity, “My purpose is to be the greatest French horn player in the world,” he recalls. He rebelled against his family’s academic legacy by plastering his bedroom wall with his version of rock stars: horn legends Dennis Brain and Hermann Baumann.

If music was his life’s purpose, he found his life’s meaning after a “semi-mystical experience” at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a high school band trip to Mexico. He converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, but says he still loves and learns from transcendence in all its forms. He prays his rosary using meditation techniques he learned from the monks at the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Dharamsala, India, and recalibrated his understanding of professional success with the help of the guru Sri Nochur Venkataraman (known as “Acharya” or “teacher” to his disciples). He says, “Being on a spiritual adventure is like winding my way down the Missouri River, not knowing where it’ll lead or what I’ll find. My spiritual practices provide the means to sustain and nourish me along the way.”

In his later teens, Brooks was certain he’d be a musician. Music was the way he saw the world: his synesthetic brain even associated specific musical scales with colors. The A major scale was red, the D minor scale green, and the Dorian mode the darkest green of all. At 19, he was accepted to transfer from CalArts to the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia—a conservatory so prestigious it offers free tuition to the less than 2 percent of applicants it accepts. “And I walked away from it,” he says. “I’ve always had trouble doing the conventional thing.”

He embarked on what his parents described as his “gap decade” as a professional French horn player. He toured with a brass quintet—or “driving around the country in a van with four other guys,” as he puts it—and met his trumpeter wife, Ester Munt-Brooks, at a music festival. He moved to her native Barcelona to marry her and played in the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra until his late twenties.

Were he anyone else, Brooks would have been content to stay there. “But throughout my life, about every 10 years, I strip my life back to the bolts,” he says. “I start all over.” He decided to go back to school—and relinquished his spot in the orchestra. The synesthesia he’d once had with music and colors now shifted to words and ideas.

A Warrior for Free Enterprise

Just shy of his thirtieth birthday in 1994, his diploma from Thomas Edison State University arrived in the mail, folded in half. When he first started the degree via correspondence, he thought he’d study composition or music theory. But then he took a general-education economics course. “This is awesome,” he recalls thinking. “I wasn’t into economics because I’m interested in money, but because it’s a very good way to understand human behavior.” He dove into behavioral economics and got a master’s in it (also by correspondence). He loved the logic and linearity of economics, but most of all, he says, “I wanted to understand the systems that allow people to flourish.”

The more he looked at the data, the more that painted a picture for him: free enterprise, with some government interventions, was the best poverty-reduction system. He says, “Now, I’m a warrior for it.”

That wasn’t what his Seattle family expected. Once after dinner at his parents’ house, his mother was a bit quieter, scrubbing the dishes a bit more aggressively than usual. “Your father and I are concerned. We’ll love you no matter what, but—” she paused, the water still running, “have you been voting for Republicans?”

“Politics are like the weather, but ideas are like the climate.”

He didn’t know what to say, mostly because he was interested in different kinds of questions. He’s been a Democrat and Republican at different times, and is now a registered independent, but he says, “My thing is ideas, especially policy ideas. Politics is like the weather, but ideas are like the climate. Climate has a big impact on the weather, but it’s not the same thing….Similarly, ideas affect politics, but they aren’t the same thing.” He studied policy with the level of obsession he’d once reserved for the French horn, earning an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. After running war simulations there as an analyst, he left to teach economics and nonprofit management at Syracuse University.

A decade later, right on time for his 10-year itch, AEI tapped him to be its next president. Under his leadership from 2009 to 2019, “AEI had a serious impact on the policy debate, and it had an impact in a constructive way,” says Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. It tripled in size and became one of the nation’s most influential think tanks—measured by proxies like the number of op-eds scholars published in leading newspapers and the frequency with which they were asked to testify in Congressional hearings. Brooks became a confidante of high-ranking politicians like former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. According to Elmendorf, Brooks also kept the organization research-driven at a time when, amidst the decade’s political tumult, other former policy centers such as the Heritage Foundation took on overtly political roles.

He geared AEI research agendas toward boosting “human dignity,” including studies on the impact of loneliness on Americans, the opioid epidemic, non-profit work training programs, and how to clear the path from education to employment. He launched its first research program on poverty, advancing recommendations such as increasing welfare work requirements and preserving the social safety net for the very poor. Yet all this policy talk wasn’t without Brooks’s unique perspective. He even brought the Dalai Lama to AEI to talk about “moral free enterprise.”

“Me-Search”: The Turn Toward Happiness

Despite all he was accomplishing, Brooks found he wasn’t thriving. “I’m not naturally a very happy person,” he says, and he turned to social science research to solve the problem. He combed through positive psychology papers and gradually built a framework for the good life. “That research was actually me-search,” he says, but he incorporated it into work others could use, writing books like The Conservative Heart and Gross National Happiness, which linked the science of happiness to domestic policy recommendations like safeguarding the free-enterprise system.

Then, in 2019, it was time for his 10-year appraisal. He’d been researching From Strength to Strength and finding that, perhaps, he couldn’t be an effective think tank leader forever. The social science papers told the inconvenient truth that, by a person’s mid-fifties to sixties, his abilities shift from “flexible” intelligence (the “smarts” and quick learning of someone early in his career) to “crystallized” intelligence (a diminished capacity to adapt to change, but the wisdom to see the big picture and synthesize disparate ideas). Maybe this move to crystallized intelligence would make him a less effective CEO, but Brooks realized it could make him a better writer, teacher, and, maybe, messenger of his happiness philosophy.

He met his friend Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, in his private dining room at AEI. Over lunch, they discussed his next possible iteration: a crusader for happiness, decoupled from policy. The nation’s political discourse was inadequate, he felt, and it was leading to polarization and unhappiness. Perhaps he could bring together the strengths of all the past Arthur Brookses—the musician, the economist, the think tank leader, the writer—to offer America something more unifying than policy.

“Policy is like pushing on a string...I’m working on the other side right now to make people want better things.”

“I noticed that policy is like pushing on a string,” he says. “It’s ‘I’m going to give you a whole bunch of really whizbang ideas that you should want.’” He wanted people to pull on the string. “Instead of me saying you should want this, I’m going to work on the other side right now to make people want better things.”

“How to Stop Freaking Out”

The way Brooks sees it, happiness is a combination of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. The “four pillars” that support that trifecta are family, faith, friends, and work.

“Faith is anything transcendent that helps you escape the boring sitcom that is your life,” he says. It could be a meditation practice, time in nature, religious faith, or even playing music (he recommends fugues by his favorite composer, Bach). Work, on the other hand, is anything that helps a person sustain herself and her family. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a passion, but it should be something that makes a person feel useful in the world.

Goldberg jokes that the “family, faith, friends, and work” recommendation is not exactly particle physics. But that’s what makes it powerful, he says. “Arthur is explaining immutable aspects of human nature and backing it up with social science.” Yes, his column, Harvard courses, and books offer insights into how to find happiness and inspire it in others, but Goldberg says they also help readers make sense of the modern world: technological disruption, political divisiveness, economic instability, the changing shape of the family, and “the loss of faith on the part of many elites, not only in traditional religious structures, but even in the idea of this country.”

“In some respects, Arthur is the best diffuser of existing social science research to a broad audience,” says Baker Foundation professor Leonard Schlesinger, co-instructor of Brooks’s HBS “Leadership and Happiness” course. Brooks is not a psychologist, but Schlesinger calls him a “phenomenal curator.” His social science background helps him digest a dozen scholarly articles a week, which he then translates into pithy advice in his Atlantic column. “He’s a great talker and a great listener,” Schlesinger says. “Usually, one is good at one and not the other. I think he wins on both fronts.” This listening keeps him attuned to what people might need to hear. (His recent Atlantic articles include “Don’t Teach Your Kids to Fear the World,” “Technology Can Make Your Relationships Shallower,” “The Trouble with Zooming Forever,” and “How to Stop Freaking Out.”)

Brooks has a knack for naming problems and itemizing solutions. Take his five-part plan for healing America’s political divide in Love Your Enemies, for instance: refuse to be used by manipulative politicians; befriend people with different views; say no to contempt and treat others with love; disagree better (thoughtfully, sans vitriol); and disconnect from unproductive debates. It’s not a detailed policy agenda, but Brooks believes if Americans can master these intuitive commands, “The rest will flow from there.”

Happiness Is a Thanksgiving Turkey

Americans have an inalienable right to pursue happiness, Brooks says, but are not always good at the pursuit. Instead of putting their energy toward building their four pillars, they chase the four idols: money, power, pleasure, and the admiration of others. “Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy,” Brooks likes to say. “She cares if you reproduce. So, the things we crave are not always the things that are going to make us happy.”

Brooks uses himself as an example. He kicked his long-running cigarette habit, but his principal remaining addiction is to work. He’s combatted these tendencies with “metacognition”: the self-awareness to manage his feelings and desires rather than be managed by them.

He trains his metacognition with exercises, like a muscle. First, he tracks his happiness on a spreadsheet so he can understand which practices have made him happiest over the long term. Then, as he recommends to readers in From Strength to Strength, he periodically writes a list of the goals he’d like to achieve. One by one, he crosses items off the list until he’s left with only the ones that will make him happy—those centered around family, friends, faith, and the meaningful aspects of his work.

Theravada Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Tibet meditate on images of corpses in various stages of decomposition to confront their fear of death; Brooks does his own version to conquer his fear of professional decline. He walks himself through the nine states that inevitably await him, beginning with “I feel my competence declining” and ending with “I am dead, and I am no longer remembered at all for my accomplishments.”

“When there is fear, unhappiness, and hatred—that’s an opportunity for everybody to be in their own ‘mission field’ to bring more happiness and love to others’ lives.”

The exercise takes him to some dark places, but unflinching vigilance helps him stay the happiness course. Most of Brooks’s HBS students have an incorrect definition of happiness when they start his “Leadership and Happiness” class, he says. They tell him happiness is a feeling. “That’s like saying that Thanksgiving dinner is the smell of your turkey. Happy feelings are evidence of happiness, not the whole thing,” he likes to say. Happiness for Brooks is constant work, but it is attainable. “When you study it, the more you know. This is not of theoretical interest; the more you know, the happier you can get.”

“I’m trying to create a mass movement of happiness seekers and leaders who are professors of happiness,” he continues, pursuing the logic that happy leaders make happy organizations, and happy organizations build a happy society. He says, “When there is fear, and there is unhappiness, and there’s hatred—that’s an opportunity for everybody to be in their own ‘mission field’ to bring more happiness and love to others’ lives.”

“For me, Harvard is the grass tops and the Atlantic is the grassroots part of the movement,” Brooks explains. If he can build a popular interest in making life more meaningful, “Then, people start demanding something better, and these ideas will really matter. These policy ideas, these political ideas, and these cultural ideas—they’ll start to have a different kind of resonance.” He says, “I want people to be happier. Whether they agree with me or not, I want them to be happier.”

Following the Rhumb Line

“It’s easy to be cynical about a lot of things, but I’m not cynical about what Arthur is doing,” Goldberg says. Last spring, his daughter Talia—a Harvard Divinity School student and practicing Jew—asked him if Brooks might speak at the Lexington, Massachusetts, assisted living facility where she was a chaplain intern. Brooks was in the middle of an international book tour, but he wrote back: “I would be honored to take part in your daughter’s mitzvah.”

“He lives his advice,” Goldberg says. “He’s finding meaning in his life and modeling it for others. It’s a universal mission of his. He’s trying.” Trying to turn the tide of contempt toward love, to reorient society from false idols, to help people live better and be kinder to one another during a hard moment in history.

Sometimes it’s an uphill climb, as when the president of the United States disagrees with your call to action in front of 3,500 audience members and C-SPAN viewers at the National Prayer Breakfast. But Brooks doesn’t take it to heart. No Sisyphus, he is a seaman following a rhumb line, pursuing a constant bearing after being blown off course. “When you’re doing something really good and true and beautiful, you have to have a rhumb line toward the culmination of the movement, understanding that the joy and the value that you create is actually running the rhumb line but not necessarily staying on it.” He turns to Buddhist principles: “The intention is serious, but the attachment is light. I’m trying to spread these ideas, share them with more people, and to do that with intention but without attachment.”

He accordingly takes the long view. “You have to have ideas that are based in love, that transcend your own life and movement,” he says. “There are no permanent victories on Earth. There just aren’t. So you bring the virtues of faith, hope, and love to all your work, with the understanding that life is short and the world is long.” And if you’re Arthur Brooks, you keep working, hoping, and trying. 

Associate editor Nancy Kathryn Walecki profiled musician esperanza spalding in the September-October 2022 issue.

Read more articles by: Nancy Walecki

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