Arthur C. Brooks: “Three Equations for a Happy Life”

The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic” in “The Atlantic.” I generally don’t like his work as he is a  religious and political ideologue. He was president for a decade of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute, and he was converted to Catholicism after he believed the Virgin Mary appeared to him. I’m not kidding.

(How smart people can be so delusional always amazes me. Brooks’ subjective experience, here is unlikely to provide a veridical account of objective reality. And, as W. K. Clifford wisely noted we have a moral obligation to believe based on evidence. Believing and deciding based on comforting, subjective feelings is often just disguised superstition.) Still, despite being someone whose biography throws into doubt his critical thinking skills, this essay provides a good summary of much of the recent work on human happiness.

Brooks teaches a class on happiness at the Harvard Business School. He begins by noting that the “scientific study of happiness has exploded over the past three decades.” The article attempts to summarize what science has found on the topic. (Note. I’ve discussed happiness many times, especially in my summary of the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant’s book: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.) In order to explain the science, Brooks introduces 3 equations.

1: SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING = GENES + CIRCUMSTANCES + HABITS

Equation 1 summarizes a vast amount of literature on subjective well-being (SWB.) Social scientists prefer the term SWB because it captures a longer-lasting sense of happiness than the common usage which might refer to a temporary good mood or other fleeting feelings.
Regarding genes, the research strongly suggests that about 50% of our happiness “set point” or baseline of happiness is genetic. Regarding your circumstances, the research is inconclusive with estimates of its role in SWB as anywhere from 10% to 40%. Whatever the role of circumstances though their effect never lasts very long. When we get promoted, win the lottery, marry or get divorced, we tend to adjust to our new circumstances quickly. While genes aren’t under our control, and circumstances often aren’t either, habits are under our control. To better understand habits, we need Equation 2.
2: HABITS = FAITH + FAMILY + FRIENDS + WORK

Brooks argues, on his summary of thousands of academic studies, that SWB comes from human relationships, productive work, and the transcendental elements of life. (These are very close to Vicktor Frankl’s components of the meaningful life.)

Regarding faith, Brooks says 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.” Regarding family and friends “the key is to cultivate and maintain loving, faithful relationships with other people.”

Regarding work, the literature shows that productive work is part of SWB. While some jobs are better than others “most researchers don’t think unemployment brings anything but misery.” Brooks argues that meaningful work can be of almost any kind as long as it gives you a sense “that you are earning your success and serving others.” He also notes that money doesn’t buy SWB because we never think we have enough of it. (He omits saying that being poor is bad for you SWB. SWB depends on having a minimal amount of wealth.)

So there you have it. A good life consists of loving relationships, productive work and having a purpose in life. This echoes Aristotle on the good life.

3: SATISFACTION = WHAT YOU HAVE ÷ WHAT YOU WANT

Brooks’ final equations emphasize satisfaction which for him is being satisfied with what you have and caring less about what you want. (To paraphrase the Stoics, happiness isn’t getting what you want but wanting what you get.) While I agree, I would note that it is easy for a wealthy upper-class person like Brooks who has so much to say this. Much harder for the poor and oppressed to be content. Still, I agree that the key to happiness—if you have a reasonable amount of wealth—is to focus more on the numerator of Equation 3 rather than the denominator. Otherwise, we may find ourselves on the hedonic treadmill.

I thank Brooks for sharing the results of scientific studies of happiness. One of the worst things about living in the USA today—in addition to the constant bullshit and lying-–is the denigration of science. As Carl Sagan wrote science is a candle in the dark which allowed us to escape the demon-haunted world of the dark ages. The world will never improve until science and reason defeat ignorance and superstition.

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Below are some of my previous posts related to happiness.

The Best Countries To Live In

Aristotle on the Good Life

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study: Triumphs of Experience

Predicting Our Own Happiness

Human Relationships on a Sliding Scale

The Positive Effect of Nature

Happiness and the Meaning of Life

Walking in Nature

The Solitary Life

Are We Ever at Home?

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