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David Brooks on The Secret to Happiness

Posted on Jun 12, 2019
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david_brooks_stained_glassI had the opportunity to hear David Brooks speak at one of the plenary sessions at NAFSA 2016. I was also lucky enough to meet him after the session to get a signed copy of his book, A Road to Character. As a longstanding fan, I gushed with excitement to tell him that my favorite NY Times Op-Ed article is still The Humble Hound. His head was buried in signing as many books as he could to make it through the long line of fans-in-waiting, but he paused, to look up at me. He had a big, pleasantly surprised smile, saying how this article, written in 2010, was the initial inspiration for the 2015 book. The article focuses on how to lead with humility and incredible professional will by conquering your weaknesses, and the book relates this to making and fulfilling promises to achieve the highest level of happiness.

Here were the key takeaways that push me past complacency and toward greater unease, but also towards attempting to achieve greater character:

  1. 1. The importance of virtue in defining yourself. Brooks spoke about two sets of virtues that a person has – your “resume virtues” and your “eulogy virtues”. “Resume virtues are the things that make you good at your job and eulogy virtues are the things they say about you after you are dead”, like whether you were honest, courageous or bold. He talks about how education systems are focused on building our resume virtues, and how we need to be focused on developing our eulogy virtues to define ourselves instead.
  2. 2. Finding purpose. Brooks talks about how students are insecure about their careers, so their friendships, relationships, and spiritual lives get neglected, and “the great yearning to do good in the world, which they have, is inarticulate because nobody has given them the vocabulary on how to realize it.” So, instead of only focusing on using college to develop instruments of reason, he asks you to look at the “soul behind the curtain”, to confront who you actually are as a person, and to find a definition for your life’s purpose.
    He says studying abroad is the best way to find purpose, where you are far removed from your school’s academic reputation, your family, your friends, and where you are “stuck in some place, totally unprepared”. You now learn everything you ever knew is wrong, you learn to “endure and cultivate solitude”, and become aware of cavities in yourself that you didn’t know existed.
  3. 3. Defining happiness as transcendence. Brooks outlines four different types of happiness: Level 1 is “material pleasure”, which is finding happiness in your material belongings. Level 2 is “ego and comparative happiness”, where you measure your happiness in comparison to others. Level 3 is “generativity”, which focuses on finding happiness in giving back to your communities. Level 4 is “transcendence”, which is finding an unadulterated connection to love, truth, goodness, and beauty. Brooks talks about how society is good at achieving Levels 1 and 2, but not focused nearly enough on levels 3 and 4.
  4. 4. Making and fulfilling commitments to achieve the highest level of happiness. Brooks spoke about how the people who lead level 4 lives have succeeded and made good choices, but more importantly, about how they have executed on these choices by making 4 large commitments in their lives.
  5. The first commitment is to your spouse and family. He speaks of the importance of falling in love unconditionally, without hedging your bets, so you are “falling in love with something, and then building a structure or behavior around it for those moments when the love falters.” This love is humbling, makes you vulnerable to greater pain, but also to greater joy.
    The second commitment is to your vocation, which should have a sense of meaning, and be propelled by a desire to do good. Once you have defined your desire, it is about developing a craft by being disciplined and developing behavioral structures. Like doctors lay out tools before a surgery, or musicians playing scales, find a behavioral structure that helps you find discipline in your vocation, so when your commitment falters, you can rely on your structure to bolster you.
    The third commitment is to philosophy or faith, which helps you develop your ability to see and articulate your truths in a simple way. He says, “Hundreds of people can talk for one that can think, but thousands of people can think for one who can see.” Expose yourself to as many different philosophies from as many different cultures as you can to understand the truths you hold dearest. Exploring liberal arts subjects like literature help as well, because great literature describes emotional states with such specificity that it teaches you empathy, which is at the core of how you can successfully relate to a colleague, family member or friend.
    The fourth commitment is the value of community. Brooks talks about how you cannot make and uphold your commitments alone. The standards for your commitments are held up by your community. In addition to strengthening your academic and professional skills, how are you touching your community? How are you developing your cross-cultural learning to scaffold around the weaknesses of your community? If you are inherently cognitive, learn more about human sentience. If you are individualistic, focus more on building a community. If you are utilitarian, develop a moral lens. If you enjoy materialism, find a way to live a life that is spiritually alive.

“Begin your journey as a student with a deep sense of gratitude and joy.” By finding purpose and identifying the virtues that you hold dearest, and by making and fulfilling your promises, you are on your way to transcendent happiness!

This post is written by Gaargi Ramakrishnan, who is a Counsellor with ReachIvy.

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