Arthur Brooks: The secrets of happiness are faith, family, friends, and work

The Washingtonian Interview-How a conservative think-tanker became a happiness guru

Arthur C. Brooks is the author of a popularAtlantic column that tackles a subject of increasing urgency in a relentlessly depressing world. Officially called “How to Build a Life,” it could well be known by a simpler name: the happiness column. Since it launched in April, the weekly offering collects all sorts of scientific research and useful advice about our ongoing collective effort to enjoy life in the 21st century.

If that seems off-brand for a longtime denizen of Washington’s conservative intellectual establishment, you don’t know Brooks. A Harvard professor who focuses on leadership and management issues, and before that the head of the conservative DC think tank American Enterprise Institute, Brooks is also a former Washington Post columnist, the author of several books about culture and American conservatism, and—oh, yeah—a former professional French hornist.

Because aspirational happiness has been much on our minds of late, we called Brooks at his Newton, Massachusetts, home for thoughts on the perils of loneliness and the strange state of the Republican Party.

Could there be a riper time to start a happiness column than during a pandemic?

It’s actually a challenge, because everybody’s thinking about nothing except the pandemic. The column is about happiness, but it’s just in general about how to build a constructive life. [I’ve also written an installment] about the importance of unhappiness in building your life. In a way, it’s easy to link everything to the pandemic. But it’s so boring to do that.

Why are you interested in unhappiness?

I am a big proponent of unhappiness. Whereas the Woodstock cult was “If it feels good, do it,” I think the cult we have today is “If it feels bad, make it stop.” And that’s really dangerous for our development and for society. There’s almost nothing truly meaningful we accomplish or experience that doesn’t actually have pain or loss as part of it. When you look back to key moments in your life where you learned the most and you grew the most, they all have pain in them. Every single one!

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