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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Adam H Johnson and David Sirota

A capitalist cheerleader wrote the US’s hottest new self-help book. Surprised?

George Stephanopoulos, Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey discuss Build the Life You Want at the 92nd Street Y in New York in September 2023.
George Stephanopoulos, Arthur Brooks and Oprah Winfrey discuss Build the Life You Want at the 92nd Street Y in New York in September. Photograph: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

As economic misery in the US persists, the country’s self-help industry has become a multibillion-dollar bonanza. If one reads enough of that industry’s happiness catechism – including its latest bestseller, Build the Life You Want – one realizes that all of the advice revolves around a core set of directives: focus on the self rather than the collective, redeploy hours to different priorities, spend less time at work, build deeper personal relationships – and, by implication, buy more self-help books.

But if “time is money”, then in America’s survival-of-the-richest form of capitalism, time-intensive remedies are mostly for the affluent – that is, those with a big enough savings account to de-risk career changes; those with enough income to afford gym memberships, hobbies and excursions; those with enough paid leave and cash to enjoy the best vacations; those with enough resources to employ personal aides to do paperwork, chores and cleaning; those with enough workplace leverage to secure more hours off for introspection, friend time and outdoor adventures.

Erasure of privilege disparity and presumption of wealth has turned most self-help products into a series of Stuart Smalley affirmations for the already and nearly comfortable. But while such class bias pervades the happiness industry, it is particularly egregious coming from the author of the aforementioned Build the Life You Want: Arthur Brooks, hardly a disinterested bystander in this epoch of economic anxiety and its attendant unhappiness.

As the former $2.7m-a-year head of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – one of the country’s most prominent conservative thinktanks – Brooks spent a decade sowing the despair he now insists he is here to cure.

Brooks’ career turn from let-them-eat-cake ideologue to I-feel-your-pain happiness prophet may seem bizarre. But he is walking the well-trodden – and lucrative – path from arsonist to firefighter. It is a trail previously blazed by financial crisis-era deregulators now platformed as credible economic experts, and by Iraq war proponents reimagined as leaders of a pro-democracy resistance.

In Brooks’ case, he led an organization that repeatedly worked to help its billionaire and corporate donors prevent working-class Americans from securing the better standard of living, universal benefits and leisure time that undergird the countries consistently reporting the world’s highest levels of happiness.

Citing a colleague’s book deriding Americans as “takers”, Brooks insisted the central crisis facing the nation is not a notoriously thin social safety net – but politicians who “offer one government benefit after another to our citizens”, complaining that this “has made a majority of Americans into net beneficiaries of the welfare state”.

He declared war on “labor unions and state employees demanding that others pay for their early retirements, lifetime benefits, and lavish state pensions”. Under his leadership, the AEI railed against “entitlement” programs, tried to privatize and gut social security, opposed Medicaid expansion, opposed free college, opposed rent control and fought against free healthcare.

Now, Brooks’ pivot to happiness guru is disseminating that political agenda via the soft agitprop of self-discovery and self-improvement. Along the way, Brooks is being boosted by (among others) the Atlantic, NPR and Oprah Winfrey (who is listed as co-author of the book, although in reality she only writes a handful of introductory paragraphs to each chapter) – together the most coveted media seals of approval for liberal readers whose purported ideals Brooks spent his career grinding into political dust, but who are now enriching him with $30 book purchases.

On its face, Build the Life You Want offers a mix of reasonable – if banal – life advice, parables, reasonably clear distillations of complex philosophical and linguistic concepts, and synthesized academic research. The book engages in pop metaphysics that limits its ambition for the more science- and liberal-minded from the get-go, letting us know that achieving “happiness” – as some final stage of contentment – is impossible. But, Brooks insists, “we can be happier” in relative terms.

“Unlike other books you may have read,” he tells us, “this one is not going to exhort you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This isn’t a book about willpower ​​– it’s about knowledge, and how to use it.”

Which is all to say, this book is absolutely about how to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and follow concrete steps to self-contentment, but doing so with some reputable sociology and psychology studies as your guide rather than the quasi-fascist bromides about being an alpha dog one typically hears from the likes of Jordan Peterson. But the general motivational tone and reactionary political premises are the same.

The book kicks off in earnest with a scrappy, can-do story of self-determination on the part of Brooks’ Spanish mother-in-law, “Albina”, who is used as a template for self-fulfillment.

In the introduction, titled Albina’s Secret, we are told that, after years of living with an abusive husband and a fraught domestic life, “One day, when Albina was forty-five, something changed for her. For reasons that were not clear to her friends and family, her outlook on life seemed to shift. It’s not that she was suddenly less lonely, or that she mysteriously came into money, but for some reason, she stopped waiting for the world to change and took control of her life. The most obvious change she made was to enroll in college to become a teacher.”

Brooks asserts that the primary change that propelled Albina toward midlife happiness was her shift from worrying about “the outside world” to looking inward.

“She switched,” Brooks tells us, from “wishing others were different, to working on the one person she could control: herself.”

Personal responsibility is a hallmark of the self-help genre, and Brooks’ breezy title has this convention in spades. In his telling, changing “the outside world” as a pathway to peace and happiness is a fool’s errand. Like virtually all self-help books, we are told the road to self-satisfaction is found within – not with our circumstances, but how we respond to our circumstances.

This is a convention of the capitalist self-help genre for one obvious reason: it requires nothing in the “outside world” to change. And once one gets into the messiness of “changing the outside world”, one ventures into political theory. This is uncomfortable and can’t be put into an earth-toned 700-page book that rich Atlantic subscribers will want to buy.

Albina’s solution, Brooks tells us, wasn’t to find her local underground socialist party or union headquarters and join a political movement to combat the Franco regime, or to try to materially improve the lot of other women sharing her gender-based suffering – it was to ignore “the outside world” and instead focus on a career shift and a switch in attitude.

Like a lot of self-help advice, this works on a micro scale. Surely, it’s too great an ask to demand a middle-aged mother in an economically precarious situation join the fight against the Franco regime. But Brooks is constitutionally uninterested in the forces of patriarchy and capitalism that co-authored the misery – not because they’re irrelevant to his self-help brand of anti-politics, but because of it.

Self-help makes grand claims about human progress, it offers advice to the masses on how they can improve their lot – it is inherently political by its nature. But Brooks does not tell us that we can be empowered by making demands of the powerful, or joining a union or a political movement, but – how else – by buying his book.

This is Brooks’ big trick: his happiness recommendations presume a society that can and will never change from the one he helped craft in Washington.

In today’s AEI-sculpted America, millions are deprived of the building blocks of happiness such as guaranteed healthcare, free higher education, paid family leave, workplace empowerment, retirement security and a host of other social democratic pillars that sustain the world’s happiest societies. Unwilling to allow for the possibility that such conditions can or should change in the United States, Brooks nonetheless presents happiness as an achievable self-centric project inside the dystopia he helped create.

Build the Life You Want follows Brooks’ first foray into the happiness industry – a book called From Strength to Strength that is about “finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life”.

That monograph argues that because of the way humans’ brains change, one’s professional decline begins much earlier than we expect. The book suggests that workers in midlife should therefore move into work roles that require less cognitive innovation (fluid intelligence) and more teaching of acquired wisdom (crystallized intelligence).

It is an important finding that might prompt a broader discussion of policies that could account for this inevitability – retraining programs, funding for midlife career education, universal portable benefits that allow for job switches and earlier retirement ages. But ever the conservative ideologue, Brooks eschews all that, instead channeling the old conservative trope that failing to change professional trajectory – or being demoralized by the work treadmill – is just a mental flaw in one’s personal outlook.

“Satisfaction comes not from chasing bigger and bigger things, but paying attention to smaller and smaller things,” he writes, in a call for a mass change of attitude.

What prevents necessary career shifts that might lead to happiness, Brooks asserts, is “self-objectification, workaholism, and most of all success addiction that chain us to our declining fluid intelligence curve.”

Arthur Brooks poses with his new book on 12 September 2023 in New York City.
Arthur Brooks poses with his new book on 12 September 2023 in New York City. Photograph: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP

“What do I want to do with my time this week to cultivate the relationships that will result in that end scenario?” Brooks says he asks himself in order to imagine an existence of stronger personal bonds. “I might make the decision to leave work on time, leave my work at the office, get home for dinner, and watch a movie after dinner with my family.”

In this dreamscape, most Americans get to choose when they work, and under what conditions. Nowhere in Brooks’ world of lanyards does he consider that Americans working ever-longer hours and ever-more jobs may have less to do with career ambition than with simply trying to earn enough to pay the ever-increasing bills – bills that fund the ballooning profits of the kind of donors who can pay Brooks’ upwards of $125,000 speaking fee or write six-figure checks to outfits like the AEI.

This same ideology carries into Build the Life You Want, where Brooks repeatedly hints at a deeper theme of overwork and soul-sucking labor, but avoids the obvious indicators and instead moves on to sell his brand of self-analysis – with little consideration of systemic problems.

Recapping researchers documenting how humans are usually good at categorizing their own positive associations, Brooks notes that “activities that were most negative and least positive were commuting and spending time with one’s boss”.

He caps this off with a joke: “Obviously, then, it’s definitely best not to commute with your boss.” It’s clear that people’s least favorite activities are related to working dreary, miserable jobs.

Does this prompt Brooks to apologize for leading the fight against proposals for government-sponsored healthcare that could end the employer-based system and free Americans to search for more fulfilling jobs without fear of losing access to medical services?

No, it’s the subject of a wisecrack and he moves on.

This isn’t to say the book is uninterested in “careers” – it very much is. It just doesn’t care much for jobs, or the masses who occupy work for work’s sake, to stave off starvation and homelessness – what novelist Ursula K Le Guin called kleggich, or “drudgery”, work that the vast majority of people do day in and day out for survival.

The target demographic for Brooks is the aggressively middle and upper class, so what matters is how “happy” the job makes them rather than whether the worker has carpal tunnel syndrome or is subject to sexual harassment, precarity and a host of problems that affect anyone who can’t afford the luxury of lifehacking their happiness as Brooks prescribes.

In its characteristically fawning profile of Brooks as “part social scientist, part self-help coach, part motivational speaker, and part spiritual guru”, Politico recently cast his journey as a departure from politics and ideology.

“Brooks has undergone one of the more unusual professional transformations that Washington has witnessed in recent decades,” the Beltway news outlet wrote. “His most recent transformation also represents a type of retreat – away from a conservative movement that once held him up as a model of its future.”

Brooks himself leans into this assertion, arguing that “I’m not a player in the conservative movement” and adding that his career in the conservative movement “is just not relevant – this stuff isn’t relevant anymore”.

But Brooks’ professional trek is less a “transformation” – and less shocking – if one considers that his happiness books are ideological manifestos shrouded in the veil of social science. His new literature is the kind of academia-flavored politics that has long been the central product – and sleight of hand – of the almost $70m thinktank that Brooks ran for a decade. (The AEI still lists Brooks as one of its scholars.)

From its origin, the AEI has depicted itself as a staid, nonpartisan, quasi-academic institution, even though it has always been a lobbying front for rightwing forces – a one-stop shop where corporate America can advance its ideological and political interests under the auspices of academic research and policy-shaping.

Though not mentioned in the AEI’s official history, President Harry Truman shut down the organization in 1949 because it was illegally operating as a lobbying front for the railroad industry. It falsely called itself an “educational association” while sharing a physical address with a rail lobby. Though the AEI’s donors remain anonymous to this day (a practice frowned upon in the non-profit world for obvious reasons), the donors that have been revealed through reporting include fossil fuel extractors, labor abusers, opioid pushers, dictators, weapons makers and big tech giants – all of which have an interest in shaping US political discourse, under the guise of seemingly nonpartisan empiricism.

The bulk of Build the Life You Want is harmless enough, synthesizing sociological and psychological theories and studies from the past 50 years or so, from personality sorting questionnaires to scientifically suspect, but persistently popular, reliance on brain activity research. But Brooks then weaponizes that research and scholarship to create ideological storylines.

The book stresses the importance of “earned success”, which is Brooks’ personal conservative spin on “learned helplessness” – a concept popularized in the 1970s by Martin Seligman, the so-called “father of positive psychology”.

“Earned success instead gives you a sense of accomplishment and professional efficacy,” Brooks writes. “The best way to enjoy earned success is to find ways to get better at your job, whether that leads to promotions and higher pay or not.”

Hard work for its own sake will make us happier is a storyline that couldn’t have been better articulated by AEI scholars, who insinuate that Americans’ big problem is their alleged lack of work ethic, not the rapaciousness of the thinktank’s donors.

Paraphrasing – or rather, misreading – Viktor Frankl, the author of the 1946 Holocaust memoir and social psychology text Man’s Search for Meaning, Brooks writes that “the common strategy of trying to eliminate suffering from life to get happier is futile and mistaken; we must instead look for the why of life to make pain an opportunity for growth.”

Later, building off Frankl’s works, Brooks repeats a major theme of the book: circumstances aren’t what matter, our response to them is.

“You can’t choose your feelings,” Brooks tells us. “But you can choose your reaction to your feelings. What [Frankl] was saying is … If someone you love gets sick, you will be afraid, but you can choose how you express this fear, and how it affects your life.”

But if a loved one is sick, the most significant way one can choose how it “affects your life” is if said loved one has quality, inexpensive healthcare – something Brooks spent more than 10 years working to make sure the poor can’t have. What would the average person rather have in the face of an earth-shattering family illness: a squishy life guideline to managing emotions or quality healthcare?

Obviously the latter, but for Brooks, only the former is on offer.

This “tough it out” ethos is consistent with Brooks’ decades of advocating the evisceration of programs designed to help the poor survive – all to extend “happiness” and prosperity to the masses.

“It is a simple fact that the United States is becoming an entitlement state,” he wrote in a 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed that depicted social security, welfare programs and disability benefits as “impoverishing the lives of the growing millions dependent on unearned resources”.

“The good news is that we have a golden opportunity to rein in entitlements,” he said, invoking Washington-speak for reducing social security benefits, which the AEI has proposed. “By reforming entitlements and the tax system instead of extracting more money with higher tax rates, the economy could be reoriented away from unearned transfers to earned wages. This would make the economy fairer and sounder. And in the process it could build a happier country for ourselves and our children.”

If it seems deeply cynical to use pop psychology and pop morality of “earning” money and creating “happiness” to argue for lowering taxes for the rich and cutting social programs for the poor, that’s because it is.

Brooks now insists he is no longer manufacturing such political opinion, but his old austerity activism shines through in his happiness literature.

The most explicit example is in his book From Strength to Strength. As part of a passage headlined “The benefits of weakness, pain, and loss”, Brooks cites Frankl to suggest that a world of hardship may actually be desirable, because people “could find the meaning of their lives, and personal growth, in all kinds of suffering”.

Perhaps this explains why Brooks’ new iteration as a happiness guru includes no mea culpa for his past career explicitly advocating for the austerity that sows so much desperation. If suffering is a catalyst for personal growth, then why should he offer contrition?

The mystery, then, isn’t why he is so unapologetic and still on this trajectory (answer: it is lucrative). The most vexing question is: why are so many liberals falling for this act?

This is a man who is deeply uninterested in – and, indeed, actively hostile to – creating the conditions that allow anyone who isn’t in his class status the capacity to be safe and secure, much less happy, and he is now one of the country’s most prominent gurus for finding “happiness”.

For the better part of a decade, Brooks hired and curated the careers of documented racists like Charles Murray, climate denialists like Mark Perry and ”replacement theory” advocates such as JD Vance. Now he’s doing a calm, professorial routine about how we all need to take a practical, science-driven path to being happier?

This should be a scandal, but Brooks frames it in the right Atlantic-ese, so most just nod along.

For a book about a life well lived, Build the Life You Want is remarkably short on objective discussions of ethics or virtue. All moral content exists entirely inside the head of the reader or the authors’ examples of happy people (what makes you feel inspired, what our subject found fulfilling), with zero discussion about what is objectively virtuous or what can be done as a community rather than as an individual – fitting for a career funded by ExxonMobil, the Koch brothers and heirs to the Walmart fortune.

Ultimately, this is where all of these class-flattening, middlebrow self-help discussions of happiness fall apart: they treat “happiness” as the center of the moral universe rather than virtue, which is to say, the politics of maximizing others’ happiness over one’s own in a systematic way, rather than as one-off instances of bourgeois charity.

But, of course, serial killers are “happy” murdering, Charles Koch is “happy” extracting profit from low-wage workers, and Saudi dictators are “happy” hosting cocaine-fueled yacht parties and buying soccer teams. So what? Being happy is not inherently good or bad. What matters is building systems of justice, welfare and safety that allow the maximum number of people to be secure and healthy.

If granting the average working person rights to a universal basic standard of living ends up creating more happiness, then all the better.

But without such foundational rights – rights Brooks has spent his career opposing – what is “happiness” if not an abstract privilege of those who can afford it?

  • Adam H Johnson is the co-host of the podcast Citations Needed and a writer for the Substack newsletter The Column

  • David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor-at-large at Jacobin and the founder of the Lever. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter

  • A version of this article first appeared in the Lever

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