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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Arthur C. Brooks

America Is Pursuing Happiness in All the Wrong Places

Nathan Howard / Getty

Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from Arthur Brooks’s remarks at the Irving Kristol Award & Annual Dinner, hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, on November 15, 2022.

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

Three and a half years ago, I made a hard career pivot. After more than 10 years as president of the American Enterprise Institute—a Washington, D.C.–based public-policy think tank dedicated to expanding free enterprise and American global leadership—I left to teach classes on happiness at Harvard and write about happiness for The Atlantic. When I tell this to my old friends in Washington, they sometimes react as if I’ve said I ran off and joined the circus. It all seems completely disconnected from my old career.

It isn’t disconnected, however. Happiness is a core part of the American dream. As the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reminds us, the pursuit of happiness is one of our unalienable rights, alongside life and liberty. Asked later why he included it, Thomas Jefferson said it was simply “an expression of the American mind.”

How radical—and how peculiarly American. At the time, happiness would have been considered presumptuous for anyone to pursue, let alone the nobodies populating this start-up nation. But that is who our ancestors were—ambitious riffraff living start-up lives, pursuing their happiness as they saw fit.

And still today, the pursuit of happiness is what leaders must promote and protect. Their job is not to make us happy—no government can or should try to do that—but to protect our ability to pursue our happiness freely.

Unfortunately, that pursuit is getting harder. According to the General Social Survey, since the year 2000, the percentage of Americans saying they are “not too happy” has risen from 10 percent to 24 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage saying they are “very happy” has fallen from 34 percent to 19 percent. This is reflected in Americans’ pessimism about our country. A record number says the country is headed in the wrong direction. Since 2000, national confidence in our institutions—whether business or government—has fallen by 34 percent.

You don’t need these data, though, to know there is a problem. It’s in the air. Practically everyone I meet will say they have a feeling that we are losing something as a country—something beautiful, unique, and valuable. No matter how one feels about politics or the election last week, very few can shake this feeling.

On the first day of class, I ask my students at Harvard Business School a simple question: What is happiness? The students’ answers always have the word feeling in them. “It’s the feeling of being with people I love,” for example. “Wrong,” I answer. “That’s like saying your Thanksgiving dinner is the smell of the turkey.” Happiness is not a feeling; rather, feelings are evidence of happiness.

As a social scientist, I believe that happiness should be understood as a combination of three phenomena: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Enjoyment is pleasure consciously and purposefully experienced, so it can create a positive memory. Satisfaction is the joy of an achievement, the reward for a job well done.

And then, there’s meaning. You can make do without enjoyment for a while, and even without a lot of satisfaction. But without meaning, you will be utterly lost. That is the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s argument in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. Without a sense of meaning—a sense of the why of our existence–our lives cannot be endured.

Here is a quick diagnostic tool I sometimes use to find out if someone has a good sense of their life’s meaning. I ask them two questions:

  1. Why do you exist?
  2. For what would you be willing to die?

There is no greater joy than seeing someone you love find their answers. I remember this in the case of my son Carlos. He struggled in high school, like so many adolescents, to find a sense of his life’s meaning. After high school, he joined the military. Today, at 22, he is Corporal Carlos Brooks, Scout Sniper, Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, Weapons Company.

Ask him the two questions today, and he now has answers:

Why do you exist? God created me.

For what would you be willing to die? For my faith, for my family and friends, and for America.

But I have to ask him: What is America? The American people, and people with the spirit of American freedom in their heart.

My research over many years has led me to identify four “institutions of meaning”: faith, family, friendship, and work. Social-psychology research shows that these institutions are indeed central to understanding who we are as people and, thus, how to answer the questions above. That is certainly true for me. My sense of meaning comes from my Catholic faith, my family, my beloved friends, and my work to lift people up and bring them together.

I believe the happiness crisis in America is at its core a crisis of our personal and shared sense of meaning. The institutions of meaning have all weakened dramatically in the past two decades:

  • Religious affiliation and practice have been steadily falling. About 30 percent of U.S. adults now say they are unaffiliated.
  • Marriage rates have fallen by 38 percent since 2000. Childbearing has fallen by 18 percent since 1990.
  • The percentage of people with fewer than three close friends has nearly doubled since 1990.
  • The workforce-participation rate has steadily declined. According to the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, for example, the percentage of men ages 25 to 54 not in the workforce more than tripled from 1965 to 2015. COVID-19 accelerated this trend.

Faith, family, friendship, and work—the institutions of meaning—all have one thing in common. They are all outward-facing expressions of love and solidarity with others. Of course, love can be an awkward topic—for some, practically painful. But we have to talk about love today, because when we lose the institutions that reinforce our love for one another, a vacuum of meaning opens in our lives.

Happiness abhors a vacuum, so we seek alternative sources of meaning, and that leaves us vulnerable to moral predators—people who offer us fear and hatred instead of love. They exploit our lack of love to divide us for political, financial, and personal gain. Some politicians, pundits, academics, or simple internet trolls would set us against one another, telling us that we are victims of our fellow Americans—even our friends and family–who don’t share our demographics or political beliefs.

These predators have invaded the space people once reserved for faith, family, and friendship, and given us instead the zombie religion of grievance and the counterfeit family of shared victimhood. They urge us to think in terms of us versus them—and to see us as victims of them, be they immigrants, wealthy people, Democrats, Republicans, or people of another race.

This is ripping our country apart: 63 percent of Democrats today say Republicans—that means Republican citizens, not politicians—are more immoral than other Americans; 72 percent of Republicans say this about Democrats. According to one survey, 61 percent of Americans are concerned that we could face another civil war.

Leaders who promote grievance do not have our interests at heart. On the contrary, researchers have found that people who display “dark triad” personality characteristics—narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—tend to engage in so-called virtuous victimhood. These are people we should pity—or perhaps fear—but certainly not follow. These are not the people we want setting policy or educating our kids.

How long can this go on? The words of the historian Will Durant on why Rome fell ring in my ears these days: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”

It’s easy to be discouraged when you look around at the terrible polarization and the suffering it is bringing, and the resulting degradation of our sense of national purpose. I don’t blame anyone who concludes that we might never bring America back together again as a people.

But my goal is not just to tell you our troubles. It is to suggest solutions. Let me propose three that we all can undertake.

First, share your secrets of meaning. When I explained the importance of faith, family, friendship, and work, perhaps you said to yourself, I practice those things! That’s great. But it’s not enough to practice these things in our own lives—we need to celebrate them openly and recommend them to others. We all need to preach what we practice. To keep quiet about your sources of meaning because you are worried about looking judgmental is an act of selfishness.

Second, go out of your way to reject identity politics, and tell our shared story as Americans instead. If we want to find our way back as a nation, we must repudiate the poison of grievance and victimization and work instead to reestablish a healthy sense of meaning by constructing a narrative for our country that includes all of us.

Please don’t dismiss this as impossibly idealistic. On the contrary, some of our most successful presidents, from Washington to Lincoln to Franklin D. Roosevelt, did exactly this in times of crisis and trouble—they told a shared story to unite Americans against a common threat rather than balkanizing our people against one another.

For an example from within my lifetime, take Ronald Reagan. Here are his words upon acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination in 1980: “I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the Earth who came here in search of freedom.” (And he added, by the way, “Make America great again!”)

In 2022, Reagan’s elegy to immigrants sounds strange coming from a conservative, doesn’t it? As Reagan knew, the best way to maintain a shared story is to welcome people who want (and work) to be part of it. As an American conservative myself, I strongly support that old-fashioned view, and am deeply grateful to immigrants to this country for believing in the American dream for themselves and their children, thus reminding us that America is still great.

The third solution is the most urgent of all: It is to love your country, no matter who you are, no matter how you got here.

In 1796, in his farewell address, George Washington said, "Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.”

But let me ask: What is my country? Is it the soil, the ethnic ancestry, or the money? No. It’s our people. You and I are America. And so are the people who don’t agree with me, look like me, think like me, or vote like me. To love our country means we must be good to one another, even when we disagree. No, especially when we disagree. Anything less is un-American.

Let me emphasize a little more the importance of not agreeing with one another. This is a country based on competition: democracy, capitalism, and the competition of ideas. We must disagree. But I will not treat those with whom I disagree with contempt, because that is to say I have contempt for my country.

That would also mean having contempt for some of the people I love best. How many of you love someone with whom you strongly disagree on politics? Me too. When my fellow conservatives trash people on the left, they are trashing my family and many of my friends. People I love. My parents were liberal Democrats. I was the only bona fide conservative in the family. (My mother once confronted me when it was becoming apparent that I, as a young man, was developing an interest in free markets. “Be honest with me,” she said. “Have you been voting for Republicans?”)

We all love people who disagree with us but who share our American story. It’s time to start acting that way.

Easier said than done. We are in something of a stalemate, ideologically. How can I be nice when they are being so awful?

Let me suggest that the ones to make the first move should be the party trying to retake the White House in a couple of years—the Republican Party that I, for many years, have voted for.

The way to win the heart of Americans is not to double down on contempt and pugilism but rather to become the party of ordinary people, with ordinary people as leaders who promote greater unity and happiness. Not only is that the right thing to do, it’s a practical way to get votes: 93 percent of Americans say they hate how divided we have become. But without leaders who do as well … they can only sigh and pull the lever for the lesser of two evils.

If politicians on either side were to reject divisiveness, they could seize on a real opportunity to go from a 51–49 political ping-pong match to governing with a big majority. Why shouldn’t that be the Republicans?

Leaders can start by offering all Americans these two answers to the meaning questions I outlined above, but for our nation and shared story.

Why does America exist? To lift up the world. Both indirectly through the example of its unapologetic enjoyment of freedom and prosperity, and directly through its generosity to others and courage in times of trouble.

For what are we willing to risk our prosperity and security? For our way of life. For our democracy, for our system of free enterprise that has pulled so many of our brothers and sisters around the world out of poverty, for our commitment to religious freedom. Our willingness to fight for these things benefits us but also benefits the world by providing a model that others can and have followed.

Then, all of us, voters and politicians alike, should make these four joyful commitments:

  1. Renounce all rhetoric of contempt and hate for fellow Americans.
  2. Leave behind leaders who keep us mired in this swamp of grievance and victimization.
  3. Make a commitment to reject all political violence, without fear or favor.
  4. Search for stable, mainstream policy solutions that a majority can live with, while disregarding the approval of radicals and activists.

The hardest part of what I’m suggesting is that it requires standing up to one’s own side—and calling very powerful people to account. Nobody wants to do this, because it’s scary. We evolved to avoid offending our friends. Half a million years ago, offending a friend would have meant getting kicked out of your tribe, wandering the frozen tundra, and dying alone.

But look around: There’s no tundra—just Twitter.

Standing up to the powerful isn’t physical courage; it’s moral courage. We often hear from the leaders of the grievance coalition that it is morally courageous to stand up to your enemies. What nonsense. As my father taught me, true moral courage is standing up to your friends, on behalf of the people with whom you disagree. Are we strong enough to do that?

Goodness isn’t for weak people. It’s not easy or soft. It is difficult, and as hard as granite. It requires leaders who are as strong as Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan.

Here’s my last word on the matter.

As a kid, I was crazy about fishing. No one in my family fished—I just took it up on my own, fishing in lakes around Seattle, where I grew up, or in Puget Sound. At about age 11, I tried fishing in the ocean for the first time, on the Oregon Coast in a place called Lincoln City. I remember the day perfectly. I was standing on the rocks, casting into the wild surf—but catching nothing. I was there for hours.

Finally, a wizened old fisherman came up to me holding his own pole, and asked, “Hey kid, I’ve been watching you. Are you catching anything?”

“Nothing,” I replied, “not even any bites.”

“That’s because you’re doing it wrong,” he said. “You have to wait for the falling tide.”

The falling tide is when the tide is going out fastest—really rushing out between the rocks. It didn’t make sense to me that I would catch fish then. Wouldn’t they all be going out to sea? He explained that this was when the plankton and bait fish were all stirred up, so the game fish would bite everything.

He said it was going to happen in about a half hour. So we waited together. Finally, he looked at his watch and said, “Let’s fish!” We cast out and within seconds started pulling in fish, one after another. We did that for about a half hour.

Afterward, sitting on the rocks, the old man started waxing philosophical. He lit up a cigarette and said, “You know, kid, there’s only one mistake you can make during a falling tide.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Not having your line in the water.”

America is experiencing a falling tide. It can look and feel like we are losing our happiness and purpose. But that just means there is an opportunity to build something new and great. We can do that. But we have to get our lines in the water now.

I love this country. I know you do too. So: Let’s fish.

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