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Dr. Brooks’ Prescription for Happiness is a Breath of FRESH AIR!

June 5, 2024

Among the individual rights found in the American Declaration of Independence is “the pursuit of happiness.”  This isn’t just a rhetorical flourish — it implies that happiness requires effort and that it can be elusive. But Dr. Arthur C. Brooks believes that it doesn’t have to be. Drawing on sources ranging from ancient wisdom to the latest scientific research, he provides insights that help people increase their own happiness. His class on happiness is the most popular course at Harvard University. He teaches millions more in his monthly column in The Atlantic. His latest book, written with commentary by Oprah Winfrey,  is a primer on the pursuit of happiness titled, “Build the Life You Want:  The Art and Science of Getting Happier.” 

This focus on happiness represents a major shift in Dr. Brooks’ scholarship. Prior to joining the faculty at Harvard, he had served for many years as president of the highly regarded American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that promotes economic freedom and entrepreneurial culture. But the shift to the study of happiness is not as big a leap as it might first appear. As the Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek has observed, there are different meanings of the word freedom. There is freedom from the coercive interference of others, but there is also a “subjective” freedom, sometimes called “inner” freedom, understood as the ability of people to act in accordance with their own highest values, without interference from their own negative emotions or impulses. The research indicates that this second type of freedom is critically important to our happiness, and Brooks devotes the first part of his book to it. As he puts it, “between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space to think and make decisions. In this space, you have freedom.” He goes on to say, “How our emotions affect us, and our reaction to them, can be our decision.” He then spends three chapters providing specific practical advice on cultivating positive emotions such as gratitude, hope, humor, and compassion.

The second part of the book is focused on “building what matters” — that is, identifying and creating the conditions that are most conducive to happiness. This is not just a question of doing what is pleasurable and avoiding what is painful. Building what matters is not easy and often involves real discomfort and personal sacrifice. Why is that? Because as he defines it, happiness is a mixture of three positive emotions: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. And you can’t experience these by prioritizing your own pleasure and comfort all the time. So where do you find them? The social science research suggests there are four major areas we should focus on. Brooks calls these the “pillars of happiness.” He devotes a chapter to each one, explaining why each comes with its own challenges and opportunities for increasing happiness. We don’t have to play a passive role in these particular areas of our life — take seriously the title of the book and “build the life you want.” You have the power to improve your family, friendships, work, and faith, and in each chapter, he provides specific practical advice on how to do so.

Much of what Brooks teaches in this section will resonate with those familiar with The Northwood Idea. As an example, with respect to our work, Dr. Orval Watts anticipated much of what Brooks has to say when he wrote that “the most distinctive feature of The Northwood Idea is that our graduates should look on business not merely as an easier way to attain ease and affluence, but also as an opportunity utilizing their highest human qualities and achieving lasting satisfaction in a life well spent.” Here is what Brooks has to say about our work: “Earned success gives you a sense of accomplishment and professional efficacy. The best way to enjoy earned success is to get better at your job…set excellence goals for yourself. A second, related intrinsic goal is service to others.” Dr. Watts would certainly approve. Similarly, when Brooks offers practical advice about “building a life,” he explicitly includes all the behaviors encouraged by our Northwood Code of Ethics. Each of our students learns the acronym “FRESH AIR,” which stands for freedom, responsibility, empathy, spirituality, honesty, achievement, integrity, and respect. However, Brooks would take issue with the word empathy in our list, which he says is “overrated.” Instead, he would substitute the word compassion, which combines recognizing another’s suffering with appropriate action to alleviate it.

Reading what Brooks says about these things reminds me that it is somewhat misleading to label our philosophy “The Northwood Idea” as something we created here. Our “idea” consists of a set of values and beliefs proven by long human experience to promote general prosperity and human flourishing. If we can claim any originality with respect to it, it is our insistence that exposure to these ideas should be an essential component of our curriculum. But we would be delighted if our colleagues at other educational institutions were to “steal” The Northwood Idea and make it more generally available. In the same spirit, we are quick to learn from any source that offers new insights into the meaning and application of our principles. In this respect, Dr. Arthur C. Brooks has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of The Northwood Idea.

Editor’s note: Dr. Arthur C. Brooks is the keynote of the 2024 President’s Freedom Celebration on June 6, 2024, at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. This essay is featured in the Summer Edition of When Free to Choose, Northwood University’s signature publication dedicated to promoting free enterprise. Click here to receive When Free to Choose in your inbox!

About the author

Dr. Dale Matcheck chairs the Economics Department at Northwood University, where he also serves as the David E. Fry Endowed Professor in Free Market Economics. A graduate of Cornell University, Matcheck also has spearheaded Northwood University’s efforts to the Philosophy of Free Enterprise, a free online course for members of the public to learn about the importance of business in society, the ethical foundations of the capitalist system, the meaning of free enterprise and the ways it benefits us, limited government and the rule of law, and the differences between capitalism and other economic systems.

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