Does Arthur Brooks Have the Secret to Happiness?

Ester says that the desire to constantly work is something Brooks has always had to repress. “He doesn’t really like going on vacation, because there’s nothing to do on vacation,” she says. She recalls a camping trip they took in the Pyrenees in the ’80s, just after they started dating. Brooks brought his French horn so he could practice daily. Ester opted to leave her trumpet behind. “Normal people, like me, it’s possible for me to stop thinking about work or about ideas and just be on the beach and look at the beach,” she says. “But for him, it’s hard.”

At the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks worked 85-hour weeks. Now, he’s still doing 75 or 80, spending five days a week on the road. When I ask what he does for fun, he says that his version of fun is exactly this—more work. “It’s like, ‘My name is Arthur and I’m a success addict,’” he tells me. “Everybody’s got their own particular issues. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I don’t run around on my wife. I don’t do anything—but this is what I’ve got.”

Brooks thinks this is a problem that most ambitious, conventionally successful people struggle with. They can’t ever be satisfied. And you can’t find truly successful people who are just “normal,” he says. “You’re not going to write an article on me that’s like, Brooks is the most normal guy I’ve ever met. You’ve got to do the work.”

But it takes so much work, I say.

“Yeah,” he says, “I work my ass off because I’m naturally miserable.”

It seems like the conditions that make you want to strive for happiness are the conditions that are making you unhappy.

“That’s the paradox,” he says. “That’s the riddle.”

And this, of course, is one of the things that’s so frustrating about happiness. It’s like chasing the horizon.

“The danger is believing that the mirage is actually an oasis,” says Brooks. “When your pursuit of happiness presupposes a destination of happiness, that’s a fake palm tree and a fake pool of water, and you’re in a desert. You’re not going to find it.”

As we continue flying south, I reflect that this might be where much of the discourse around happiness falls short. Maybe it’s the pursuit part that’s all wrong. Like chasing a butterfly, if you run after happiness, it’ll evade you. But pay it no mind, get on living your life, and you might look down and find that happiness has fluttered down and landed on you, even if just for a moment.

In this sense, I find Brooks’s advice compelling, if a bit idealistic. Speaking personally, it’s true that I’m happier when I can control my emotions, or at least stop myself from eating the entire can of Pringles. I don’t pray, but I’ve meditated regularly for seven years, and have found nothing else that’s so effectively decreased my anxiety and improved my well-being. I’ve been buoyed during mental health struggles by loved ones, and by having a job that’s meaningful to me. Faith, family, friends, work—these are all effective ways of fostering moments of happiness. But they’re only really available to those who have privileges like health, financial security, and highly autonomous work. A lot of our society’s unhappiness can be attributed to systemic and institutional disadvantages. And even for those with advantages, happiness remains elusive in the modern world. I’m reminded of a line by the naturalist writer Barry Lopez: “There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

Brooks, for his part, leans into the light by bringing other people happiness, and hopes that he might see some boomerang back around to himself. “I study happiness because it’s what I want,” he says. “I can help other people, in many ways, more than I can help myself.”

About an hour after taking off, we land in Los Angeles. As we get ready to deplane, Brooks notices some brown prayer beads on the pilot’s wrist. “Are you Buddhist?” he asks.

Kind of, Scott says, explaining that he’s done a bunch of meditation retreats up at Spirit Rock, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. “It’s good,” he says, of the retreats, before reconsidering if that’s really the right way to put it. “It’s work.”

“For sure—absolutely,” replies Brooks. “It’s not recreation,” he adds as he jauntily steps off the plane, heading back to the never-ending job of making the world a happier place.