David Brooks mentioned a study of hospital custodial workers where some defined their job as, say, cleaning the floor, while others described it as creating a safe environment for patients. “If your attitude is about that service, you just have a happier job and a more meaningful job,” Brooks said.
He compared a career to a marriage: “Nobody would enter a marriage with a utilitarian mindset: ‘Does this pass a cost-benefit analysis test? Am I getting more out of it than I’m putting in?’ … And in my view you shouldn’t enter a career that way either. You should enter a career with the question, ‘Who can I serve? What am I pouring my love into? Am I all in?’”
Still, Brooks cautioned that dwelling on serving others has its drawbacks. He cited the English author Dorothy Sayers, who argued that when you try to serve a community, you can become fixated on whether the community sufficiently appreciates your efforts. Sayers said the best way to truly help a community is to seek to do your job well—to primarily serve the work itself.
Ask why you do what you do
When people first meet in places like Washington, D.C., Arthur Brooks noted, they often ask, “What do you do?” But rarely do you hear, “Why do you do it?” And that second question is important to consider.
Brooks mentioned Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument in Summa Theologica that unhappy people are often chasing money, power, pleasure, and fame. “Look, we all want those things,” Brooks said. “There is evolutionary biology that asks why do people want money, power, pleasure, and fame. And it’s almost certainly that it’s easier to pass on your genetic material if you have a lot of money and power, and you’re searching for pleasure and you’re famous. … But what we find from Thomas Aquinas, [and] also from the social-psychology literature, is that Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy. Pushing you to pass on your genetic material is not coincident with you leading a happy life and doing it through vocation in your work. Which means that the genetic prerogatives are different than what we should be pursuing. So I think the diagnostic tool is: Why am I doing this thing? We all want money. But is it primarily for money? Is it primarily for power? Is it primarily for fame?”
David Brooks recommended asking what you would do if you weren’t afraid. “I find fear is a super-good GPS director of where you want to go even if there are social obstacles in the way,” he said. You should also ask what types of pain you’re willing to endure, he added: “Every profession involves a certain sort of pain.”
Be conscious of life stages
Arthur Brooks said that in the course of his work at the American Enterprise Institute, he’s noticed that differences in the “cadence of careers” have consequences for people’s happiness.
“Those who do the best, who end up really quite happy, they spend their 20s and 30s making their big discoveries,” he said. “That’s when their flashes of insight happen. … In their 40s and 50s, people in intellectual industries in particular, they tend to do their best expositional work. They do their best writing. ... They don’t have that many new ideas. But they’re really good at getting those ideas [that they had in their 20s and 30s] across. And people in their 60s and 70s … they do their best work when they see their work as teaching, when they see their work as actually imparting what they know to the next generation of people. And what they’re really doing is discharging their batteries and charging up other people. When you talk to them, they almost talk about making themselves irrelevant.”