Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

An Equation for Happiness

What we can learn from the happy guy on the little dirt road less taken.

(Rob Ellis / Flickr)

“Think of someone in your life who’s happy all the time. You know the person; you’ve got it in your head. [Pause.] It’s very annoying.” So begins Arthur Brooks’s Aspen talk, with the kind of conspiratorial irreverence that would mark the next hour. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. But that isn’t the capacity in which he’s speaking. (“I didn’t start off when I was a 6-year-old boy saying when I grow up I want to run a right-wing think thank.”)

Rather, Brooks is at the Aspen Ideas Festival to speak as the 19-year-old son of a professor who dropped out of college to join the Barcelona orchestra, and who, a decade later, dropped out of the orchestra to become a professor. He’s speaking about happiness, in an hour-long elaboration -- and counterpoint of sorts -- to his column on unhappiness that will appear in The New York Times in two weeks.

More specifically, Brooks is here to speak about a “structural equation” for happiness. And since there’s an equation involved, Brooks has brought his fair share of numbers: every year, one third of Americans report that they’re very happy about their lives; one half of Americans are somewhat happy. The biggest single reason for unhappiness is loneliness, women are largely happier than men, and the loneliest -- and unhappiest -- men in our society are age 60.

But when it comes to happiness, ‘who’ is the superficial question. The more meaningful query is ‘why?’

And here Brooks lays out his most important data points:

Forty-eight percent of a person’s happiness, of their daily moods, is genetic (“I told my wife that and she said, ‘See, it’s true -- your mother did make you unhappy.”). Forty percent of a person’s happiness is determined by circumstance, but “good and nutritious and life-fulfilling goals aren’t the key to happiness [because] we’re very adaptable. We always go back to the moods.”

100 - (48 + 40) = 12 percent of an individual’s happiness is completely within his or her control.

Most people don’t know what to do with this twelve percent, says Brooks. Especially men who are 45-years-old, which he cites as the unhappiest age in a man’s life -- almost a quarter of all 45-year-old men, he says, are really struggling. Why? According to the former french horn player in the Barcelona orchestra, most men in their twenties and thirties have simple goals of gradient: to be more successful, to make more money, to “hit the gas on your career.”

But then these men come to a realization: this “super highway, I don’t want to be on it. I want to be on that little dirt road over there. There’s a guy on it on a motorcycle, no helmet. Huh! I want to be that guy. He’s doing it his way. He chose that road.”

Spoiler alert: Brooks identifies himself as the motorcycle maverick on the bumpy road less taken. His nontraditional background gives him claim to that, and along the way to his current role, as the president of a Washington think tank and scholar of free enterprise, he has identified the four things that allow individuals to maximize on their 12 percent. (The ‘why’ is more important than the ‘who,’ but the ‘how’ is the essential).

Happiness’s Four Pillars, acc. to Brooks

  1. Spiritual Enlightenment

  2. Family

  3. Friendships

  4. Work

Faith and family Brooks finds to be self-explanatory. Friendships, he says, are the love in your life that give it meaning. Brooks says 60-year-old men are among the unhappiest group in our society primarily because they have lost their knack for making friends. Brooks says work’s ability to fulfill people through “earned success” is what makes it a pillar for happiness: in this context, work is about creating value in your life and value in the lives of others, despite the nature of the work or its associated salary.

Harkening back to his own background, Brooks boils these four ingredients of happiness down to a quotation from his favorite composer that has stuck with him for years -- a composer, he notes, who had a wife and 20 kids, and died a relative unknown at the age of 61. When Johann Sebastian Bach was asked why he spent his life composing music, he replied, “I write music for the glory of God and the good of man.”