Two Stories, Two Models for Happiness

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In this week's New Yorker, David Brooks ditches his familiar 800-word prose for a 5,000+ word dissertation. Armed with a library of surveys, biological studies and findings from evolutionary psychologists, he charts the modern man's pursuit of happiness. Brooks primarily focuses on a group of people he calls the "Composure Class" or men who attain wealth in meritocratic fields such as medicine, law and business. These people have terrific career skills and have been groomed for success, "but when it comes to their most important decisions," Brooks observes, "whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own."

So how do they find happiness? For Brooks, it all boils down to this: Are you George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life or are you Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac's On the Road? The difference means everything:

There’s a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy, which is summarized by, on the one hand, the book “On the Road” and, on the other, the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The former celebrates the life of freedom and adventure. The latter celebrates roots and connections. Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends. Many of the professions that correlate most closely with happiness are also social—a corporate manager, a hairdresser.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.