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Arthur Brooks Reveals the Secrets to Being Happy

We bet you’ll agree these are keys to a better and more purposeful life

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Photo Illustration: Paul Spella

America is suffering from a happiness crisis. But we can turn things around.

According to Arthur C. Brooks, a Harvard social scientist and author of the bestselling book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, “Happiness is a core part of the American dream.” And he thinks it can be studied — and mastered — just like any other skill.

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Instead of chasing money, power, pleasure and fame, Brooks, 58, says happiness starts with what he calls the four pillars: faith, family, friends and work. He says that if you go back to the beginning of our national decline in happiness, in the late 1980s, you’ll see that these pillars have generally become less prominent in most people’s lives — and that that’s why so many are unhappy. (A recent University of Chicago survey going back to 1972 marked the first time more respondents reported being “not too happy” rather than “very happy.”)

Brooks, who began an Atlantic column on life and happiness in 2020 after 10 years as president of the American Enterprise Institute, describes faith, family, friends and work as “outward-facing expressions of love and solidarity with others.”

Here’s more on the pillars:


Happy people have a philosophical practice — and it doesn’t have to be religious — that removes them from the purely material. Whether it’s a church service, a transcendental walk, a meditation ritual or contemplative books, Brooks says you need something that will transport you out of your day-to-day experience. “Faith is what gives us a purpose in life,” he says. A Catholic, Brooks attends daily Mass whenever he can. When he can’t, he makes a practice of praying for at least 30 minutes.


Happy people have deep connections with family members, and they don’t allow anything to get in the way of that, Brooks says. If you’ve had differences, he says, put aside your pride or you may forgo emotionally meaningful relationships that go beyond the convenience of casual interactions.


Happy people have someone they can call at 2 a.m. for help. Brooks says the number of friends is much less important than the intensity of friendships.


Happy people believe that their hard work is being rewarded and that it is truly helping others, Brooks says.

If you tend to these four pillars daily, he contends, you’ll achieve happiness.

Admittedly, there’s only so much we can control. Brooks says 50 percent of your happiness is genetics. He confesses to not being a naturally happy person, having been raised by parents with gloomy dispositions and a family history riddled with mental health issues, including depression. Circumstances are responsible for another 25 percent, and the rest is determined by your habits and priorities. So, how does one start down the road to happiness?


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Develop daily rituals

First and foremost, Brooks says, stop wishing for happiness; make it happen. Develop daily practices related to faith, family, friendship and work that will uncover meaning in life. “We need to celebrate them openly and recommend them to others. Preach what we practice,” Brooks advises. Our brains respond positively to being physically fit, staying connected with others and finding meaning in what we do.

Learn to use your free time

Start simply, he says: Take a walk without your phone, concentrating on your own thoughts. Meet a colleague for coffee. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to for a while and chat without an inner timer. Write a note of gratitude to someone you admire. Volunteer. Watching TV is passive, whereas taking a bike ride, joining a pickleball group or giving back to your community boosts your mood. We’re all busy; the trick is to find a balance. Create and write down routines for free time.

Want less rather than more

We’re taught to want more, when wanting less actually makes us happier, Brooks says. Giving every kid a trophy in sports is a Western idea. It’s the opposite in Eastern philosophies, which urges a reduction of possessions to find out who we really are. Instead of feeling envious of others, make your own life more satisfying.

And we need to shy away from making bucket lists filled with wants, he says. Why? Because when you get what you want, it’s a good feeling — but only for a while. Then you need and want something else. Brooks says he creates what he calls a reverse bucket list through which you list the things in your life that are not serving you well. It’s all about making room in your life for the things that create true feelings of happiness.

“Happiness is love. Full stop,” he says. “Love for the divine, love for your family, love for your friends, love through people through work. That’s the secret to happiness.”

Share Your Experience: Which pillar of happiness gives you the most satisfaction? Let us know in the comments below.

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