Arthur Brooks’ life mission is sharing with the world what he’s learned about happiness. In fact, it’s what the Harvard professor is paid to do. “The secret to happiness,” he said, “is actually teaching happiness. That’s the reason I do it.”
To his great surprise, his lessons reached far beyond the classroom to include one star student. “During the pandemic, I was in search of fuel to keep myself inspired, to keep myself open to possibility, to keep myself hopeful,” said Oprah Winfrey. “I started reading his column in The Atlantic, and then looking more and more forward to that column on how to build a life.”
So, that’s when Winfrey decided to personally reach out to Brooks.
O’Donnell asked him, “The first time you picked up the phone and you hear a voice on the other line say, ‘This is Oprah,’ what did you think?”
“Well, I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m Batman,'” he laughed.
But it was Oprah, and she invited him over for dinner. “And I’m thinking, ‘What happened to my life?’ You know, I’m just a college professor who fell off the turnip truck in front of Oprah Winfrey’s tea house.”
Winfrey said, “He is the perfect person to have for dinner, because you just probe his brain about all the things you’ve ever wanted to ask about your own emotions and searching for happiness and well-being and all of that. I am the kind of person, as you know, that believes life is better when you share it, whether that’s bread or information.”
To share that information, they hatched a plan to co-author a book. “It’s not the worst thing that can happen to you in your life as an author, that’s for sure!” Brooks laughed.
The book, “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier” (published Tuesday by Portfolio) bills itself as a guide to getting happier. And the formula is not what you might think.
For example, is money necessary for happiness? “No,” said Brooks.
Fame? “No, no, double no.”
Good looks? “Nope. None of them.”
O’Donnell asked, “But if you are an alien and landed on Earth and specifically in America, and looked at social media, you would think that the way to happiness is money, fame, power, and good looks?”
“Yeah, social media is this laboratory for the earthly goals that actually make you miserable,” Brooks replied.
Winfrey said, “Everybody is looking at other people’s social media, what they believe to be other people’s lives, which is only a snapshot of other people’s lives, and feeling envy about that. And one of the things that Arthur and I talk about in this book is that envy is the great destroyer. It is the happiness killer.”
Winfrey said she had a front row seat to people’s quest for happiness after 25 years on TV interviewing more than 37,000 people: “Every day, I would sit and talk with the audience. And most people, they would always just say, ‘Well, I just want to be happy. I just want to be happy.’ Well, what does that look like? Define it. What I realized is that most people have never defined it. And then, they’d say, ‘Well, I want my kids to be happy.’ Well, that’s your kids, but what do you want? And so, being able to answer specifically what that looks like, for you, is the beginning of being happier.”
According to Brooks, “All happiness is a combination of enjoyment, satisfaction and meaning. That’s what we need. We need to enjoy our lives, which not the same thing as pleasure. You know, the pursuit of pleasure will lead you to addiction and misery. Enjoyment, as in people and memories, which is the reason that beer ads never have a guy alone pounding a 12-pack in his apartment, but rather they have him with friends, ’cause they want it to be the source of enjoyment.
“Satisfaction is the joy that we get after a struggle, ’cause humans are made to struggle and to achieve. And meaning’s the hardest one. Meaning is the sense of coherence – you know, things happen for a reason. Direction and purpose. There’s a reason for the things that are happening in my life, and there’s a reason for my life.”
When asked what makes her happy in daily life, Winfrey replied, “So, so, so, so, so, so many things. Nature makes me joyous, and so much happier.” And then there is bread: “Olive, fresh-baked is always my favorite.”
As for Arthur’s happy place, it’s the gym in his basement, where you’ll find him every day at 5 a.m. Coffee rounds out the morning ritual.
O’Donnell asked, “How much is habit important in happiness?”
“It’s important to actually have a routine for what you’re trying to do, to set your day up in the right way,” he said. “Structuring your day is critically important.”
Another thing that’s important: Accepting un-happiness as part of life. “The truth is, all of us have suffering in our lives,” said Brooks. “The job is not to eradicate the suffering; it is to grow and learn from the suffering, because it is part of our life’s journey. That is part of what it means to be fully alive. You can’t be happy unless you’re also unhappy.”
Winfrey added, “You cannot control all of the external circumstances in your life, but you can control how you feel about those circumstances. It boils down to a thing that I do when I go to teach in South Africa to my girls. I always teach a class called Life 101. And at the end of that class, I leave them with the poem ‘Invictus.’ The last lines are, ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’ And so, taking control of your emotions and not allowing your emotions to control you, taking the wheel, allows you to be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.”
Winfrey and Brooks have charted a course for happiness – and what seems to make them happiest is teaching others all about it.
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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Carol Ross.