I heard Arthur C. Brooks speak today. He’s the smartest French horn player I’ve ever met. I didn’t expect him to know so much about happiness, but it turns out that Arthur knows a lot about a lot of stuff.
Arthur is a best-selling author who has published over 100 articles and 10 books, including Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It. He describes himself as a scholar in the areas of free enterprise and human flourishing. In other words, he’s devoted his life to studying money and happiness.
Arthur is also the president of the American Enterprise Institute, an independent, non-profit, Washington DC-based think tank that employs 185 intellectuals who work to preserve the cause of freedom. In other words, it’s Arthur’s job to be smart. This might be the real-world alternative to being a superhero.
At 19, Arthur dropped out of college to tour professionally as a classical musician. He spent several years as the associate principal French horn with the City Orchestra of Barcelona. In his late twenties, after getting a close-up look at the unhappy lives of many of his fellow career musicians, he knew that he didn’t want to end up like them— playing the same music over and over, maybe drinking a little too much, and with a marriage that didn’t work.
So he decided to return to college to study economics, mathematics and languages, and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and a PhD in public policy. He reached a point in his career where he decided to apply his skills as a researcher and an analyst to the subject of happiness.
Although Arthur shared many insights, one that resonated with me was his caution against looking too much to the attainment of goals— acquisition or accomplishment— as a source of enduring happiness.
He says, “I’m not saying don’t pay attention to your goals. I’m saying, don’t act as if they are the be-all, end-all to your happiness. Number one, they’re not going to have the effect you think [of making you happy], and number two, they don’t last.” In other words, after we achieve one goal, we’re going to find another one we want to achieve. And then another…
As humans, it seems, we are hardwired to always view the grass as being greener on the other side of the fence. Once we get that— once we truly understand that there’s no “there” that’s preferable to “here”— we can go to work learning how to simply be. And that’s where some of our life’s hardest— and most important— work begins.