Why Washington’s Elites Are So Miserable

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Washingtonians know how success is measured. Walk into their offices, and you’ll see its artifacts hanging on their walls: photographs of handshakes with senators, gifts from prominent constituents or lobbying clients, and framed newspaper clippings with their names in them.

That used to be Arthur Brooks, the longtime head of the American Enterprise Institute. In 2019, he left his role at the top of the center-right think tank to study happiness at Harvard. And his research suggests why the traditional formula for success in Washington is leaving the city’s high achievers unhappy and unfulfilled.

According to Brooks, who recently co-authored Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier with Oprah Winfrey, the relationship between success and happiness is exactly the opposite of what many are trained to expect.

“The success that you’re impelled toward will not actually bring you greater happiness,” he told Ryan Lizza on a new episode of the Playbook Deep Dive podcast. “If you’re coming to Washington, D.C., as a super-striver and you’re trying to depend for your human flourishing on the quality of your connections and the depth of your Rolodex, you’re going to be a very lonely person.”

Fortunately, Brooks argues, it’s possible to achieve both happiness and success, even in a culture as competitive and cut-throat as Washington.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

So, Arthur, let’s start with something you’ve written about before. What was the revelation you had when you turned 40?

I wrote my bucket list when I was 40 and I found it when I was 50, and I’d hit everything on that list. And I was less happy. And I thought to myself, “Well, that’s not what I expected.”

Now, I know as a social scientist that your heart’s desire is going to come to you. The problem is that you usually find that your heart’s desire was the wrong desire.

So what was the shift in thinking? 

There was nothing wrong with what was on my 40-year-old bucket list. The problem was that I was attached to those accomplishments, and I didn’t recognize that until I was 50. But I was hanging my well-being on the accomplishment of worldly tasks, and that’s inherently empty.

So in the meantime, I started doing research on exactly the problem with that, and I found this negative result. I did all the things that were supposed to make me happy: get successful, be happy. And I found that I had gotten at least my own metrics of success and hadn’t gotten happier. On the contrary, I recognized that I needed a different approach and started to do the work and found that actually I needed to stand up to Mother Nature’s imperatives. Mother Nature says money, power, pleasure and fame are going to make you happy, at least in some measure.

Those are the measures of kind of a good life in earthly terms. And the problem with that — there’s nothing wrong with those things per se — the problem is when you assume that you’ll be happy when you get those things, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. And so the result is, I recognized that the problem was not attaining the things on my 40-year-old bucket list; it was being attached to those things on my 40-year-old bucket list.

I needed to detach myself from those accomplishments. I needed intention toward goals without attachment to the result. And so I made a reverse bucket list where I was going to make a list of all of the ambitions and desires. And then I was going to cross out those things, not because I wasn’t going to get them, but because easy come, easy go. I am not going to tie my happiness to the accomplishment of an earthly reward. And that has changed my life.

Another big part of success and happiness that you talk a lot about is your relationships. They’re definitely a big part of business in this town. You have this great phrase, “real friends” and “deal friends.” What is the balance here?

So this really gets back to Aristotle, who if you read one person on friendship, Aristotle is the one to read.

So in the Nicomachean Ethics, he talks about the levels of friendship. And at the bottom is kind of these friendships of convenience or transaction. And look, the world goes round because we get along. You work with people, you do business with people, you transact with people. There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not enough for your happiness. That’s not enough for your flourishing.

He says, above that are these friendships of basically admiration, where you admire somebody’s characteristics — and that’s better.

But it’s not really at the highest level, which he thinks of as the virtuous friendship, or the perfect friendship, which he calls the atelic friendship. “Atelic” means it doesn’t have a telos. It doesn’t have a usefulness to it.

And basically what this means is that your transactional friendships are useful — those are deal friends. At the top, which you need for happiness, according to Aristotle, and by the way, all modern social psychologists and common sense and your grandma — they will tell you that you need people who are useless to you, that you just love.

And if everybody’s useful to you, you’re going to be lonely. There’s nobody there to take your 3:00 a.m. phone call. That’s just a fact.

So what’s your advice for your average D.C. striver who comes to town and sees their decades of career development as a collection of deal friends? How does someone like that have more useless friends?

Well, if these are your only friends, you’re going to be lonely. And that’s actually one of the reasons that loneliness has been increasing. We have a great surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, and he writes about loneliness. He told me in an interview that loneliness is our greatest public health threat, more than coronavirus, more than gun violence or opioid mortality. It’s loneliness.

That explains the rise in deaths of despair, of suicide and alcoholism and drug addiction? 

Yeah. And you can actually find the people who have overcome really adverse circumstances in their life if they have a lot of oxytocin in their life, which is the neuropeptide of human connection, which only comes from eye contact and touch. And you only have deep eye contact and touch with your useless friends, quite frankly. You don’t look deeply into the eyes of your business partner unless you’re trying to freak them out.

The truth is that you try to look into the soul of somebody whose soul you’re interested in. And, you know, oxytocin, which is once again, biology is psychology and psychology is biology — and it’s a perfect example of this. And there’s just less and less.

If you’re coming to Washington, D.C., as a super striver and you’re trying to depend for your human flourishing on the quality of your connections and the depth of your Rolodex, you’re going to be a very lonely person.

You need to actually do the work to have real friendships as well. And those are the people who don’t really care how connected you are on the Hill.  

You don’t get that eye contact when you’re at the holiday party looking over their shoulder to see if someone more important is coming by, right?

Man, I love that about D.C. And you know, it’s a cliche and it’s absolutely true.

You’ve had a series of mini careers — AEI, academia, a professional musician — and you’ve talked about the different career models that one can have. What are they?

So most of the world, especially for the striver, tells you that you have a linear career path, and that means work hard, play by the rules, achieve and don’t make any big changes in your career unless it’s the next step up in the line.

That’s a pretty classic model in D.C., right?

Oh, yeah. Now, interestingly, that’s the model that we tend to impose on our students, but it’s not the actual career model for all of our students.

Another career model that’s actually been quite, quite common in the past — so probably your grandfather, probably my father — was called the expert career model. And that’s the one in which you don’t make very many changes at all. You’re looking for a career that gives you the ability to excel, to be good at what you do, but it doesn’t take over your life so that you can have a life. It has a lot of security, there’s a lot of appreciation, and it’s just kind of a slow-moving thing. My father was a professor at the same university for 40 years. That’s working at the Post Office, that’s doing the one thing, the one-and-done kind of career.

The third career model is called the transitory career model, which is a career that’s entirely based on serving your lifestyle. So in other words, you don’t live to work. You work to live.

This is what everybody’s parents are worried you’re going to do, which is that you don’t have very much ambition. Now you’re a barista in Portland, Maine; and then you’re going to do a little stint as a long haul trucker out of Baton Rouge; and then you fall in love with somebody in San Diego. You basically do this work. It pays the bills, but you’re just trying to live. Those are three different career models.

Here’s the one that characterizes a lot more people than they think — and it really characterizes me — which is called the spiral career model.

The spiral career model is when you have a series of mini careers of your own design, because there’s a pattern inside your head of what you’re trying to achieve as a human being.

Now, it might not seem like it has rhyme or reason, and it might seem weird to outsiders, but it really makes sense to you if you’re properly going through the ancient, philosophical experience of discernment.

The whole point is that you’re trying to figure out what the point of your life is — the why of your life. It follows different contours on the basis of that, and sometimes you make more money and sometimes less. Sometimes you’re in the for-profit sector, sometimes in the government or non-profit sector. Maybe you take seven years off to raise your kids and come back into working part time. But the coherence of it is what you’re trying to do to shape your mission.

How does your age influence this? You’ve written about the differences between fluid intelligence, which we have when we’re younger, and crystallized intelligence, which comes in later. Is there a lesson here for Washington’s strivers? 

I mean, it’s the idea of the Hindu ashramas. It maps on perfectly to the different kinds of intelligence that were first discovered and explicated by Raymond Cattell, the great British social psychologist in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Cattell noticed that people have a wellspring of working memory, of innovative capacity and very clear focus, in their twenties and thirties. That’s what makes people really good at what they do individually. That fluid intelligence increases with your knowledge all the way through your twenties and thirties. It tends to peak at about age 39 or 40.

Then your working memory starts to falter. It’s not horrible and it’s not structurally a problem. It’s not like something’s wrong with your brain. It’s basically a memory filing problem where there’s too many files. That’s what it comes down to. But also our innovative capacity isn’t as good. You inevitably find that early Rolling Stones was better than later Rolling Stones. I was writing papers in my early thirties that were so mathematically sophisticated that I can’t read them today.

So after this, is that when crystalized intelligence kicks in?

Later in life, when fluid intelligence is decreasing, there’s a second kind of intelligence that comes in called crystallized intelligence that doesn’t require working memory. It doesn’t require this indefatigable focus or innovative capacity. What it requires is wisdom, teaching ability, use of metaphor, use of language, pattern recognition. What it requires is you being able to use the vast library in your head to teach other people. You go from your innovator curve to your instructor curve. That crystallized intelligence makes it much easier for you to teach, for you to lead teams, for you to be a mentor, for you to explain things.

And young people will come in right out of graduate school at my university and they’ll say, “What’s the secret to getting great teaching evaluations?” And the answer is, get old because you’re a naturally better teacher under the circumstances.

You’re a better teacher now?

Oh, yeah. And the reason is because I’m 59, not 29, which is better when it comes to being able to explain things. That increases through your forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies and stays high in your eighties and nineties.

The ultimate crystallized intelligence profession is historian because you have to explain a lot, you’ve got to know a lot, and you’ve got to be clear and rich in your language. Historians are a pure crystallized intelligence profession. The average historian does half of her or his work after the age of 67, and the better half is the second half. So if you’re a historian, take care of your health because your best books are coming in your eighties.

You were the head of AEI. Have any of your political views changed since you left D.C. and have just immersed yourself in happiness studies?

I’m not sure my political views have changed, but I think my approach probably has.

Here’s the thing, Ryan, that I probably changed over the last few years. And maybe it’s because I left Washington, and maybe it’s because I study happiness, and maybe it’s just because I’m getting old: I’m not right. I’m actually wrong — I just don’t know on what.

It’s statistically impossible that I’m right on everything that I think. I’m wrong on a bunch of stuff and the only way I’m going to figure that out is by surrounding myself with and having loving conversations where I listen to people with whom I disagree. That’s something that’s really changed a lot.

I’m a lot less defensive about my views and I’m a lot less attached to my views.

I was writing the obituary for Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, in the Washington Post. And I remember thinking about this really important idea that he had, which is our greatest attachment tends to be to our opinions. We clutch on them as if they were jewels. It’s almost as if you had a right to kill somebody in self-defense if they contradict you. That’s certainly true on college campuses. That’s certainly true in the 5 percent political fringes on the right and left in America.

And as I was writing his obituary, I asked myself, “What is my attachment to my own political views?” So I’m on my reverse bucket list, which I put together on my birthday. This last year, I listed half of my political opinions and I crossed them out. Not because I don’t hold them, but because I’m not going to be attached to them. If you disagree with me, come sit down next to me because I want to hear what you have to say. And you probably are going to make some pretty good points.

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