October 10, 2022

Mental & Emotional Health

#226 ‒ The science of happiness | Arthur Brooks, Ph.D.

Read Time 49 minutes

Arthur Brooks is a social scientist, professor at Harvard University, a columnist for The Atlantic, and the bestselling author of From Strength to Strength. In this episode, Arthur explains how intelligence changes as we get older, and how to take advantage of this to maximize our happiness and success. He distills truths about the meaning of happiness and its three main components: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. He goes into detail about many of the keys to a happy life, including the importance of cultivating virtuous relationships. On the flip side, Arthur warns of the dangers of social comparison, “success addition,” and the four worldly idols—money, fame, power, and pleasure—that drive many of us. Additionally, Arthur provides examples of exercises that can guide one in the right direction, overcome fear, and cultivate habits that can lead to a happier life.


We discuss:

  • Insights from Arthur’s career as a professional French horn player [2:15];
  • A radical shift away from music to a Ph.D. in quantitative policy [12:00];
  • Personal experience with shifting intelligence: fluid vs. crystallized intelligence [16:45];
  • An epiphany from a chance encounter on an airplane that shaped Arthur’s thinking [22:00];
  • The three main “macronutrients” of happiness [25:00];
  • Exploring the “purpose” component of happiness [29:00];
  • The importance of having a partner and true friendships [32:00];
  • The makeup of a true friendship, and why men tend to struggle with making real friends [36:45];
  • The “satisfaction” component of happiness and the importance of “wants management” [42:15];
  • The tyranny of social comparison [47:45];
  • Insights into happiness through Chinese art, and the concept of a “reverse bucket list” [51:45];
  • An exercise demonstrating the importance of relationships with others and the need to work on them [55:30];
  • The four main idols that drive us: money, fame, power, and pleasure [1:01:15];
  • Success addiction, workaholism, and their detriment to happiness [1:04:00]; 
  • A radical approach to overcome fear—the antithesis to love and happiness [1:14:00];
  • Ancient Hindu advice for the perfect life [1:26:30];
  • The end result of getting caught in the 4 idols [1:31:45];
  • The complexity of happiness [1:33:30]; and
  • More.


Insights from Arthur’s career as a professional French horn player [2:15]

  • This is the first time we’re doing a repeat podcast
    • The last time we were in person and had a great conversation for a couple hours only to learn that we hadn’t turned the sound on
  • They had a nice conversation about happiness, longevity, and living a prosperous, flourishing life
  • Peter turned Arthur onto Ghia, which he has been drinking ever since 
    • It’s nice to be able to talk about things where the company has no idea you’re promoting it (Peter pays full retail for Ghia)
  • Peter went back and read Arthur’s book to prepare for this podcast
  • The thing that resonates with him the most is the discussion of the 4 stages of life (we’ll come back to at the end)
    • He thinks about his transition from the 2nd to the 3rd

Arthur’s many “lives” – starting with being a musician

  • Arthur has lived many lives, his first was a musician
  • Arthur is a social scientist, he teaches behavioral science but he started in classical music
  • He wanted to be the greatest French horn player in the world
  • He started on violin at age 4, piano at 5, and took up the French horn at 8
  • He had a natural ability for playing the French horn, and so he did it a lot
    • He did it to the exclusion of nearly everything else
  • And when it came time to go to college, he had one successful run at a year in college and then became a professional musician because that’s really what he wanted to do
  • At age 19 he dropped out/ was kicked out of college and went on the road as a classical musician
  • He played chamber music for 6 years all over the world
  • Then he went to Barcelona where he was in the symphony orchestra
  • His plan was to become a French horn soloist playing great concerti of the greatest composers
    • It didn’t work out that way
  • In his mid 20s he was in decline as a performer
    • His technique was getting worse
  • In his late 20s he began taking college classes by correspondence
    • He finished a month before his 30th birthday
  • He completed his master’s degree at night
  • He finished his French horn career at 32 and started his Ph.D. in social science 

What is the arc of a French horn player and how many exceptional French horn player talents can be consumed by the world? 

  • If we were talking about baseball, there are hundreds of people who can be good enough to make a living at it
  • For classical musicians, there’s about a 95% unemployment/ underemployment rate in the industry
  • And it’s not like professional sports, people are not getting rich
    • The great soloists, the great opera singers, the great conductors are pretty wealthy
    • But orchestra musicians are earning a middle class/ upper middle class income, but they’re not really very money motivated
  • There are probably about 100 really great orchestras in the world and each one has a principal French horn player and also 4 other French horn positions
  • There are a handful of other people making a serious living in playing chamber music
  • There are usually about 1-2 French horn soloists in the world at any given time
    • There are not that many people making a living at it
    • And there are a lot of people who are trying, so it’s weird

What kind of commitment was necessary to get to that level? 

  • Arthur was practicing 5-6  hours a day, plus playing in every ensemble he could possibly find

I was basically doing it to the exclusion of almost everything else in my life”‒ Arthur Brooks 

  • It was like being an athlete where you practice as much as you can without doing damage to the musculature
    • There’s negative returns if you overtrain
    • You can get all kinds of repetitive stress injuries
  • Further, in the time that you’re not actually actively practicing, you’re listening to music, you’re learning the repertoire, you’re thinking about what your craft actually is
  • So the result of it is you’re doing it almost every hour of the day 

What distinguishes the best French horn player in the world from the hundredth best? 

  • Mostly accuracy
  • The French horn has a problem of physics, in so far as that the mouthpiece is smaller than a trumpet mouthpiece, but the tube is as long as the tuba (which is the largest of the brass instruments)
  • So by physics, it should actually play in the low register, but by mouthpiece, it should actually play in the high register
  • The result of that is the harmonic structure is very close together and it’s very easy to miss notes
  • This is the reason why the principal French horn player in the orchestra misses a lot of notes
  • It’s just really, really hard to be accurate
  • The greatest, greatest, greatest, have some uncanny ability
    • It’s sort of like Nolan Ryan who was able to hit a postage stamp at 98 miles an hour of the fastball when he was 40
    • That’s the kind of difference that you get, the freakish microscopic differences
  • You probably wouldn’t notice the difference if you’re not a big classical music buzz and especially if you’re not really into the French horn

What is the typical age when a French horn player peaks?  What did Arthur notice was changing in his mid-20s? 

  • Arthur peaked and declined early
  • He has researched this subsequently as a social scientist 
  • He knew casually that brass players and classical musicians in general tend to peak in  terms of their physical qualities, their ability to dominate the instrument in their late 30s, and you start to see a little bit of drop off in their 40s and 50s
  • The greatest players in the world, the greatest piano soloists will still be touring and playing beautifully in their 70s, but they’re not what they once were
  • Peak usually happens in the late 30s to early 40s
    • Then it’s a slow decline
  • He was declining much earlier and it had to do with a microscopic tear in on of his lips
    • This was an injury that wasn’t well known at the time
    • But surgery can repair it
  • Arthur went on to something that is touching a lot more people and has more possibility of doing something positive in the world 

Within what seems like a tragedy at the time, there’s all kinds of opportunity”‒ Arthur Brooks 


A radical shift away from music to a Ph.D. in quantitative policy [12:00]

Why did you go back to night school in secret for your bachelor’s and master’s degrees?  Why were you ashamed? 

  • Classical musicians think nothing else matters
  • It’s more of  a cult than a profession
  • Arthur’s oldest son went to Princeton and his younger son is in the Marines, those are cults too
  • Arthur remembers hanging around with this group of brass players when he was probably 28, and this woman who hung out with them (also a French horn player) said, “I’ve got an announcement… I decided I’m going to leave the business. I just got a full scholarship to the University of Miami, the medical school. I’m going to become a surgeon.”  
    • To them she quit her French horn playing career to settle for becoming a lifesaving doctor

What did you study for your bachelor’s? 

  • Economics
  • Though he intended to get his degree in some area of the humanities, maybe even composition
    • He was a pretty avid composer
  • When he took an economics class, it just opened his eyes
  • With statistically based social sciences, he felt like he had a crystal ball
  • He could see things about the world and he could actually analyze behavior in ways he didn’t even think was possible
  • His mind was blown at the whole world of information, at being able to generate information
  • He finished his bachelor’s degree completely by correspondence

{end of show notes preview}

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Arthur Brooks, Ph.D.

Arthur C. Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. Before joining the Harvard faculty in July of 2019, he served for ten years as president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank in Washington, DC.

Brooks is the author of 12 books, including the national bestsellers: From Strength to Strength (2022), Love Your Enemies (2019), The Conservative Heart (2015), and The Road to Freedom (2012). He is a columnist for The Atlantic, host of the podcast How to Build a Happy Life, and subject of the 2019 documentary film The Pursuit. He serves on the board of the Legatum Institute, a think tank in London. 

Brooks began his career as a classical French hornist, leaving college at 19, touring and recording with the Annapolis Brass Quintet and later, the City Orchestra of Barcelona. In his late twenties, while still performing, he returned to school, earning a BA through distance learning at Thomas Edison State College, and then an MA in economics from Florida Atlantic University. At 31, he left music and earned an MPhil and PhD in public policy analysis from the Rand Graduate School, during which time he worked as an analyst for the Rand Corporation’s Project Air Force.

Brooks then spent 10 years as a university professor, becoming a full professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in his seventh year out of graduate school and occupying the Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government. During this decade, Brooks published 60 peer-reviewed articles and several books, including the textbook Social Entrepreneurship (2008). [Harvard Business School]

Twitter: @arthurbrooks

Instagram: arthurcbrooks

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  1. The discussion of time spent with kids disproportionately being in their first 18 years reminded me of this blog entry from 2015. It’s excellent and really puts into perspective how finite our lives are (assuming live to 90!)


    I’d suggest seeing about getting Oliver Burkeman on the podcast. He is mostly known for “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals”, but I just finished “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. It touches on a lot of similar items as Mr. Brooks, but with quite a few practical exercises drawn from Stoic philosophers and others.

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