Ester says that the desire to constantly work is something that Brooks has always had to suppress. “He doesn’t like going on vacation because there’s nothing to do on vacation,” she says. He recalls a camping trip they took in the Pyrenees in the 80s, shortly after dating. Brooks brought his French horn so he could practice every day. Esther decided to leave her trumpet behind. “For normal people like me, it’s possible for me to stop thinking about work or ideas and just be on the beach and look at the beach,” he says. “But it’s hard for him.”
At the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks worked 85-hour weeks. Now he still does 75 or 80 and spends five days a week on the road. When I ask what he does for fun, he says that his version of fun is just that – more work. “It’s like, ‘My name is Arthur and I’m a success junkie,'” he tells me. “Everybody has their own specific issues. I do not smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I’m not running on my wife. I don’t do anything, but this is what I have.
Brooks thinks this is a problem that most ambitious, conventionally successful people struggle with. They can never be satisfied. And you won’t find truly successful people who are just “normal,” he says. “You don’t write an article about me that’s like Brooks is the most normal man I have ever met. You have to do the work.”
But it takes a lot of workI say.
“Yeah,” he says, “I work my ass off because I’m naturally miserable.”
The conditions that make you want to pursue happiness seem to make you unhappy.
“It’s a paradox,” he says. “It’s a mystery.”
And that, of course, is one of the things that is so frustrating about happiness. It’s like chasing the horizon.
“The danger is in believing that the mirage is actually an oasis,” says Brooks. “If your search for happiness has a destination for happiness, it’s a fake palm tree and a fake pool of water, and you’re in the desert. You won’t find it.”
As we continue to fly south, I think this may be where much of the discourse on happiness is missing. Maybe it’s the stalking part that’s all wrong. Like chasing a butterfly, when you run after happiness, it eludes you. But don’t worry, keep living your life and you may look down and find that luck has fallen and fallen on you, even if only for a moment.
In that sense, I find Brooks’ advice to be compelling, if a little idealistic. Speaking personally, it’s true that I’m happier when I can control my emotions, or at least stop myself from eating an entire can of Pringles. I don’t pray, but I’ve been meditating regularly for seven years and haven’t found anything else that has been so effective at reducing my anxiety and making me feel better. I have been encouraged by loved ones during my mental health struggles and by having a job that is meaningful to me. Faith, family, friends, work – these are all effective ways to encourage moments of happiness. But they’re really only available to those with privileges like health, financial security, and highly independent work. Much of our society’s unhappiness is due to systemic and institutional deficiencies. And even for them together advantages, happiness is elusive in today’s world. I am reminded of a line by naturalist writer Barry Lopez: “Some big pressing questions just don’t have answers. You will continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning towards the light.
Brooks, for his part, leans toward the light, bringing happiness to other people, and hopes that he might see some boomerangs around him. “I study happiness because it’s what I want,” he says. “I can help other people in more ways than myself.”
About an hour after take off, we land in Los Angeles. As we prepare to leave the plane, Brooks notices brown prayer beads on the pilot’s wrist. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asks.
Sort of, Scott says, explaining that he’s done a number of meditation retreats at Spirit Rock, an hour’s drive from San Francisco. “It’s good,” he says of the retreats, before reconsidering whether that’s really the way to go. “It’s a job.”
“Definitely – absolutely,” Brooks replies. “It’s not entertainment,” he adds as he merrily exits the plane, heading back to the never-ending job of making the world a happier place.