Arthur Brooks has managed to carve out a living studying, speaking about, and encouraging happiness — and that’s after many fascinating journeys, including as a classical French horn player and president of the American Enterprise Institute.
He teaches a class on happiness at Harvard, even.
I was sitting next to him at a commencement ceremony at the Catholic University of America recently, before he shared some of the secrets of the pursuit of happiness. Talking with students who largely shared his Catholic faith, he could assume a few things: that they believe in God, and that they believe that God might have a plan for them.
At a dinner the night before for those receiving honorary doctorates (I was among them), Brooks talked about the students who come into his office, close the door and ask him for advice. They know in their hearts that career and material success aren’t everything. If they have religious faith, they have the suspicion, at the very least, that those are not the things they are going to be judged on.
In his address, and in a subsequent column for The Atlantic, Brooks quoted St. Thomas Aquinas: “To love is to will the good of the other.” He emphasizes that “love is a commitment, not a feeling.”
I couldn’t help but think of my own parents as I looked out on all the parents, siblings, grandparents and others — who gathered on the lawn outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, adjacent to Catholic University’s campus. As with many of the students before me, my parents had made sacrifices to put their children through Catholic school. They set me up for joy by showing me what it’s made of — that commitment to love, not a mere feeling. (Though it sure feels good to love and be loved, even in the sacrifices and suffering.) I’m grateful for that. It’s good to be truly and rigorously grateful. We aren’t owed anything. Even our lives! They are gifts.
“Use your ordinary work ... as a way to love others,” Brooks told the graduates. “You are made to love, and your work — no matter what it is — should be the way you express your love. That might sound as if being ambitious or hardworking doesn’t matter so long as we have a heart full of love. But that’s not the implication.”
He continued: “To love others through our work involves bringing our very best effort every day; to be completely, uncompromisingly dedicated to excellence in what we do. Whether we work in a bank, or put roofs on houses, or take care of our children full-time, true love means not cutting corners.”
If you are a parent, it is near impossible to cut corners. The little ones need everything from you. It’s the most important work in the world. Culturally, we don’t always make that clear; practically, we don’t always support it.
Happiness, Brooks says, consists of “Faith, family, friendship and work.”
During a Mass the day before commencement, the Dominican chaplain of the university, Father Aquinas Guilbeau, encouraged students to remember that while humans are meant to grow and change, those who are adopted as sons and daughters of God through Baptism are called to become more like the God who does not change, and has made us for something more than worldly success.
“The important things do not change,” Father Aquinas said. We can all take joy in this. Whatever is in the headlines, we are made for more, and that never changes. When in doubt, just love. That’s a starting and a forever place.