What makes a bestselling author and Harvard University scholar come to Utah?
Turns out, it’s happiness.
As Arthur Brooks, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s first visiting impact scholar, met with university leaders, students and the public during a packed three-day schedule of meetings and speaking engagements on campus, at the Thomas S. Monson Center and at partnering institutions of higher learning, Oct. 26-28, Brooks kept returning to the question at the heart of his social science research: What makes people happy? Depending on the ranking and methodology, Utah lands somewhere in the top 10 happiest states in the country most of the time.
“Is there a better place to study happiness than Utah?” Brooks asked an audience gathered by Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, the Gardner Institute and the Sutherland Institute at the Eccles Alumni House.
“The University of Utah is not just another state university. This is a state, this is a university, that is on the make nationwide,” he added. “This is the place that I want to be, because I want to be talking about the issues that face Americans in the future. The solutions that are going to come forward for our country are going to come from the most successful states.”
Brooks, a social scientist, Atlantic columnist and the author of more than a dozen books, will spend three to four days each semester at the Gardner Institute over the next three years—participating in guest lectures, roundtable discussions with state and local officials, and consulting with university and community leaders.
His selection is part of a larger impact scholar initiative, which includes the recognition of five Presidential Societal Impact Scholars and a series of strategic faculty hires and research investments focused on societal need and impact. An additional visiting impact scholar will be named later this year.
“The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute works at the intersection of academia and action,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Gardner Institute. “Impact Scholars like Arthur Brooks expand our reach with students, policymakers, and the community and help maximize the societal impact of the U.”
At the end of October, Brooks met with students, Board of Trustees members, senior university leaders, policy institute and Hinckley Institute of Politics staff, Salt Lake City leaders including Mayor Erin Mendenhall and members of the city council, and others.
Brooks’ message in Utah is captured in the titles of his latest bestsellers—”From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life,” and “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.” He urged his audiences to jump off the downward slope of the happiness curve that afflicts many early achievers as they age, in the so-called “strivers’ curse.”
Citing evidence from a career of social science research, Brooks suggested his academic and political audiences make a shift: from the early-career “fluid” intelligence that leads to the creation of Facebook and Nobel Prize research, to the late-in-life “crystallized” intelligence that college professors and brilliant composers like J.S. Bach draw from for their teaching. Striving towards happiness requires making a jump from the fluid intelligence curve to the crystallized or “second” curve to break the strivers’ curse, he said.
At the Hinckley Forum, Brooks asked students to break out of the “zombie religion” of identity politics.
“The fake religion of politics has messianic figures and a secret language. What it doesn’t have is forgiveness, love and redemption,” Brooks said. “Put politics in its proper place. It’s not an organizing religion. It’s just a way to get people into office so they can get policies passed. This is not a religion. It’s backfilling the reduction in our collective sense of meaning.”
Brooks acknowledged his effort to turn U.S. political polarization on its head — with “Love Your Enemies,” released in 2019—has been largely unsuccessful. It’s a work in progress, he said.
President Taylor Randall said he welcomes the discussions Brooks is leading on campus. “If we are going to have unsurpassed societal impact, it means that we need to engage in public conversations in a positive way, trying to solve problems in a productive way,” he said. “Arthur Brooks is an expert in the science and art of human flourishing. He has a positive view of society—where it is going and what it can become. We need someone who has ideas, who will make us better as individuals and as a society.”
Brooks will return to the U in January 2023.