A Happiness Expert’s Frank Advice for Joe Biden

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Arthur C. Brooks, an expert on leadership and happiness, discusses the trap of staying on too long.

But first, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

The Essence of Retiring Well

In 2019, Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Harvard who teaches courses on leadership and happiness, wrote an essay for the July issue of The Atlantic about professional decline: how to think about it and what to do about it. Since then, Arthur has joined The Atlantic, writing How to Build a Life, a weekly column that I edit about happiness. After President Joe Biden’s dire debate performance last week, I wanted to hear Arthur’s wisdom on dealing with what he called “the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment.”

Arthur C. Brooks: So there’s an addendum to my 2019 article. Because of the research I did for it, I decided to step back from my job as president of the American Enterprise Institute. The one person I told beforehand (someone I trust) said, You’re about to make the biggest mistake of your life. That played right into my fears. All I had was my research—so do I trust the data or believe my gut, which says, Don’t change: You’re on a winning streak. Don’t be a fool.

Matt Seaton: But you trusted the data, right?

Arthur: It was a war between my prefrontal cortex and my limbic system, and it always is when you have to make these changes. Some scholars believe we have four fundamental human needs: belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence. When you step away from a high-prestige job, you risk losing these.

My limbic system, specifically my dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is dedicated to resisting ostracism and rejection, was fighting me, saying, Don’t make these changes, because you will become no one. But I went with what I believed was the objective truth, as opposed to my lying limbic system. That was the right call, and now I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing at this age (I just turned 60).

Matt: Which wasn’t exactly a retirement, though, was it?

Arthur: Ha, right! I was going from working 80 hours a week to working 65 hours a week—but I was doing a different kind of work, because I was using my crystallized intelligence (which is a science-y way to say “instructor brain” instead of “innovator brain”) 95 percent of the time instead of 40 percent of the time. And therefore, I was more properly adjusted to this stage of life, in which I teach, write for The Atlantic instead of doing academic research, and give public talks to nonscientists.

Matt: So what you’re calling retirement is not just moving to Florida and playing golf.

Arthur: It’s moving into the productive role in life for which your brain and heart are ideally suited, which changes over time. At a certain point, for everyone, this means stepping away from power. But if your previous role was your entire identity, you’re in trouble. There has been research on the tendency for people with a lot of prestige and power to become depressed when they retire.

Matt: What are the traps that cause people to persist beyond their best years?

Arthur: The first is rigidity of professional identity. It’s hard to give up the way you see yourself if you’re proud of it. You can even be the president of the United States, and you still have a dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that’s fully functioning until the day you die—and it will be at war with your prefrontal cortex when it comes time to give up your source of identity.

Matt: Obviously we’re talking about this because of Biden’s performance in the debate last week. Did you watch that, and what was your reaction?

Arthur: I did, but I look at it not as a political analyst but as a social scientist. I saw all sorts of reasons to be concerned, of course. I get it. But I also saw in it an incredible opportunity for the president: the opportunity to move on and create a beautiful example for millions of people.

In the 2019 article, I talked about the ancient Hindu teaching on the stages of life, or ashramas, and the advice I received from a guru in southern India named Nochur Venkataraman. He taught me that many successful people get stuck in a stage called Grihastha—which is where you enjoy professional success and adulation—rather than progressing to Vanaprastha, which is where one should become more of a teacher (“crystallized intelligence”).

But there’s one more stage nearer the end called Sannyasa, which is to be fully enlightened and not working in the worldly domain. That transition is also sticky for many people—politicians, CEOs, sports figures, perhaps even the president—who struggle to stop doing what made them famous and admired. But that is the essence of truly retiring, and retiring well.

Matt: The United States seems to have the persistent problem of a geriatric ruling class. What’s your analysis of why that appears in our political elite?

Arthur: Part of it is because we have a rigid system of power, and so we’re ridiculously institutionalized in the way that people can rise and prosper. Americans speak a good line about meritocracy, but we don’t have a meritocracy. When it comes to our politics, we have a gerontocracy that is based on seniority, loyalty, and tenure. We have leaders with tons of wisdom, but they don’t have the vigor and the focus and the energy to be putting in the grinding work of national and international governance.

We need to have a senior role like the one played by Henry Kissinger or George Shultz: After they left public service, they became eminences but weren’t expected to govern. Nobody wanted to elect Kissinger as president of the United States; people just wanted his opinion on the issues of the day.

Matt: Happiness is your principal subject, and your work usually frames it in terms of advice to the individual: How can you be happy? How can I be happy? But in this political moment, there’s also a dimension of this that’s about collective happiness, the public good—a general happiness that is at stake in Biden’s decision. How do you balance that?

Arthur: You know the famous Zen Buddhist koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping? One interpretation of that koan is that the sound of one hand clapping is an illusion. And one version of that illusion is that your personal happiness is somehow meaningful. In fact, the clapping becomes a reality only when there’s a second hand.

In other words, your happiness is real only when somebody else is happy as well. So if you’re a public figure, then the good of the public is required to get the second hand clapping. Otherwise you’ll be living in illusion.

Matt: Tell me how people should think rightly about their legacy, given that legacy is so bound up with achievement.

Arthur: There’s a philosopher at the University of Cambridge named Stephen Cave who wrote a really important book called Immortality. In it, he talks about how one of the ways to become immortal is to build a legacy, and the way to think about that is the internal struggle of Achilles. Obviously, the Greek hero is a mythological character, but his story presents an emblematic dilemma: The best way to achieve immortality is to secure your legacy through a heroic end; the worst way to get immortality—and the most efficacious way to destroy your legacy—is to just hang around. Do you see the irony? People who hang around because of their legacy are diminishing their legacy.

Matt: Do you have any particular words of advice for President Biden?

Arthur: So there’s personal advice and there’s political advice. The personal advice is that for all successful people, there comes a time to decide between being special and being happy. Being special—staying on top—is hard, tiring work. But it is an addiction, which is why people keep at it way beyond what seems reasonable, at great harm to themselves and others. Get sober; choose happiness.

The political advice is based on a lesson from history, that the mark of great leadership is what happens after leaders leave the scene. Did they teach the next generation and set up those who came after for success? And then did they step aside with grace and humility? Be able to answer yes to both of those questions.


Today’s News

  1. Keir Starmer was elected prime minister yesterday after the Labour Party secured a historic landslide victory in Britain’s election. He announced a new cabinet today.
  2. President Joe Biden will be interviewed tonight by George Stephanopoulos on ABC News; he is expected to address questions about his debate performance and campaign viability.
  3. Donald Trump’s attorneys are requesting a new schedule for his classified-documents federal trial so that they can address how the Supreme Court’s presidential-immunity decision affects the case.


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