Arthur Brooks on Waking Up

Episode 10: Podcast Summary

Episode 10. This podcast has RANGE. Social comparison, strivers, intelligence vs. ethics, the half-life of creativity, the big 4 of happiness, and of course, religion.

Arthur Brooks is a happiness researcher at Harvard. He’s a devout Catholic but also influenced by Buddhist teachings. He’s hosted by atheist and meditation teacher, Sam Harris.

The stage is set for a Catholic vs. atheist beliefs-bashing brawl but what stood out to me in this passionate engagement was their preservation of mutual respect. They agree that they're “rooting for different teams” (denominations) but are also “playing the same game” (attempting to explain the underlying essence of our objective reality). I was stunned by Arthur’s nonchalance whenever Sam pressure-tested his religious beliefs. Not a direct quote, but his stance was effectively, “I’ve got the beliefs that work for me. I’m happy to share them with you if you’re interested, but no worries if not. I respect your beliefs. I could be wrong and you might be right, so I’m interested to learn about your take.” A Masterclass in humility.

Arthur shares the idea that life is like a pointillistic painting. We're collecting dots (days) to create a painting (our life). When our nose is pressed up against the painting, it’s hard to find meaning in the tedium of the day-to-day. The alarm goes off, I lace up for another workout, I rush to another Zoom call, I pick up dinner, I go to bed. Like a sitcom looping the same episode, until one day the question inevitably surfaces, “What am I doing with my life?” Cue existential crisis…

Both guest & host agree that the value of spiritual / religious practice is its ability to help us transcend, to pull our nose back from the canvas and “see the bigger picture.” So whether it’s prayer, meditation, journaling, or walking through nature & staring at a tree until the word “tree” loses all of its meaning, we need a way to zoom out. This zooming out can remind us of our “why,” which then grants us “perspective and peace” amidst the mundane.

I was struck by the idea that we are free to “borrow the best” from all of the religious traditions. It was liberating as someone whose own spiritual / religious journey has been akin to a pendulum-meets-a-maze. (intentionally mixed & confusing metaphors here). Each tradition has beliefs, rituals, or practices that might ring true. Why not adopt a version of the ones that work for me? A few that I’ve borrowed:

  • Meditation: a daily practice borrowed from Buddhism.

  • "Gratitudes": a pre-meal practice borrowed from Judaism. When I attended my friend Ben’s Shabbat dinner, I was inspired by the power of a communal ritual before starting a meal. It was a moment of pause, a moment of reflection, a moment of appreciation. (And it gave the host time to actually sit down before all of us guests had already scarfed down our food). As a kid, I grew up saying grace before eating but I always felt awkward as my nonreligious friends staying over for dinner would choose between mouthing the words like an unexperienced lip-syncer or remain quiet & stare at their feet. So “Gratitudes” has become a form of a non-denominational prayer. “1 thing you’re grateful for.” Unassociated with any religion, yet correlated with happiness. And the beautiful thing is… we’ve all got 1. (Cheat code: you can always default to “I’m grateful for the food we’re about to eat” or “I’m grateful that I’m not dead yet.” Both work. Varying degrees of morbidity but both work.)

  • "My Church": a weekly practice borrowed from Catholicism. I carve out 1 hour each Sunday to step away from my pointillistic painting and be grateful for my life. It's my ritual for generating perspective. I reflect on the past week. I set my intentions for the upcoming week. It serves as a checkpoint, creating some separation between my weeks, an aspect I missed when I stopped attending Sunday Catholic Mass.

  • Stories & metaphors to communicate abstract concepts: a practice borrowed from all of them.

In proper business school fashion, Arthur introduces a 2x2 matrix for relating to beliefs. The axes are separated by “my beliefs” & “your beliefs” versus the degree to which I'm convinced they’re right. He suggests that the most bitter people are those who say, “I don’t know what my beliefs are, but I know for sure that you’re full of it.” We all know the individual who’s on a crusade to disprove everyone’s beliefs but offers up no opinion of their own. That was me for a long time. I kicked the can down the road on defining my own belief set for fear of being wrong. And since swimming alone in the “Pond of Uncertainty” is uncomfortable, I wanted to disprove others’ beliefs in order to drag them into this place of unknowing with me. This was a call to action to actually allocate attention to this exercise.

An underrated portion of this podcast was hearing an esteemed professor from a prestigious university tout the value of admitting “I don’t know.” In a world that praises conviction and knowledge, it was powerful to hear how this admission is the gateway to learning and how uncertainty is a lifelong inevitability. So we might as well get comfortable hanging out in the Pond of Uncertainty. All are welcome. Come on in, the water’s fine!

Finally, their firsthand descriptions of how the Dalai Lama relates to other people is inspiring. Sam calls him "the ultimate mensch." After looking up what that means, I agree.

“It’s OK to love and be unattached at the same time. That’s the trick. It’s not about having more, it’s about wanting less.

  • Status games become our identity

    • "I was a success-addicted, self-objectifier. I tied my worth to my French horn playing abilities, which were in decline. It took my wife teaching me that I’m not a French horn player, I’m a person."

    • The academic feels superior to the businessperson on the "Education" hierarchy but inferior on the "Money" hierarchy

    • "Victim Olympics" on college campuses

      • Status game becomes who has more legitimate grievance

  • Intelligence

    • Confusing intelligence with moral superiority

      • We can recognize that intelligence is unequally distributed while also recognizing it’s just a trait

      • To praise someone saying “Wow! You’re so smart” is like saying “Wow! Your eyes are so blue”

    • Intelligence is rewarded in a complex society that’s getting more complex

      • Would you choose a child who’s a psychopathic genius OR one who’s of moderate ability but benevolent & kind?

      • What qualities are more important to us than cognitive ability? How can we reward those more in society? (if that’s the society we want to live in)

      • "We need to recognize the radical quality of human dignity"

  • Dalai Lama

    • Both Arthur & Sam have background / relationship with Dalai Lama

    • "What’s the sound of 1 hand clapping?"

      • Who I believe I am as an individual (my beliefs & practices) doesn't matter much until I come into contact with another person

      • How do I actually interact with them?

    • "No name, cat"

      • Separate love from attachment

      • Unattached from people, which lets him show love to all people

    • "Remember you are 1 of 7 billion"

      • Universalism to his love

      • Unique ability to make a connection with everyone in the room

      • Loves everyone regardless of status in society

  • Mick Jagger Problem: “I can’t keep no satisfaction”

    • "When I become attached to something as my permanent source of satisfaction, I will eventually be disappointed"

    • Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re happy

      • She wants you to pass on your genes

      • So she encourages you to run & run & run & strive & strive & strive

    • “It’s OK to love and be unattached at the same time. That’s the trick. It’s not about having more, it’s about wanting less.”

  • Loving others

    • Love defined as “to will the good of other, as other”

    • Love is not a feeling, that’s evidence of love

    • Sympathetic joy: true joy for another’s happiness

      • Antithesis of envy

  • Fluid vs. Crystallized intelligence

    • Fluid: "ability to crack the code," creativity, innovative capacity, working memory, speed

      • Peaks in late 30s, hence burnout in your 40s

      • Example: poets, inventors

    • Crystallized: "all the things you know & how to use the things you know," wisdom, pattern recognition, teaching ability

      • Increases in 40-60s, peaks at 65, stays high in 70-80s

      • Example: historian

    • Humans are unhappy when not making progress / getting better

      • That’s why so many “strivers” feel like they fall out of love with their vocation around 40s. They loved feeling of constant improvement, but then hit a point where they feel like they're headed downhill

        • Cadence of life plays role too: energy, kids / family

      • Strivers who find happiness in 2nd half of life often "make the jump" to helping others, rather than just “producing” themselves

        • Entrepreneur -> venture capitalist

        • Star lawyer -> managing partner

        • Individual contributor -> manager

        • Innovative researcher -> explainer

  • Social comparison never favors you

    • If inferior to the “other”, well that obviously sucks

    • If superior, then it’s a "morally-impoverished" and unreliable route to happiness

      • "How much do you want your sense of satisfaction to be predicated on being better than your friends?"

      • "Is that really how you want to relate to your friends?"

    • Optimal state is wearing “self” concept lightly

    • Hindu Atman:

      • "I" - merely an observer of the world

      • "Me" - understanding myself by the way others perceive me, my reflection

  • Big 4 of happiness:

    • Faith - "walking a transcendental life", not confined to religious practice

    • Family

    • Friends

    • Work that is “other-focused”

  • Value of spiritual / religious practice

    • Self-transcendence

      • Life is like a pointillistic painting

      • Need a way to zoom out

      • Understand the “why?” I’m doing all of my tedious day-to-day

    • Sam's rebuttal on why religious people could be happier:

      • Psychological leverage of believing in life after death

        • Least scared of death - serious religious believers and atheists

        • Most scared of death - those with lightweight religious beliefs who don’t act according to them

        • "This is a call to action to believe in something, then act according to it"

      • Weekly rituals that maintain community

  • "I don’t know"

    • "I must interrogate my own perception with a healthy skepticism. I must fortify my unbelief."

    • 2x2 matrix: “my beliefs” & “your beliefs” versus the degree to which I'm convinced they’re right

      • "I am confident in my beliefs, but I possess no special knowledge about why I’m right and you’re wrong"

      • "I like starting from the place of knowing what my beliefs are but having the humility to say that you might be right as well. Because then I can learn from you."

      • Danger of sectarian dogma is when it becomes: “I’m right and you’re most definitely wrong. I might even hurt you because you’re so wrong and you don’t believe what I do.”

  • Objectivists vs Existentialists

    • Objectivists: there is a common, true essence. Then we are born

      • “Essence precedes existence”

    • Existentialists: we are born. Then we layer on the meaning / essence

    • We create subjective language, stories, and symbols to describe the objective, underlying essence

      • "It's a curve fit"

      • Issue is when we get hung up on comparing the stories and symbols, rather than staying focused on the essence

  • Borrow the best

    • What can I learn from you while at the same time becoming a better version of me?

    • Dalai Lama: "Arthur, I want you to be the perfect Catholic"

      • "Meditation made me better at praying my rosary"

    • "If I’m understanding my beliefs by bouncing them off of you, then that’s me-ness. That’s social comparison. I-ness is to merely observe my truth, to practice my practice"

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