NYT columnist David Brooks is one of my favorite newspaper writers. Although his politics can be schizophrenic at times — he jumps between liberal and conservative positions without much pain — at his core, Brooks is a modern day intellectual whose overall philosophical views are worth reading.
In a recent column, and in some later conversations and a magazine article profile of him, Brooks postured that our society has become too focused on obtaining “happiness” in the wrong way.
Brooks argues that we have become obsessed with obtaining power, wealth and achievements at the expense of more internal qualities that really make us human. Brooks calls these two views our “resume virtues” vs. our “eulogy virtues.” By the latter, he means what will people say about us at our funeral is more important than what we have on our resumes.
Brooks argues that we have lost the balance between the two and consequently, we lack depth. His solution to that sounds a lot like the focus of traditional spiritual beliefs: Love outside oneself; be willing to endure suffering to grow internally; confront oneself and our internal weaknesses; look outside ourselves for a cause larger than our own dreams; be accepted into something larger than ourselves.
There’s a lot to be said of Brooks’ thesis here. It does seem that our society has become shallower in recent decades. There is a lack of gravitas in much of our public debate of important issues, starting with the man in the White House today whose pretense to being a cool intellectual is a mask worn to hide a core of prickly shallowness and a consuming self-doubt.
But the President isn’t the only puppet of our shallow society. Much of what passes for “news” today is little more than a celebrity culture run amuck. Online, in print and on television, we are slathered with gossip, rumor and celebrity culture’s whining-couplings-doings.
Brooks is talking about a little more than that, however. Given his high-profile job, Brooks travels in some very elite circles around Washington, New York and other major power centers of American politics and commerce.
What he undoubtedly sees at that level are people in national politics and big business whose focus has become obsessively on the self and on self-aggrandizement either through pulling the power levers of the political machines, or through climbing of corporate cogs. In effect, these people have sold their soul, their humanity, their “self,” to build a resume in an elusive search for “happiness.” The balance of internal happiness has been lost to the pursuit of external glory.
Undoubtedly that is true to an extent. But I break with his thesis here because I don’t think our society’s ills can be explained away so neatly. While there is a segment of our population that fits Brooks’ profile, that’s a small part of the larger picture.
For one thing, for every person in our society driven to look for happiness by resume-building and climbing political/corporate ladders, there are two people who seemingly have no drive at all. Their focus is all internal. From the moment they awake to the moment they sleep, they wallow in self-pity. “Oh woe is me, my life is terrible. I am a put-upon person who can’t be happy because nobody else will take time to make me happy.”
If an external search for faux happiness can become imbalanced as Brooks argues, then so too, can the internal search. Isn’t it just as possible to get lost in the mentality of victimization as it is to get lost in the striving for more power? Isn’t the lack of drive and ambition just as much a sickness of the soul as having too much?
Exhibit A of this thinking is Facebook, a place where people go to get fake “likes” by projecting a fake image to what are often fake friends. If there is a materialistic shallowness of the guy who buys an expensive BMW in his search for happiness, there is also a shallowness of the person who has to create a fake persona in a cry for “likes” online. Both are searching for validation and one is just as shallow as the other.
While Brooks is no doubt correct that our achievement culture often gets out of balance and causes many people to lose sight of developing their inner qualities of kindness, respect and love, there’s also something positive to be said for ambition as a way to clarify and cleanse one’s soul.
Work is more than just a zero sum game of economics and the trading of labor for cash. Whether it’s on Wall Street or Main Street, the ability to develop and live by a work ethic forms character and shapes us as human beings.
Work teaches discipline, forces us to interact with others toward a common goal and focuses us to do some of what Brooks is calling for, that is to look beyond ourselves and belong to a cause larger than just our own lives.
Unlike Brooks, I’m not too worried about an overemphasis of an achievement culture in our society. I’m more concerned about the segments of our society that have abandoned the work ethic and become dependent physically, financially and emotionally on others to do for them what they will not do for themselves.
If anything rots the soul and separates one from a sense of fulfillment and happiness, it is the lack of self-esteem at having spent the day accomplishing something good. Work can be the conduit toward accomplishment not for glory, but for personal satisfaction as well.
Perhaps some of that is a faux happiness — closing a big deal on Wall Street may prove to be a transitory happiness compared to the deeper richness of building a relationship with a family member or friends. As Brooks suggests, we probably will be judged at our funeral more for the latter than the former.
And yet, there is something good to be said for the internal clarifying and cleansing process that ambition and work does for the human spirit. The collective energy of our human endeavors has long elevated our society. While some of that may be shallow or materialistic, it has also created a framework on which our basic human rights have been built. Work imparts dignity and self-respect. It is not the sum of our existence, of course. There are internal, soul-searching processes we need to confront as humans that fall outside the bounds of our labor.
But the bigger problem in our society today isn’t that too many people have gotten lost in the pursuit of too much ambition, it is that too many people have lost the edifying and enriching process that ambition fuels.
And of the two extremes, I’d much rather live in a society fueled by excessive striving than one focused on the ethereal search for internal happiness. The former can lead to the latter, but the latter will never lead to the former.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.