Dr Arthur Brooks teaches people to be happy. He is a Harvard professor and author whose work includes books such as From Strength to Strength (a New York Times Best Seller) and Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier, a book he co-authored with Oprah Winfrey. I recently had the privilege of attending a small group session with him, which I believe offered valuable guidance to physicians seeking to navigate the challenges of our profession while finding fulfillment and happiness.
As a behavioral scientist, Dr Brooks gleans inspiration from the everyday, observing humanity and eavesdropping on conversations. The motivation to write From Strength to Strength came from overhearing someone, who by all external accounts would be considered a hero for the achievements of his youth, lament to his partner that his life had amounted to nothing. Dr Brooks wanted to avoid being in the same position, so he wrote a book about “finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life.”
His work is grounded in the principles of behavioral science, particularly the concepts of fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. These ideas form the basis for understanding the evolution of intelligence throughout life and are based on theory from psychologist Dr Raymond Cattell (https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/raymond-cattell). Fluid intelligence peaks in early to mid-adulthood, when one’s ability to innovate, analyze, and solve novel problems is at its best. As the prefrontal cortex declines in the 40s and early 50s, however, crystallized intelligence takes over, characterized by pattern recognition, specialized knowledge, and judgment.
The key to aging happier is to recognize and embrace crystallized intelligence and derive happiness from sharing knowledge. Dr Brooks says that the essential element to happiness hygiene is to find “meaningful work wherein you earn your success and you serve other people.” I pushed him on this in our discussion, thinking about the exhausted physicians at risk of burnout who earn their living by healing others. How much more can one be expected to contribute? I was curious how he would counsel the overburdened physician, buckling under a heaving patient schedule and mountain of charting, to extend themselves further to impart wisdom and grow younger people.
I found that he answers this question best in his podcast conversation with Oprah (www.oprah.com/own-podcasts/arthur-brooks-strength-to-strength). They urge high achievers to break the “striver’s curse”—a vicious cycle of constantly seeking happiness from the next achievement. Instead of banking successes, they suggest that we accept the second curve and stop choosing to be special over being happy.
What resonated most with me was the principle of indispensability: they challenged listeners to consider what it is that only they can do. For example, someone else can do that eighth day of call, but no one else can be a mother to your kids. When you find yourself lamenting the passage of your fluid intelligence and being tempted by the striver’s curse, Dr Brooks’ advice would be to consider which of your virtues are most important: your “résumé virtues” (titles, money, etc.) or your “eulogy virtues” (generosity, wisdom, love, etc.).
As the holiday season approaches, my wish for my fellow physicians is that you find moments of respite, gratitude, and connection. Happy holidays, and may your path be a bit more illuminated by the wisdom of Dr Brooks.
—Caitlin Dunne, MD, FRCSC
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