Arthur Brooks on Finding Purpose During the Pandemic

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Applying the science of happiness

In a 19 May 2020 Weiner Conference Call, Arthur Brooks, professor of the practice of public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, describes how insights from happiness research can be applied to challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic to develop habits that will be useful now and after the pandemic recedes.

In the conference call (link to recording above) Brooks refers listeners to his How to Build a Life columns in The Atlantic and his The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks podcast (see links below).

Seize the opportunity

Brooks advises viewing the circumstances imposed by the pandemic with the entrepreneur’s lens – every challenge presents an opportunity. Rather than “How can we get through this?” we should be asking “What can we learn so that we come out of this in a better place?”

Brooks uses “subjective well-being” as a synonym for happiness and asserts that it includes both Aristotle’s hedonia and eudaimonia:

“Hedonia is about feeling good; eudaimonia is about living a purpose-filled life. In truth, we need both. Hedonia without eudaimonia devolves into empty pleasure; eudaimonia without hedonia can become dry.” (4 Rules, below)

Brooks describes the three determinants of subjective well-being: 1) genetics (which largely determine one’s set point or baseline to which one returns after events alter one’s moods), 2) circumstances, and 3) habits.

He views habits as investments toward or draws from the four building blocks of subjective well being: family, career, friendships, and faith (where faith can include secular life philosophies that provide “a structure through which one can ponder life’s deeper questions and transcend a focus on your narrow self-interests to serve others”).

Circumstances and homeostasis

Brooks notes that, because of psychological homeostasis (the tendency to get used to circumstances quickly), the effects of circumstances (such as a lottery win, a promotion, or even a permanent injury) on subjective well-being are surprisingly short lived and that homeostasis produces a hedonic treadmill where one can never have enough money because one gets used to one’s circumstances very quickly. To escape the treadmill he advises:

“Don’t obsess about your haves; manage your wants instead. … Make list of the attachments in your life you need to discard. Then make a plan to do just that. The fewer wants there are screaming inside your brain and dividing your attention, the more peace and satisfaction will be left for what you already have.” (The Three Equations, below)

Strategies for dealing with disappointment, uncertainty, and loneliness

Brooks notes that three of the most common problems produced by the coronavirus are disappointment, uncertainty, and loneliness. He emphasizes the importance of acknowledging (rather than avoiding) the problems but also taking concrete steps to deal with them by taking the following steps: identify and acknowledge the problem; understand the science behind the problem, including the common cognitive error; resolve to take action that the science indicates will help.


The problem – excessive rumination about things missed because of the pandemic

The science – the brain processes disappointment about outcomes caused by events outside one’s control similarly to regret at outcomes caused by events where one has agency and where  rumination and counterfactual thinking can which help avoid such occurrences in the future

The error – confusing disappointment with regret and ruminating over disappointment with no benefit

The recommendation – 1) acknowledge that you are disappointed; 2) understand that disappointment is not the same as regret and that rumination does not help;  3) resolve to not ruminate on that which you are  unavoidably missing


The problem – excessive time and effort seeking information on the pandemic

The science – threat uncertainty about a threat drives the psychological need to acquire more information to convert the uncertainty to manageable risk

The error – confusing uncertainty (unknown possible outcomes and thus unknowable probabilities) with risk (known possible outcomes and probabilities that can be estimated)

The recommendation – 1) acknowledge that fear associated with threat uncertainty is unavoidable; 2) understand that not enough is yet known about coronavirus to be able to convert uncertainty into risk and searching for more news won’t help; 3) resolve to limit pandemic-related news consumption to 30 minutes per day


The problem – lack of social connection

The science – human interactions, particularly touch and eye contact, stimulate production of the neurotransmitter, oxytocin and social distancing leads to an oxycontin deficit

The error – seeking replacement of social connection through social media

The recommendation – 1) acknowledge that loneliness occurs even when sheltering with loved ones; 2) understand that the neurobiological impacts of loneliness can be reduced by increasing touching and eye contact, including through Zoom-style technologies; 3) resolve to increase eye contact and appropriate touching (e.g., Brooks and spouse aim for 22-second hugs every two hours!) and limit social media consumption to 30 minutes per day

Happiness-related columns and podcasts by Arthur Brooks

Arthur Brooks (2020), How to Build A Life columns in The Atlantic, at, accessed 25 May 2020:

Earlier Brooks columns, now included in The Atlantic’s How to Build A Life category:

Arthur Brooks (2020), The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks podcasts, at,

Click for podcast

accessed 26 May 2020.


Arthur Brooks (2020, 63-minute audio), Finding Purpose During the Pandemic, Harvard Kennedy School, Wiener Conference Call, 19 May 2020, at, accessed 24 May 2020.

Atlas topic, subject and course

Managing Oneself (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 27 June 2020.

Image: SoundCloud link for Harvard Kennedy School’s 19 May 2020 Wiener Conference Call at, accessed 24 May 2020.