On Wednesday night, Arthur Brooks spoke on “Life Lessons from Covid-19” to members of the Bowdoin and local communities.
After making friendly small talk with President Clayton Rose as everyone got seated, Brooks told the audience about his first connection to Bowdoin—the 1986 Chamber Music Festival at which he played and taught.
Brooks has returned to Bowdoin on multiple occasions since his first visit. He participated in a discussion with journalist Frank Bruni in 2017 titled “Talking Face-to-Face When You Don’t See Eye-to-Eye,” and in 2019 he was named the inaugural Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow.
His 2019 appointment was met with considerable backlash from the campus community, primarily due to his tenure as leader of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative political think tank. Students and faculty voiced dissatisfaction with the lack of consultation in his selection as fellow.
Brooks’ last event in 2019 coincided with the release of his book, “Love Your Enemies,” in which he discussed his ideas about healing political division in America. His talk on Wednesday related to his most recent book, “From Strength to Strength,” an element of his larger work regarding happiness. Brooks sees society’s current struggles with Covid-19 as an opportunity for growth and change. He believes there are four major areas from which happiness is derived: faith, family, friends and purpose.
“Here’s the funny thing about purpose: you don’t get it without suffering… Even little traumas can lead to big growth,” Brooks said.
He defined three existing problems that he believes are robbing our world of its happiness: loneliness, fear and unwelcome change. To each of these problems he prescribed a solution. For loneliness, he mentioned purposive eye contact, 22-second hugs every two hours and limited social media use, all of which increase oxytocin—the “love molecule.”
“We need to be more intensely in contact with each other,” Brooks said.
Brooks finds fear to be complicated because our brains have evolved with it to keep us alive—yet in the modern world, this results in “mild chronic fear.” He suggests waking up each morning and thinking, “I will not waste the gift of this day.”
Regarding unwelcome change, Brooks advocated for accepting change with open arms for its lessons. He believes that the most valuable lessons are learned in the “liminal states between status quo and status quo.”
Brooks remarked on the seeming occurrence of a major event in the world roughly every ten years. This idea disturbed some attendees.
“He suggested that we should stop dreading catastrophes because one happens every ten years, and then cited 9/11, the Financial Crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union … This is coming from the guy actively exacerbating existential catastrophes through climate denialism and ‘poor-shaming’,” Colter Adams ’24 said.
Brooks cited the science behind his claims on emotional well being, replete with maps of the brain experiencing different emotions and social-media-use studies.
“He talked about being aware of your emotions by relating it to the functions of different parts of your brain, which I think is really appealing and relaxing for people trying to understand why they go through things,” Dov McGuire-Berk ’24 said.
Adams was not as supportive of the subject matter.
“I thought it was a bit rich to sit through a happiness lesson focused on learning from hardships taught by a multi-millionaire who spent 10 years running a think tank whose raison d’être is making people’s lives more difficult,” Adams said.
Following his hour-long presentation, Brooks answered audience questions. The subjects were wide-ranging, but many students asked questions pertinent to their personal situations. One student asked about his meditation practice and spirituality, and in his response Brooks referenced his friendship with the Dalai Lama.
Another student asked about their friend’s tumultuous romantic relationship, and if there are places in life where there should not be change.
“The foundation of stability is love,” Brooks said, referencing his relationship with his family.
Yet, Brooks suggested that this foundation means that you need less consistency in other areas.
“You’re the startup entrepreneur of your life. That means taking big risks with your heart,” Brooks said.
Brooks will further engage with the Bowdoin community this morning through a conversation with local faith leaders entitled “Faith, Leadership, and Political Change,” and this afternoon will participate in an “Intergroup Dialogue on Politics.”