Building a Better Life

In his new book, Arthur C. Brooks offers sage advice for creating contentment.

Building a Better Life

Arthur C. Brooks has a gift for metaphor. Just as flight attendants tell us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs, in order to Build the Life You Want, as his new book (co-authored with Oprah Winfrey) urges, people must develop a sense of happiness within themselves before helping others build theirs.

Develop greater happiness by doing what? He believes inner bliss “is a direction, not a destination,” and, therefore, the best we can ever hope for is to become happier. This requires doing (not being) specific things calculated to increase enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. To grow this trio of “macronutrients” requires committing to a “metacognition” plan (i.e., having a clear thought process in place that’s ready to kick in when needed) aimed at gaining control over one’s emotions to the point where positive feelings can be called up quickly to replace negative ones before harmful impulses cause major damage.

Another of Brooks’ metaphors explains how to pull off this quick change in emotions: Just as caffeine enters the brain, replaces feelings of tiredness, and makes us more alert, a person must make a choice whenever the decision-making part of the brain (the neocortex) first gets a whiff of negative emotions like anger, disgust, or fear. He can either let the destructive juices flow and suffer the fallout or else recognize, reject, and replace those bad feelings with positive ones like gratitude, hope, or compassion.

Timing is everything, however. If a person chooses to let negative urges detonate, the result is usually a self-inflicted injury. Conversely, if self-control arising from a locked-in metacognition game plan empowers someone to follow Thomas Jefferson’s sage advice — “When angry, count to 10; when very angry, count to a hundred” — then negative feelings need not lead to train wrecks, and emotional intelligence will carry the day. 

Think of it as a personal-happiness oxygen mask: breathing out the toxic and breathing in the uplifting. 

Just as the management of emotions can be achieved by using this good-for-bad substitution method, so, too, can haunting memories of past pain be transformed by putting positive spins on life lessons learned from old wounds. Viktor Frankl proved this most notably with the triumphant conclusion to his horrific Holocaust experience described in Man’s Search for Meaning. Wrote Frankl:

“The way in which man accepts his fate, and the suffering it entails, gives him ample opportunity to add a deeper meaning to his life. Life can be lived with beauty under the worst experiences.”

Brooks advises that after gaining victory over negative emotions and prior traumas, the best way to achieve a good life is by turning away from self-absorption and toward a commitment to enhancing others’ lives. He identifies four outward spheres to prioritize — family, friends, work, and faith — and says a hallmark of solid relationships is that the people in them complement each other; joined in fellowship, they become a much more formidable force than they’d ever be on their own.

He goes on to warn against isolation and shallowness and encourages deep connection and focused listening (both of which are rarities in our increasingly noisy, fractured culture). “Resentment,” he warns, “comes when people feel unnoticed.”

In an effort to channel my inner Arthur C. Brooks, here’s my best effort at a metaphor to describe the potential impact of Build the Life You Want: Like the game of life, golf is a sport in which a person may compete against others but ultimately competes against himself. For those looking to lower their emotional handicap, Brooks has, with his new book, teed up the best research and wisdom culled from some of history’s greatest thinkers. He then raises the tee to help us launch our own insights even farther.

Hopefully, readers will pull the driver of concentration from their bags, position themselves to access the better angels of their nature, and strike their little white ball of holistic life goals straight down the fairway.

[Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a longer feature that recently appeared in the Dallas Morning News.]

Talmage Boston is a lawyer and historian in Dallas whose most recent book is Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents. His next book, How the Best Did It: Leadership Lessons from Our Top Presidents, will be published by Post Hill Press on April 2, 2024.

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