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Arthur Brooks on cracking the code to happiness in the second half of life


Three years ago, back in 2019, I sat down with Arthur Brooks, the writer and social scientist, and he told me about an experience he had had on a plane where he'd found himself seated in the row ahead of an older gentleman.

ARTHUR BROOKS: And he was talking to his wife, and I was - I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but hear. And he was saying he wished he were dead. And I thought it was somebody who must have been really disappointed about his life. But then at the end of the flight, he stood up and I recognized him as somebody who's really quite prominent and who'd done a lot with his life. And I thought to myself, what's he doing wrong?

KELLY: In other words, if this really prominent, really successful person wasn't happy with his life, what does it say for the rest of us trying to find purpose, relevance, even joy as we age? Well, Arthur Brooks had started noodling the question. He had written a piece for The Atlantic, a piece he has now turned into a book. It is titled "From Strength To Strength." Arthur Brooks, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BROOKS: Thank you. Great to be with you.

KELLY: So in the three years since I have seen you, you clearly realized you had a lot more to say on this topic, this topic of aging and finding success in later life. Lay out for us the big question you're exploring in the book.

BROOKS: Well, I started doing research. Again, I'm a social scientist, but this is very personal. This is mesearch (ph) more than research, really. You know, what can we expect if we're trying to work so hard to build something with our lives? And I found that half the population tends to get happier and happier after 65 or 70, and the other half of the population more or less starts to go back down. And the group that goes back down often includes the strivers, the people who have worked so hard, because the party ends.

And look. If you don't do anything or don't do too much with your life, you don't know when it's over. But if you've worked really hard to build things, to meet your goals, to get rewarded, when it finishes, it can be incredibly disconcerting, disappointing, even devastating to people. And that's what I found. And so I went in search of the solutions to that problem to look at the people who had cracked the code. And I think I might've found it.

KELLY: OK. Well, before we get there, because now you've wet my appetite, but let me just make clear what - how you are framing this. This is a conversation about the second half of life, which you are defining as when? Like, what age? I'm a little worried about your answer, I got to say.

BROOKS: Well, so it's actually quite interesting given the fact that we live so much longer than when I was a kid. You know, when I was little, the average age to death for a man was 67. Now, if you live - I'm 57 years old, and I'm in perfect health as far as I know. And actuarial tables say that I have even odds of living past 95. So let's just say your adult life starts at 20. If that's the case and you're in good health, you can pretty much expect or you should expect to live to 90, in which case half of your adult life is over at 55. And that means you have the second half left starting at 55.

KELLY: And I will note this is fundamentally an optimistic book. I mean, the title, "From Strength To Strength," it's not from feeble to feebler. That is where your data, your research has left you, that you're optimistic about our later years.

BROOKS: Incredibly. I mean, I started it out - it was pretty grim, the man on the plane. And I thought, oh, my goodness, is this what we have to look forward to? And I found that there are people who have cracked the code but, more importantly, that we don't have to leave happiness in the second half of life up to chance and, furthermore, that we can find a new kind of success if we're willing to make some jumps and some changes and show some humility and have an adventure that's better than the first half.

KELLY: Before we get to how to crack the code, can I just question the premise that there is, in fact, a code to crack? I mean, I'm thinking I can point to people in my field, in journalism, in politics, in law, all kinds of professions who are at the top of their game in their 50s, in their 60s, in the 70s and beyond. Are they - what? - outliers, the exception that proves the rule, what?

BROOKS: Generally speaking, they're the ones who have found the secret to second-half success. In other words, there's a different formula for succeeding in the early part of your life and career than that which is actually most appropriate for the second half. It requires different skills and a different emphasis. And those people that we see in almost every profession that are thriving as they get older, they're the ones who've been able to make the shift.

KELLY: Yeah. And just again, for people thinking, huh, really, I introduced you as a social scientist. You're saying this based on data that you have gone through, compiled and looked at.

BROOKS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to say secrets, it makes it sound like there's some sort of hack. No, you got to do the work. You can't just wish for it and you can't hope you get lucky. And that's the point. The point of the work that I'm doing as a social scientist is to not leave your happiness up to chance but to remarkably increase the odds by doing the work at 25 and 45 and 65 so that by the time you're 75 and 85 and beyond, you're happier than you've ever been.

KELLY: So how do we do it? How do we increase the odds?

BROOKS: Well, to begin with, there's a very interesting set of findings that said that success early on is based on one of two types of intelligence. The first is called fluid intelligence, which gives you the ability to solve problems, to crack the case, to innovate faster and to focus harder than pretty much all the competition early on in your career. This is your Elon Musk brain.

And this increases through your 20s and into your 30s. But then it tends to decline through your 40s and 50s, meaning that you need to move to the second kind of intelligence, which is increasing in your 40s and 50s and even your 60s, and it will stay high for the rest of your life. That's called your crystallized intelligence, which is your wisdom, your ability to compile the information that's in your vast library to teach better, to explain better, to form teams better - in other words, not to answer somebody else's questions but to form the right questions.

KELLY: You started to touch on something, and I just want to follow up on it. For younger people listening, people who are definitively in the first half of life...

BROOKS: Right.

KELLY: ...Is there stuff they should have in the back of their heads now so they're better prepared for when they get there?

BROOKS: Yeah. No. 1 is that you don't have just one formula, that you're going to change. One of the biggest things that I teach my students at the Harvard Business School is that what you think right now is not what you're going to think later. The things that you want are not the things that you're going to want later. Your abilities are going to change. Your views are going to change. The things you care about is going to change. And that's good and that's healthy. And that kind of flexibility is key.

KELLY: I am thinking about that since you and I first spoke about this three years ago, the world has thrown all of us a huge old curve ball in the form of a pandemic. Everybody's reconsidering their lives and trying to figure out how to live more productive lives longer. Does the pandemic accelerate trends you were already investigating?

BROOKS: It certainly can because people have had time to look inward. This has been, you know, a terrible scourge. Everybody knows that the pandemic is not something that we wanted, but it's also been an incredible opportunity for a lot of people. I mean, for me, I was able to quietly write this book and set up a strategic plan for the rest of my life. A lot of other people tell me similar stories of how they deepened their relationships, that they understood themselves better. And this is something that we should remember as we get back into the hustle and bustle of non-pandemic life, I mean, assuming that we go back to something like normal, which I think we are. Let's not forget that there are certain things that we don't want to go back to.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Harvard professor Arthur Brooks. His new book is "From Strength To Strength: Finding Success, Happiness And Deep Purpose In The Second Half Of Life." Arthur Brooks, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.