Arthur Brooks' From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose (Part II)


Click HERE for Part I

People ponder how they will be remembered. Brooks notes that it doesn’t matter—people will forget you, and they move on. It’s pointless. In addition, to be “obsessing over the future squanders the present” [102]. He suggests a focus, not on ephemeral “resume virtues,” but on lasting “eulogy virtues” [102]. A related concept is “mindfulness” – living in the present as opposed to the past or the future [104].

How to be happy today? He cites a study that concludes with seven predictors of being happy:

  1. Don’t smoke
  2. Don’t abuse alcohol
  3. Healthy body weight
  4. Exercise
  5. Adaptive coping style
  6. Education
  7. Stable, long-term relationships [116-7]

With respect to the last point, how many relationships and how often? He clarifies that “loneliness is not the same as being alone….one can be emotionally and socially connected to others while alone. In fact, being alone is critical to one’s emotional well-being and peace of mind” [118]. What is loneliness? Brooks suggests that “loneliness is the experience of emotional and social isolation” [118].

It is a challenge. “Leaders are particularly prone to loneliness, in no small part because real friendships at work are difficult or impossible with people under one’s authority and supervision” [122]. What about other relationships? Brooks deals with core relationships, such as marriage. “The secret to happiness isn’t falling in love; it’s staying in love;” this is "companionate love" [125].

He says that “marriage bonds are more emotionally important to men as they age than they are to older women because, for many men, work has crowded out friendships, and those they have are more focused on, say, golf than feelings” [128]. Perhaps adult children can fill the gap? Brooks says that for him adult kids should not be your best friends as you age - “they are focused on their lives, not mine—as they should be” [129]. They want and need their independence.

What about friends through work? He distinguishes “real friends” and “deal friends.” One great marker for the happiness of people in mid-life and after is to have a few authentic, close friends. This is not easy as “people tend to get more selective about their friends as they age and reduce the number of true intimates” [132]. Friendship is a skill that requires practice, time, and commitment [133]. Work friendships are not a substitute for real friendships.

There are three aspects to how to build relationships. First, allocate time well ahead of time. Second, do your core job. Brooks explains that “I regularly write out a list of the people with whom I need a stronger relationship. Then I list next to them what they need from me that only I can provide” [139]. Lastly, invest intelligently. Am I investing in the lives of others to build them up?

His approach to friends, life, happiness, and purpose is rooted in his values. He states his own starting point: “I am a Roman Catholic convert, having come into the church as a teenager after being raised in an observant Protestant home. My Christian faith was central to my parents’ lives and it is central to my life as well, even though I practice it in a different way than they did” [156].

He addresses a riposte that has clearly come his way in dialogue with others that his faith is a feeble crutch and a coping mechanism. His view is that “…wanting spiritual depth is not a weakness, it is a new source of strength—strength needed to jump to the crystallized intelligence curve” [170].

Again, he has an interesting insight regarding entrepreneurs. “Who is the most successful entrepreneur in human history?” [171] He says, the Apostle Paul. “Paul was right. His secret of going from strength to strength is to recognize that your weakness—your loss, your decline—can be a gift to you and others” [174]. Inevitable failures can be a deep source of connection. Resilience grows from losses and negative events.

In concluding his book, Brooks returns to his overall theme. “There is a falling tide to life, the transition from fluid to crystallized intelligence. This is an intensely productive and fertile period” [190]. There may be uncomfortable life transitions. He introduces the interesting concept of “liminality,” which means the time between work roles, organizations, career paths, and relationship stages [191]. Navigating that well is not easy.

For many people, significant “life quakes” happen every 18 months or so, and most are involuntary [192]. Brooks argues that when you find meaning, life seems more stable. I would liken it to the Christian concept of calling, a ballast of life. A key to happiness is to manage transitions well. Brooks notes that while transitions are real and inevitable, crises are not [198].

He provides four lessons for good liminality:

  1. Identify your marshmallow – to delay gratification for the greater benefit
  2. The work you do has to be the reward
  3. Do the most interesting thing you can – enjoyable + meaningful
  4. Career change doesn’t have to be in a straight line

In short, Brooks’ book provides many interesting insights into success, happiness, and deep purpose not just in the second half of life. His insights are useful at the start of one’s career, too. Brooks concludes his book with seven words to remember: “Use things. Love people. Worship the divine” [215].