The Social Animal

Those of you who know me well, know that I have been a big fan of David Brooks since the end of 2001 – that’s coming up on ten solid years of fandom. Let me give you a little history.

David Brooks, signing my copy of On Paradise Drive in 2005

I was introduced to Brooks in my first semester at Covenant College where, in Dr. Green’s Christian Mind class, we read his excellent Atlantic Monthly article, “The Organization Kid.” It was a simultaneously bracing and humorous commentary on an undercurrent in American society that everyone knew was there but no one wanted to really talk about, or at least without equivocating: the misguided desire to create perfect adults out of perfect children in the incessant drive for material success and prestige.

I was hooked. I quickly began to take advantage of my dad’s Atlantic subscription and voraciously read his monthly column, plus my regular visits to Aunt Collyn’s allowed me to read his Weekly Standard articles – this was before the era of consuming all articles on the internet. I even tried to watch him every Friday night on PBS Newshour, if I had access to a TV, just to see what he had to say about that week in politics. It seemed there was no aspect of American society he couldn’t comment on, and comment on knowledgeably, with a healthy dose of wit.

In 2003 he came out with his first book, Bobos in Paradise, just in time for my parents to give it to me for my birthday. It quickly became one of my favorite books, and Brooks managed to turn “bobo” into a household word, even an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Bobo is short for bohemian-bourgeois – a new class of Americans, he argues, that try to meld conventional bourgeois values of upwardly mobile careers, polo shirts and middle-class sublimity with counter-cultural bohemian values of multiculturalism, organic food and ridiculously expensive eco-shower-heads. It was a brilliant read.

In 2004 I was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. and got to attend an invitation-only event where he was speaking at the White House. Not only did I get to meet my writing hero, but I even got my copy of Bobos signed and my picture taken. Exciting stuff for a college junior. Later that summer and onwards I went to different book signings, including ones for his second (not as successful, but still very good) book, On Paradise Drive, which told the story of future-focused life in the new American exurbs.

OK, by now you’re thinking: “When does Anna’s stalkerdom stop? Make it stop!” Don’t worry, it ended in 2005 – two years after Brooks began his full-time stint as columnist for the New York Times. I was surprised when he got that gig, but now it makes perfect sense. After all, he is labeled “every liberal’s favorite conservative.” And now, apparently, the White House phones him regularly to ask if they should be “worried.” That is how influential his column has become.

Six years and many columns later, he has finally come out with a much-anticipated new book: The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. This one is quite a departure from his previous two. What it loses in humor (and I was disappointed by the lack of this), it gains in the maturation of his social scientific understanding. His previous two books were works of “comic sociology” (his phrase), but this one is a culmination of all his reading into works of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and the unconscious mind.

Quite heady stuff, and because of that I am not going to attempt an all-encompassing review of the book. Part of the problem is – and given my admiration of Brooks, I hesitate to write this – I am not entirely sure what the central point of the book is, except to say that modern science, economics and management principles are not sufficient in determining what causes and motivates human behavior. Less measurable things such as connection, relationships, culture, emotion and the human unconscious are just as, if not more, important. If that is all that politicians get out of this book (and apparently, “they” are reading it all over Westminster), then that can only be a good thing!

I did just want to pick up on a few elements in the book, and point out a few missing elements which others have picked up on as well.

Firstly, Brooks points out the lack of connection between material well-being and happiness, something that has been documented in many recent studies:

(p 196) Living standards in the United States have risen dramatically over the past fifty years. But this has produced no measurable uptick in happiness. On the other hand, the United States has become a much more unequal society. This inequality doesn’t seem to have reduced national happiness either, even among the poor.

Winning the lottery produces a short-term jolt of happiness, but the long-term effects are invisible. The happiness gain you get from moving from poor to middle class is greater than the gain you get moving from middle to upper class; the happiness curve flattens out…People who place tremendous emphasis on material well-being tend to be less happy than people who don’t.

So what is it that brings happiness? Brooks would argue that it’s a complex web of things which doesn’t exclude material well-being, but includes things such as secure human relationships, magnanimity, living with a purpose beyond self-service, and moral commitments. (Eat that, Ayn Rand.)

But what’s unique about Brooks’s argument is that he puts “emotion and unconscious intuition at the center of moral life, not reason.” Moral knowledge is not just about “manning up” and doing what’s right based on rationality and logic. Here he talks about rationalist v. intuitionist assumptions:

(p. 282) [The intuitionist account] stresses moral reflexes, alongside individual choice; it emphasizes the role perception plays in moral decision making, before logical deduction. In the intuitionist view, the primary struggle is not between reason and the passions. Instead, the crucial contest is within…the unconscious-mind sphere itself. This view starts with the observation that we all are born with deep selfish drives – a drive to take what we can, to magnify our status, to appear superior to others, to exercise power over others, to satisfy lusts. These drives warp perception…The unconscious has to first dehumanize the victim and change the way he is seen.”

Brooks is (possibly intentionally) borrowing from the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of original sin when he uses the phrase “we are all born with deep selfish drives.” Brooks, perhaps because of his Jewish background, has no problem with the idea of human depravity. However, he believes it’s possible to overcome this drive by stepping outside of oneself for redemption – here he describes the protagonist Erica’s reaction to her one-night-stand affair, in a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like soliloquy:

(p. 293) In the weeks after, when she thought about the episode [of having the affair], she became newly aware that it really was possible to become a stranger to yourself, that you always have to be on the lookout, and to find some vantage point from which you can try to observe yourself from the outside. She told herself a story about herself. It was the story of drift and redemption – of a woman who’d slid off her path inadvertently and who needed anchors to connect her to what was true and admirable. She needed to change her life, to find a church, to find some community group and a cause, and above all, to improve her marriage, to tether herself to a set of moral commitments.”

Well, here we come to some of the things that are missing from this book. The book takes us through the entire lives of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica. They end up getting married, but they don’t have children, and they have very little interaction with organized religion. Lacking these two things, they live a lifestyle which is still in the minority in modern American society– maybe they would have fit better in France? Erica has some interaction with her extended family, but throughout the whole book the sense is that they have no real roots. They each pursue their individual dreams and their marriage suffers as a result. How is this “the happiest story you’ll ever read”? Maybe Brooks is trying to be ironic, showing that we don’t always act on what we know and believe to be true? I’m not sure. I found the narrative of these two people strange and prefer his old style of creating different characters for different scenarios (my favorite is the couple in On Paradise Drive who buy a grill from Home Depot – read it yourself for some real entertainment).

But this, while not unimportant, is a relatively minor gripe. The book is full of fascinating insights and ideas. One of the most intriguing concepts he writes about is “limerence”:

(p. 208) As we go through our days, the mind generates anticipatory patterns, based on the working models stored inside it. Often there’s tension between the inner models and the outer world. So we try to come up with concepts that will help us understand the world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there’s a surge of pleasure. It’s not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. If that were so, we’d be happy living on the beach all our lives. It’s the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficult to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh…

(p. 213) The longing for limerence doesn’t automatically produce perfect romances or easy global harmony. We spend large parts of our lives trying to get others to accept our patterns – and trying to resist this sort of mental hegemony from others. On a broader scale, people don’t just connect; they compete to connect. We compete against one another to win the prestige and respect and attention that will help us bond with one another. We seek to surpass one another in earning one another’s approval. That’s the logic of our complicated game.

This is very true – we really do “compete to connect” with one another. I know I do. We want to be the best we can be in the eyes of other people, but to do that we not only have to be perceived as better than other people, we have to be perceived as better than the very person whose admiration we long for. This is an insidious form of depravity.

One can’t help but notice that the character of Harold is written from the perspective of David Brooks himself – I mean, he loves big ideas and works for a think tank. Harold’s dying thoughts at the end of the book are a sort of ode to the unconscious:

(p. 373) Harold tried and failed to see into the tangle of connections, the unconscious region, which he came to think of as the Big Shaggy. The only proper attitude toward this region was wonder, gratitude, awe, and humility. Some people think they are the dictators of their own life. Some believe the self is an inert wooden ship to be steered by a captain at the helm. But Harold had come to see that his conscious self – the voice in his head – was more a servant than a master. It emerged from the hidden kingdom and existed to nourish, edit, restrain, attend, refine, and deepen the soul within.

It’s almost scary to think that our conscious thoughts could be servants to our unconscious self, a self that seems so hidden to us. However, the research that has come out in the past few decades has shed some light on this part of our brains, and Brooks does a solid job of bringing it together into one very readable, if ambitious, book.

For those of you still reading, below is a great example of why I love David Brooks’s writing – a description of Harold’s high-school English teacher:

(p. 79) When Harold met her, she was in her late twenties and teaching English. She listened to Feist, Yael Naim, and the Arcade Fire. She read Dave Eggers and Jonathan Franzen. She was addicted to hand sanitizer and Diet Coke. She wore her hair too long and too natural, to show she wasn’t on the job interview/law associate career track. She loved scarves and wrote letters longhand…

Before long she became matchmaker. She decided it was her role in life to look deep into her students’ souls, diagnose their core longing, and then match that person with the piece of middlebrow literature that would uniquely change his life. She would stop her students in the hallway, and she would press a book into their hands, and with a trembling voice she would tell him, “You are not alone!”

It had never occurred to many of these kids that they were alone. But Ms. Taylor, perhaps overgeneralizing from her own life, assumed that behind every cheerleader, behind every band member, behind every merit scholar there was a life of quiet desperation.

And so she offered books as salvation. She saw books as a way to escape isolation and feel communion with Those Who Feel. “This book saved my life,” she would tell her students, one by one, in hushed whispers after class. She would invite them into the church of those who are redeemed by high-school reading lists.