The Social Animal by David Brooks

Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.

So begins New York Times columnist and political pundit David Brooks in his sociological journey The Social Animal, a penetrating yet accessible narrative that delves into the inner-workings of the brain and ultimately the human condition. Brooks and I are not politically simpatico, but that’s irrelevant. I often find myself deeply intrigued by him, particularly when he discusses the congruence of culture and biology. In The Social Animal he attempts to reveal and deconstruct the brain’s central role in our emotional life—its processes entirely hidden from awareness. Following two fictional characters—Harold and Erica—we watch as Brooks creates every stage and facet of their lives giving us a behind the scenes look their emotional responses via brain activity from birth to death. Throughout the book, Brooks identifies the brain mechanisms at work that trigger their individual impulses, insights and decisions. It is an illuminating view on what constitutes a happy life and how, under the control of our brain, we may come to have one.

Returning to the passage above, perhaps you recall Brooks’ 2011 op-ed lacerating “tiger mother” Amy Chua. It’s clear to see why he so vehemently disagreed with her parenting philosophy, which advocated achievement-oriented tasks over social skills. Beyond Chua’s household, achievement remains our primary national philosophy. But, as Brooks contends—with the support of scientific research—in terms of helping children grow into successful, happy adults, social fluency resoundingly trumps academic fluency. School establishes an understanding in patterns of social order that extends beyond the diploma. If, as a modern society, the focus of childhood development rests primarily with achievement rather than social wellbeing, we are not fully preparing our children to cope with the true obstacles (the emotional ones) they will face as adults.

So in our own society, who is modeling character? And why is this so important? As Brooks explains:

“The main business of the brain is modeling…. We are continually constructing little anticipatory patterns in our brain to help us predict the future: If I put my hand here, then this will happen. If I smile, then she’ll smile. If our model meshes with what actually happens, we experience a little drip of sweet affirmation. If it doesn’t, then there’s a problem, and the brain has to learn what the glitch is and adjust the model.”

This is how we learn: adjusting the model we’ve formed based on patterns we’ve previously recognized. Brooks continues:

“This function is one of the fundamental structures of desire. As we go through our days, the mind generates anticipatory patters, based on the working models stored inside of it. Often there’s tension between inner models and the outer world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situations, 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, difficulty to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh.”

I want to reiterate what I believe to be the most important aspect of that statement: a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. Rather than perpetuating the myth that happiness is a fixed endpoint—an achievable goal—it’s important to firmly establish it as an ongoing process. Doing xyz is not a guaranteed path to eternal happiness. But that’s what we’ve all been led to believe, which inevitably leads to feelings of inadequacy. If we understand happiness as cyclical, and accept and surrender to the process, we can then embrace the opportunity for character-building and emotional depth. In collectively doing so, our cultural focus might shift away from zero-substance celebrities and morally vacant “reality stars” we put on pedestals only to watch them fall.

As Brooks further asserts, above all “people seek limerence with one another.” We cannot survive without “empathetic contact.” It seems obvious, but where we primarily crave harmony is within our personal relationships. Because at the heart of our motivation is a desire for recognition. And in order to be truly empathetic, to understand and share the feelings of others, you must share a similar experience. Without experience, what do you really know? It’s this aspect that binds family—the shared history. So, rather than be discouraged, we must attune ourselves to life’s necessary rhythm. Character-building occurs within the phases of difficulty; happiness is located in the act of insight. Difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. Seek and re-seek limerence. Savor the special moments.

-JF, 2012

Citation: Brooks, David. The Social Animal. New York, Random House, 2011. Print.

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