You might think this is cheesy, but really, it’s true. “Happiness is love. Full Stop.” And this was the theme of David Brooks’ talk at the World Affairs Council last night. These are not his words, but they echo a persistent philosophy throughout his op-ed career at NYT (ex: “They Had It Made”, 2009).
The person who made this claim first was George Vaillant, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard who studied the effect of relationships on happiness. His conclusion: happiness is determined in many ways by relationships.
In his talk, Brooks emphasized this point. He cited that a happy marriage is worth an annual income of $100,000 in happiness. Relationships matter (though they are not self-determining), and because of this we need to be more focused on healthy attachments, on both an individual basis and a political one too. Attachment, for all of you who skipped intro to psychology (good job!– I’m not being sarcastic), generally refers to the relationship between an infant and a mother (or primary caretaker). A healthy attachment means that the mother is able to communicate with her infant to provide for her/his emotional needs of security and care. Unhealthy attachments (and there are several brands of these) mean the connection from the mother is severed, and the infant’s need for security and connection are not met. As Brooks pointed out, unhealthy attachments, though not entirely decisive, act as a lifelong deficiency for children. Kids with unhealthy childhood attachments (which are largely determined in the first 18 months) are far less likely to graduate from high school. And a point that Brooks did not bring up that really should be: kids who have not experienced healthy attachments often are not able to develop healthy attachments to their own partners or offspring later on.
Brooks blames many of the our domestic problems in the United States on unhealthy attachments and unstable family lives. I don’t think he is wrong (though I would probably emphasize it a little less, especially during these hard economic and increasingly divisive times). We humans are largely shaped by experience, and the fact that so many children are growing up in unstable homes is a devastating prospect for our young generation. And policy is not often responsive to these social dimensions. Rather than looking at the psychological roots of suffering, we often resort to material needs as a band-aid. He calls this lack of psychological consideration “the great amputation”. But in this case it’s the loss of a vital organ rather than a limb.
And as Brooks pointed out, there is a similar problem in foreign policy. The lack of consideration of the cultural, psychosocial roots of conflict in other countries results in short-sighted “interventions”/catastrophes (see Lebanon, Iraq, etc.). In our decisions abroad, we often seem to forget about the state’s history, its cultural roots, and its people.
All of this calls for is a strategic change in philosophy. (We do like strategy, don’t we?) To work at a domestic level, we must ensure that children have access to health attachments beyond the home. This is a long-term strategy to raise a new generation of caring individuals. Our most lucrative pathway for this development is education. As Brooks said, “People learn from the people they love”. More focus and trust must go into a force of well-trained, loving teachers.
At an international level, decision makers need to start implementing a less strategic role and be more cautious of culture, history, and individuals before acting. Right now as we consider armed intervention in Syria (something has got to be done, but with caution, multilateral cooperation, and with minimized arms–no one seems to know how to pull that off yet) and future strikes on Iran (and I’d like to add in the U.S. decision to cut funding to UNESCO on behalf of Israel as one of these unthought-out foreign policy decisions), “the great amputation” is cutting off both our brain and our heart despite ourselves.