When David was a junior, a girl named Jane transferred to the University of Chicago. She had curly brown hair and the athletic body of a field hockey player. David met her in the dining hall, and they were friends for months before their first date.
During that date, they discovered they had the same liberal politics and Hubert Humphrey poster.
How amazing! They had so much in common! They must be meant for each other!
Evidently so. David Brooks and the former Jane Hughes have been married 25 years and are the parents of three children.
The decision to marry Jane — she would change her name to Sarah Brooks — was rational and conscious, to be sure. But there were, David Brooks now knows, all sorts of emotional undercurrents and unconscious forces at work — pheromones, similar nose widths, complementary immune systems, perhaps.
Whatever the case, the choice was fateful. Indeed, choosing a mate is one of the most important decisions we make, and has a huge impact on our chances of achieving lifelong happiness.
So argues Brooks in his provocative and fascinating new book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement” (Random House, $27), a novelistic nonfiction hybrid that seeks to do nothing less than revolutionize our notions about how we function and conduct our lives. Citing the latest science, Brooks, popular New York Times columnist and author of the 2000 bestseller “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” shows that an astonishing amount is beyond our conscious control.
“We have a conventional story of how achievement happens,” Brooks said during lunch recently in Philadelphia, “and it emphasizes grades and SAT scores and what conscious decisions you make. This book is meant to be told one level down, in the world of emotions and intuitions and biases. That’s where the real action is taking place; that’s who we really are.”
Most of us assume that we’re rational animals: individualistic, autonomous, in control, plotting our moves like chess players. Not so, Brooks contends.
“In reality, we’re social animals,” Brooks said, “and we’re guided by emotions and relationships. We’re not as individual as we think we are, and we deeply interpenetrate each other.”
Or, as he writes in his book: “If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection.”
This book, his third, is different for Brooks. Yes, it exhibits the Brooksian hallmarks — prodigious reading and research; an agile, synthesizing intelligence; a rollicking, satiric eye for what Tom Wolfe called “the details of status life” — but it also shows a softer, more mellow side of the incisive political analyst and deadline anthropologist who enlivens The “PBS NewsHour.”
It is, to begin with, a book about love, and it evinces the wise, almost tender perspective of a man who has reached, to quote Wordsworth, the “years that bring the philosophic mind.”
“It does feel like it was written by someone who’s midway through his career and looking for other stuff,” Brooks said. “Maybe that’s what attracted me to the topic.”
The book is different, too, in form. It derives its narrative power from the stories of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, whose lives, from childhood to old age, illustrate the science that Brooks seeks to impart.
In his youth, Harold is of average aptitude in most respects, but he possesses superior emotional intelligence, or “noncognitive skills.” Reared in shabby apartments, Erica, of mixed Chinese and Mexican descent, is fiercely ambitious. Eventually, Harold and Erica marry, and Erica winds up serving as deputy chief of staff to an Obama-like president.
“We value people who can get straight A’s, but we don’t value people who have an intuitive sense of how reality works — what we call ‘street smarts,’” Brooks said. “The research now shows the importance of that awareness and sensitivity.”
In college, Brooks aspired to be a novelist. Here he gets his chance.
“I had to be dragged into doing it,” he said. “When I wrote the first draft, the characters were pretty much stick figures, and every reader said, ‘I want to learn more about these people,’ and so I kept fleshing them out. But everything that happens to both of them is based on research.”
Brooks began the book about four years ago. His curiosity about why kids drop out of high school led him to explore early-childhood education and the crucial first two years of life, which led in turn to brain-formation research and the hot field of neuroscience. Brain scientists, he found, are “filling the gap” once occupied by philosophy and theology — “telling us who we are and how we think.”
Another distinctive feature of the book is its perspective. “This is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” Brooks announces in the first paragraph. “It’s about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives.”
The passage, deliberately antipodal to the sad opening of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” is not ironic. “Every novel you read about suburbia is always about unhappy people,” Brooks explained. “They might be outwardly successful but inwardly they’re miserable. I wanted to do a book about people who are not miserable and figure out how that happens. I think “It’s a Wonderful Life” is more accurate about how to be happy than “On the Road.”
Given the book’s subject, it seems fair to ask Brooks, 49, about the trajectory of his own life. Like all of us, he is the product of myriad influences and cultural settings:
His maternal grandfather, who inculcated a love of writing; his parents, both professors of English literature; Radnor High School, which “had all the classic high school cliques”; Incarnation Camp, the Connecticut camp with the Episcopal pedigree that he attended for many summers; the University of Chicago, where he buckled down academically; his journalistic apprenticeships at a Chicago alternative weekly and the City News Bureau, which shifted his politics to the right; his glamorous education at the National Review under the tutelage of William F. Buckley Jr.; his years covering history-making events (e.g., the collapse of the Soviet Union) as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal; the refinement of his conservative Weltanschauung at the Weekly Standard.
Writing the book has changed Brooks. “I’m much more attuned to emotion,” he said. “I joke with my wife that me writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony. I’m not naturally gifted at expressing emotion. I come from a very reticent background — there’s a phrase for my sort of Jewish family: ‘Think Yiddish, act British’ — and so for me it’s still a struggle. I’m a work in progress.”