Everyone is talking about happiness. From Gretchen Ruben’s New York Times best seller (pictured right) to that infectious Pharel song, we’ve become obsessed with finding the right recipe for joy in our lives. Psychologists like Barbara Frederickson have even modeled happiness in mathematical terms: according to Frederickson’s research we need a 3:1 ratio of positive experiences to negative ones in order to flourish. Perhaps it’s in our DNA — our founding documents enshrine the “pursuit of happiness” as one of our most sacred rights.

That’s why I was taken aback when I caught the end of an interview with journalist David Brooks on NPR. He was talking about how being successful on paper — succeeding in school, building a career, mastering the skills of his profession — has not led to his personal happiness. And that, in his experience, the people who are truly happy are not concerned with happiness at all — they are often concerned with others’ well-being and happiness, with deeper virtues that fly in the face of our culture of instant gratification or personal satisfaction.

In his recent book, The Road to Character, Brooks pushes back on this culture of the “Big Me,” as he calls it. All of this focus on personal happiness, finding our own passions, pursuing our own dreams encourages a culture of self-centered-ness that ultimately leaves us void of true achievement of character.  Instead of working to cultivate traits such as compassion, empathy, selflessness, responsibility, and commitment, we are taught to accumulate resume-builders and “likes.” We have a culture centered on individual achievement, power, and wealth, which prevents us from working together to create a more just, healthy, and sustainable world. He writes:

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

(image credit: askmissa.com)

Although there are some religious undertones to his book — many of the moral virtues he explores are also values of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions, among others — the work is a secular one. Brooks has researched the lives of moral “heroes” from A. Philip Randolph and Dorothy Day to Dwight Eisenhower and Frances Perkins, each of whom can teach us something about reaching past our shortcomings to contribute something to the world that is larger than ourselves.

Brooks suggests that we can follow these examples to teach ourselves and inspire ourselves to become better people. To be braver, more honest, more loving. And in turn to make the world a better place.

(image credit: 92y.org)

Although the focus of the book is not on educational practices, there are implications for our schools. As Brooks points out, we spend a lot of time educating children to be ready for college and careers by focusing on the academic skills, the knowledge, even the grit and determination they will need to be capable of competing out in the “real world.”

Brooks writes:

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the role of schools in cultivating character and moral virtues. Even when I’ve been in schools that claim to be doing this — pretty much every school I’ve been do has a list of norms or virtues they claim to be cultivating — I’ve never seen it done well. We make nice, alliterative lists of traits we want students to embody and then refer to them as “norms” or “rules” — Be respectful, responsible, resilient! Be prepared, productive, and polite!

But, as Brooks points out, cultivating the virtues that matter is tough, deep work. It requires lots of time and reflection, and intentional deconstruction and reconstruction of ourselves. We have to read and discuss and soul-search if we really want to become more hard-working, thoughtful, and caring. Are we devoting time to this in our schools? Should we? At least for those of us who think education should help us create the world we want to live in, the answer must be “yes.”

Read more here: “The Moral Bucket List” from last week’s New York Times.