Think Tank Thinking

D.C.’s Conservative Guru Finds His Inner Hippie

Arthur Brooks’ pursuit of the formula for happiness has some unlikely speakers talking to the American Enterprise Institute. Is the 1 percent really listening to his spiritual gurus?

06.27.14 9:45 AM ET

There were more turbans and saris among the suits and ties than usual at the American Enterprise Institute this week when AEI President Arthur Brooks welcomed Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for a conversation on human flourishing.

“I wish I could tell you global brotherhood is best served through greater and greater amounts of money,” Brooks said as the heavily bearded Shankar, dressed in a luminous white robe, sat quietly in a chair, “but I can’t tell you that because it’s not true,” he concluded with a flourish. 

Everything Brooks does is with a flourish, and his new venture into what some would call humanism is a striking departure for the venerable conservative think tank. “A free society does make people phenomenally wealthy—and this is a wonderful, beautiful blessing—but not enough to give people a satisfying life,” he continued, an insight that shouldn’t be surprising until you consider the source: a self-declared “warrior for free enterprise” who heads a group dedicated to spreading the gospel of capitalism and governed by a board populated by hedge-fund millionaires.

When Brooks first outlined his idea for a series of conversations dedicated to human flourishing and what makes people happy, a colleague asked only half-jokingly, “Do you actually handle snakes?” Emotional IQ, meditating, getting in touch with your inner self is not the typical fare at AEI. “I’m such an evangelist for this, I get a lot of ribbing,” Brooks told The Daily Beast. He explained that this is his way of getting past the “left-right dichotomy that’s so boring and unproductive” in politics today and getting to “the fundamentals of what people are looking for in their lives.”

In a think tank with 200 scholars, the reaction to Brooks’ spiritual journey is a mixed bag. “Some people are all-in on this, and others are just doing their work, no problem,” he says. One resident fellow who has been in the room when Brooks tells AEI donors whose wealth puts them in the top tenth of the 1 percent that conservatism isn’t about them, that it’s about the least among us: “Even if it’s a ploy, that’s a message that leaves a lot of them uncomfortable.” 

Others at AEI when asked if the 50-year-old Brooks is going through a midlife crisis say they’ve seen no evidence of that. They point to his longstanding interest in the subject of happiness; he’s published one book and is writing another one. Besides, Brooks says he’s already had his existential crisis. It occurred when he became a full professor with tenure at Syracuse University. “I had more job security than a French bureaucrat,” he says, and it wasn’t enough, he wasn’t happy.

“I have the weirdest background for someone who is president of a think tank,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I’m just a washed-up French horn player.” Hardly, though he did leave college to pursue music and was the principal French horn player with the orchestra in Barcelona, Spain. He got his bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses, and went on to get a Ph.D. in economics, becoming the true believer he is today in the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty.

A self-declared independent, he says AEI has a “moral obligation to look for the deeper strands of thinking. It’s not to get more conservatives elected or to hurt liberals,” he says. He sees a potential truce between left and right. “Let’s declare peace on the social safety net and war on crony capitalism.” Even so, AEI is mostly a bystander as Republicans fight among themselves to squelch the Tea Party grassroots. Allied with business interests and the Chamber of Commerce, Brooks acknowledges the assault on capitalism, and with these conversations about human flourishing seeks to address the growing divide in wealth. 

When the Dalai Lama visited AEI in February and told everyone he was a socialist, it was an awakening of sorts for many of the more staid scholars, and even better, from AEI’s perspective, was the Dalai Lama’s admission that he felt more kindly about capitalism after his conversation with Brooks. He called the AEI president “the spiritual leader of the capitalist people,” a moniker that Brooks embraces.

Brooks cut to the chase with Shankar, asking “the big question” on his mind: “What’s the secret to happiness?” The audience laughed at the bluntness, and at the expectation that an answer could be had so easily. “Just be yourself,” Shankar advised. Who influenced him the most? His mother, he said, but “anytime, anywhere, people can inspire you. It’s an internal phenomenon. You are in the moment. Inspiration is opening the source of energy.” Brooks wondered if that meant he could inspire Shankar, a comment that had the audience laughing once again.

Citing a study that shows only a third of Americans consider themselves happy, Brooks asked what is the one thing Shankar would do to increase that number. “Why one thing?” he responded playfully, before explaining calmly that stress simply means too much to do, and too little time. Either increase your energy level or reduce what you do. Go slowly, he said, “Drive behind a bicycle.”

Shankar’s advice isn’t all that different from any number of self-help books, but his answers were calming. “Do you think the world can become a better place?” asked anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, who wasn’t there but had his question read. “In parts, yes; in parts, no,” Shankar replied. And so it went, a lot like chicken soup for the soul. Exactly where it’s going, nobody knows, including Brooks, but it can’t hurt.