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How to reject fear and turn toward love: Happiness scholar cites three ways to start healing rifts

Illustration by Judy Blomquist/Harvard Staff
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By Christina Pazzanese
Harvard Staff Writer

A Q&A with Arthur Brooks

In this series, the Gazette asks Harvard experts for concrete solutions to complex problems. Arthur Brooks, William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is a social scientist who studies and teaches about love and happiness. He writes the “How to Build a Life” column for The Atlantic and authored the 2019 bestseller “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.” Before coming to Harvard, Brooks was president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., from 2009 to 2019.

GAZETTE: It feels like the political rifts have deepened and seeped into areas of society we haven’t seen before, like public health and professional sports. Where are we right now? Are we at a low point?

BROOKS: I think it’s actually better now than it was a year ago. But you’re right that in general this era is worse than it’s been in a long time. Social scientists have measured bitter polarization, and it’s more bitter than it’s been in many decades. The way to measure that is through motive attribution asymmetry, which is the disposition of people who are implacably opposed to each other. Both sides believe that they’re motivated by love, but the other side is motivated by hatred. That’s what drives couples apart and to divorce court. The people who study this are pretty persuaded that the level of motivation asymmetry [in the U.S.] is as bad as it is between the Palestinians and Israelis. It was already bad in 2014, and it is worse now.

The second question is: Why? The facile political answer is: Trump, right? In truth, [Donald] Trump is a symptom, not a cause. There’s a very interesting set of papers on this by social scientists who have looked at what happens in the 10 to 15 years after a financial crisis. What happens is that 80 percent of wealth flows to the top 20 percent of the income distribution for a long time after a financial crisis.

That asymmetry of recovery leads to political populism and political populism leads to polarization. Populism basically says, “Somebody’s got your stuff, and I’m going to get it back.” Populism is almost always a fear-based ideology. It’s not a unity, love-based ideology. Data on 800 elections over 120 years in 20 advanced economies clearly shows that this kind of circumstance economically leads to something like a 30 percent increase in the voter share for populist parties and candidates. That’s what we’ve seen in both parties over the past five years, by the numbers. Politicians will respond to those conditions of bitterness and fear by giving voice to it. And then what happens is that you have a coercive political culture of bullying and people start dividing up [into] teams, led by bullies. The paradox is that we actually hate it: 93 percent of Americans say they hate how divided we’ve become as a country. One in six Americans are not talking to close friends or family members because of politics.

GAZETTE: Are politics solely to blame for this division or are there other forces at work?

BROOKS: It’s sort of a perfect cultural storm. So, for example, a lot of people who probably would be involved in religious activity but have been less and less so over the past four decades have gotten a lot more energy from seeing their moral sense exemplified and expressed through the political process. So declining religious participation means increasing moral-political participation. That’s number one.

Number two is the way the media works today. It’s excessively federalized our attention on national politics, making it into kind of a quasi-religious entertainment industry. Now, people will substitute actual work in their communities for awareness and outrage about national politics, over which they have no control. To get mad about politics and post something on Facebook about [Joe] Biden or Trump is not actually the definition of good citizenship. It’s not citizenship at all. It’s just expressing yourself. People actually think that they’re engaged in society by being really mad about politics all the time. That’s part of how media has torqued the political conversation.

Third, there’s the filter bubbles that have come with social media. Social media has made it virtually impossible not to have more of what you think come to you. And with social media controlling so much of the message, it’s changed the major media. So there’s an unholy convergence of the economic circumstances going back to the Great Recession, the decline in religious affiliation and civic participation, entertainment politics, the new media models, and the bitter polarization that comes naturally through the election cycle. All together, millions of people have become quite addicted to the outrage. The whole cycle is similar to drug addiction. It just feeds on itself again and again and again. We get into this deeply suboptimal equilibrium, and it gets worse until people finally get fed up and clip the cycle. The good news is that we can reverse it. We can have a virtuous upward cycle of love that leads to warmheartedness and tolerance and community and unity and more love and more confidence and less fear and up and up and up. And that’s what we need to get into again.

GAZETTE: Politicians stir up social divisions because it is so reliably effective. But today, more people have fused their political views with their social identity. There’s a strident, zero-sum quality to it, as well. It’s not enough to support a candidate. You must advocate in a certain way and must also be against her or his opponent. How damaging is this all-or-nothing attitude we see from and within both parties?

Arthur Brooks

“The reason that Dr. King ultimately changed the American mind is that he coalesced public affection around a love for the idea of civil rights for all people,” says Arthur Brooks.

BROOKS: It’s a big problem. When you’re in a fear-based polarity in politics, you go to tribes. You basically say, “I need protection.” This results in “in-group” affection and “out-group” hostility. You get very strong brands of bonding social capital when people are afraid. As I alluded to before, there are two basic polarities in politics or in families or in companies or communities or universities. There’s the fear-based polarity, and there’s the love-based polarity. Fear and love are opposites, philosophically and psychologically. Fear is the ultimate negative emotion; love is the ultimate positive emotion. That doesn’t mean that when you love that you don’t disagree and you don’t fight. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have bitter disputes; just that love is the vehicular language, meaning there’s a lot of basic trust and compassion for others. When you have a fear-based ideology, instead of trust and compassion, there’s mistrust and contempt.

Populists generally thrive in a fear-based climate, and we have dueling populisms today, resulting in people dividing up according to their political flavor and hating the other side — watching exclusively the television channel with which they agree, following people on social media with whom they agree, getting into these terrible filter bubbles, and even people at universities trying to “cancel” people and ideas with which they disagree. All that is fear-based. And the populist politicians, they feed off that fear.

In contrast, unifying politicians have a love-based ideology and rhetoric. They don’t want bonding social capital — they want bridging social capital. This is all based on the work of my visionary colleague [Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy, HKS and FAS, Emeritus] Robert Putnam. Bonding social capital emphasizes who I am and who you’re not. Bridging social capital is where we find our common story across differences, as sisters and brothers. Great, affirming, aspirational, inflecting leaders are “bridgers.” Populists are “bonders.” And what we’ve had is a decade of political bonding, plus economic and cultural circumstances that led us into this dark place, nationally. We have a lot of fearful people and an Outrage Industrial Complex in media and politics that are feeding off this fear and stoking it even further. So it becomes this cycle that goes around and around and around. The way to break out of a cycle is to cut it in one place. That’s what effective leaders throughout history have done. Obviously, I am talking about great leaders like Dr. [Martin Luther] King, who led people from fear to love. But even at the political level, that’s what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton did at key points in their leadership. This is not a right or left issue; anyone can stand up to the Outrage Industrial Complex and say, “This stops with me. Enough. I’m tired of the fear. We need to love.”

GAZETTE: You cautioned about the country’s embrace of a “culture of contempt” in your 2019 book, “Love Your Enemies.” Explain what you meant by that.

BROOKS: The culture of contempt is not one of anger. Anger is a hot emotion that says, “I care what you think, and I want to change it.” The problem is when fear is infected with disgust, which is another primary negative emotion. These are limbic emotions — automatic. Disgust is reserved for a pathogen, something you find on the bottom of your shoe. You curl your lip. If something is disgusting, you reject it utterly and coldly so it doesn’t infect you and make you sick. Certain things smell bad, triggering the emotion of disgust. What happens is when we find that we have disgust for other people, and we mix it with anger, forming a complex emotion we call contempt. Contempt is the conviction of the worthlessness of another person. That’s what leads to the motive attribution asymmetry we talked about earlier.

John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is the world’s leading expert in marital reconciliation. He once told me that contempt is “sulfuric acid for love” because it’s incredibly corrosive. Contempt is the best predictor of divorce; it’s the best predictor of rupture in any relationship. You hate how divided we’ve become as a country … but every time you see your Uncle Joe who voted for Trump, and he rolls his eyes at everything you think is important and good, you find you can’t stand old Uncle Joe anymore. You don’t want to talk to him and don’t want to see him because he’s effectively treated you and your values as worthless. That’s what is happening in our political discourse, and why it is ruining so many relationships.

What’s fueling it? Social media is fueling it; cable news is fueling it; politicians are fueling it — and sometimes, I’m sorry to say, even we in academia are fueling it. Now, when I talk about this, some people say, “But there are people who deserve my contempt!” That’s the wrong way to think about our disagreements if we want to make progress. When you go back to the teachings of Dr. King, he’s very clear that if we want to change hearts and minds, we must persuade, not coerce. That was a very practical teaching — we really can’t coerce; we don’t have the power to coerce, at least not most of us, and not for very long. We don’t have a system that makes it possible to vanquish our foes and live for 1,000 years in power — for which I am grateful. And yet, that’s what you’d think if you listen to politicians, that we can treat each other with contempt and hatred, and win and silence our foes, and kick them off our platforms and campuses. That’s a way to be miserable, and ultimately, to lose. Remember: The moment you insult someone is the moment you have given up on persuasion.

GAZETTE: We know people get their news from different sources, depending on their political views. Some Harvard researchers recently found that most Americans have very few daily interactions in their neighborhood with people from another political party. How can we start to bridge this divide if we don’t share the same intellectual and physical realities?

BROOKS: Where we’ve had areas of disagreement, we can start by recognizing that they’re usually not as important as we make them out to be. “The conceit of small differences” is what we call it in my business. It’s where I think 11 angels will dance on the head of a pin, and you think 10, and I hate you for saying it’s only 10. It’s what people would criticize the medieval church for. In politics, we’ve become like the medieval church in these small differences in the broad scheme of things. This is one of the reasons that a big war often brings the country together, because it focuses attention on the bigger picture. Fortunately, you don’t need a war. You need a great leader who says, “Sisters and brothers, let’s talk about our shared loves.”

When I bring focus groups together, Democrats and Republicans, the first thing [I] do is have them tell each other about the people they love in their life. I’ll bring Trump voters and people who just hate Trump into the same room and ask them to complain to each other about their teenagers. That’s what I recommend because there’s this intense bonding over shared love and shared hardship. That shows us in vivid detail that on the truly important things, we are exactly the same.

The reason that Dr. King ultimately changed the American mind is that he coalesced public affection around a love for the idea of civil rights for all people. He said we need to live up to our common moral standards; we need to live up to our promise to each other as Americans, as opposed to, “We will vanquish you, we will stomp on you.”

We need love-based leaders who help people understand that we truly have shared loves — for our country, for our values, and for people at the margins. You need people on the right and the left who are less overtly nationalistic, and much more overtly patriotic in saying, “We are a great country and can do better — but only if we do it together.” That’s shared love. That’s the way forward now.

GAZETTE: What about people who say, “They’re just going to do or say X, so what’s the point?” How do we get past negative assumptions about the intentions or receptivity of those on the other side?

BROOKS: The way to do that is to create a movement where it’s cool to cross the aisle; to be warmhearted to other people; to be fascinated with opposing viewpoints; to change your mind; to have a discussion in which you don’t insult other people and shut the other side down. Those movements absolutely exist. They exist inside companies. I tried to engender it at the company that I ran for 11 years. I said, “If you disagree, come sit next to me. I want to listen to you. People say we need civility or tolerance, but I say those standards are hopelessly low. If I told you my wife, Ester, and I were “civil” to each other, you’d say we should probably get counseling. In our country like ours, we need a standard of love.

GAZETTE: What are some steps individuals can start taking to mend divisions in their own lives with family members, friends, neighbors, or co-workers?

BROOKS: Number one is to unplug from the Outrage Industrial Complex. Make a list of the people on their own side who are profiting from firing them up and mute them. Say, “OK, this columnist who always says what I think but a little bit more outrageously and this news network and this social media site, I’m gonna turn them off.” Here’s my promise as a happiness scholar: You’ll literally get happier, starting today.

Number two is use the contempt that we see in our culture as an opportunity to show warmheartedness and love, because that is the source of true happiness for people. When people are showing you contempt, you show love in response. That gets you out of the habit of being contemptuous — it reprograms a part of your brain called the nucleus accumbens, which governs habit-forming behavior. It might sound hard, but it actually works. I have the research that shows this, and I have done it in my own life. In other words, go running toward contempt as an opportunity to show love.

The last part is to start keeping a gratitude list. The grievance list is easy to have in your head; the gratitude list is much harder. I recommend that people start on a Sunday night [to] write down the five things you’re most grateful for in your life. And each day of the week, look at it for five minutes and contemplate it. Update it every Sunday. And at the end of a few weeks, you will be noticeably happier than you are today; you’ll be less bitter; and you’ll naturally want to want to hang out less with the people who are feeding your grievances instead of your gratitude. So unplug, run toward contempt with love, and start practicing more gratitude.

GAZETTE: What can institutions like Harvard do?

BROOKS: Institutions like our great University need to be at the forefront of the fight for the competition of ideas and model how we can engage in this competition with love, not fear or hatred. I think here at Harvard we are committed to this and making progress — I really like how Larry Bacow talks about veritas. Frankly, that’s why I am here, and so happy and proud to be a member of this faculty. We are not perfect, and it’s not easy; nothing important ever is easy. But I believe that we can show the way for other universities to be exemplars of a culture of pluralism, of enlightenment, of intellectual courage — of love. I am so excited to be part of that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)



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