Brooks Examines Modern Life With Fictional Couple

Posted February 14, 2011 at 6:19pm

Everyone knows the truism, “money can’t buy happiness.” And the Beatles told us that riches “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

In his latest book, New York Times columnist David Brooks confirms those conclusions. “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement” examines how intangibles such as  self-respect, ambition and emotional maturity determine success and happiness.

This is Brooks at his finest. He presents an ambitious examination of modern American life by telling the story of a fictional couple, Harold and Erica, from the moment they meet to the twilight of their lives. Through them, he shows that emotional nurturing is intrinsic to life, and while, as research has found, “people with high IQs do better in school,” a person’s aptitude is not the only way to determine success.

As Harold and Erica find, a meaningful life comes from managing one’s income properly and contributing responsibly to improve one’s surroundings.

Brooks offers a formidable critique of modern American priorities, which he says overemphasize rationalism, individualism and IQ over caring, passion and humility.

“Rationalism looks at the conscious mind, and assumes that that is all there is,” he writes. “It cannot acknowledge the importance of unconscious processes, because once it dips its foot in that dark and bottomless current, all hope of regularity and predictability is gone. Rationalists gain prestige and authority because they have supposedly mastered the science of human behavior. Once the science goes, all their prestige goes with it.”

Throughout the couple’s story, Brooks also injects vignettes about society. He tries to explain the state of modern politics: “Once politics became a contest pitting one identity group against another, it was no longer possible to compromise. Everything became a status war between my kind of people and your kind of people. Even a small concession came to seem like moral capitulation. Those who tried to build relationships across party lines were ostracized.”

And he tackles other topics, including education: “The United States has spent over a trillion dollars to try to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students”; stereotypes: “Most people, no matter how well intentioned, no matter what their race, harbor unconscious racial prejudices”; and status: “Every winter the great and the good meet in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. And every night during that week at Davos, there are constellations of parties.”

Brooks’ careful look at the ups and downs of America’s “composure class” — suburbanites who earn six-figure incomes and manage their time so they may vacation at resorts — is not an assault on people with money. It is an examination of the brain and of the mysteries of human interaction.