The conservative writer/commentator David Brooks, in this New Yorker excerpt from his new book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement, explores what he sees as "a debate in our culture about what really makes us happy." He chooses two cornerstones of American culture to represent the opposing forces: Frank Capra's 1946 movie It's a Wonderful Life, which, Brooks claims, exalts "roots and connections" versus Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road, which, for Brooks, "celebrates the life of freedom and adventure."
Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wastes no time in declaring a TKO: "Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. It's a Wonderful Life was right." To bolster his conclusion, he adds this unattributed howler: "Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income."
That money can't buy happiness is clear to most sentient beings. And who would deny that human connectedness is essential to the good life and that membership in an interesting group can contribute mightily to one's happiness? My meditation group -- which meets every week principally to sit together and do nothing -- regularly confirms this for me.
Let's assume that Brooks understands that the poor can't be included in his matter-of-fact assertion that being a member of a group that would have you for a member trumps doubling your income. But the claim seems equally absurd when applied to countless millions of working- and middle-class families struggling -- in the midst of America's worst financial crisis since the Depression -- to keep their heads above water in a tsunami of unemployment, home foreclosures, medical bankruptcies and exploding college costs.
In a Times column last March, Brooks previewed what Salon called his "bias towards elite values," writing, "According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income." Then, referring to another uncited study, he wrote, "Being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year." Huh? What about the millions who gained a hundred grand's worth of happiness by extricating themselves from miserable marriages?
Brooks has not responded to a couple of emails asking him to cite the sources for these claims.
Brooks is a thoughtful, earnest conservative, so perhaps we shouldn't make too much of the above quotes. But there's a deeper problem with his choice of the bohemian On the Road vs. It's a Wonderful Life and its "conservative" All-American values.
Brooks has got It's a Wonderful Life exactly wrong. That film's protagonist, George Bailey, is an American with a mighty wanderlust, not all that different from Sal Paradise, the archetypical American sojourner in On the Road. George is heartbroken when his father dies, and he sacrifices his passion to see the world, remaining in tiny Bedford Falls so he can prevent the family-owned bank from falling into the hands of the rapacious Mr. Potter, a caricature of American banking borne out by our own recent experience. Bailey transforms tragedy into triumph not because of his desire for Brooksian connectedness, but because of his drive to help people get out from under Potter's usurious rents and interest rates.
Further, George's brother Harry and his friend Sam Wainwright find plenty of happiness after they leave Bedford Falls in search of adventure, fulfillment and, yes, riches. And the unhappiness of Bedford Falls' residents in the Bailey-less universe -- recast as "Potterville" -- also depicted in the film comes from economic exploitation, not their failure to herd themselves into groups.
It's a Wonderful Life isn't about the virtues of community lined up against the life of adventure in On the Road. It's about the capacity to turn necessity into a virtue--and to serve others.
As for On The Road, in 2007 Brooks himself stood up for the rebelliousness of the novel against "us grumpy midlife critics," writing in The Times, "If Sal Paradise were alive today, he'd be a grad student with an interest in power yoga...he'd be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns."
In his writings and media appearances, Brooks insightfully deploys scientific research to demonstrate how "deeply interpenetrated" we humans are. But there's also plenty of science that shows the value of solitude. Reading Kerouac's book and watching Capra's movie might just serve as validation that our yearning for roots and connection and our desire for adventure and freedom are hardly mutually exclusive.