The Corner

Culture

Everybody’s Looking for a Way to Connect.

The “American Flag of Faces” display at Ellis Island (Library of Congress)

There’s a lot to chew over in Rich’s essay about what still stands from Ronald Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech and which sections are less relevant to the concerns of today, but this paragraph really says a lot in just a few words:

The deeper current issue is that the chief suppressant of human flourishing may be not our overweening government but our tendency toward toxic individualism — we are now a people largely disconnected from marriage, church, and workplace, and too many American sink into self-destructive behavior and despair.

We’ve been trying to get our heads and arms around the dissolving sense of community and connection since at least Bowling Alonewhose author, Robert Putnum, led a seminar with a young Barack Obama back in the late 1990s focusing on civic engagement.

It’s what ties together Marco Rubio’s new emphasis on “Common Good Conservatism,” Donald Trump’s ability to win the Republican nomination while almost never using the words “freedom” or “liberty,” and Tucker Carlson’s famous monologue declaring, “anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.” Prosperity is great, but it doesn’t solve all of our problems. It may very well mask some deeply serious problems.

Those on the right that folks like Carlson and Trump would see as foes have asked the same questions and found themselves in the same ballpark.

David Brooks writes that happiness usually comes from a victory for the self, but “joy comes when your heart is in another” — watching your child graduate, seeing your spouse do something they’ve always wanted to do, celebrating the good moments in life with friends and neighbors, watching a parent celebrate that milestone birthday and feeling blessed they’ve been in your life for so long. To feel joy, we need to feel connected to someone. Former AEI chairman Arthur Brooks [no relation to David] wrote a whole book on this and concluded, “It turns out that choosing to pursue four basic values of faith, family, community and work is the surest path to happiness, given that a certain percentage is genetic and not under our control in any way.”

In fact, Brooks emphasized the centrality of work to happiness and fulfillment in the non-economic context:

Work can bring happiness by marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others. Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right: “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”

In other words, the secret to happiness through work is earned success.

This is not conjecture; it is driven by the data. Americans who feel they are successful at work are twice as likely to say they are very happy overall as people who don’t feel that way. And these differences persist after controlling for income and other demographics.

You can measure your earned success in any currency you choose. You can count it in dollars, sure — or in kids taught to read, habitats protected or souls saved. When I taught graduate students, I noticed that social entrepreneurs who pursued nonprofit careers were some of my happiest graduates. They made less money than many of their classmates, but were no less certain that they were earning their success. They defined that success in nonmonetary terms and delighted in it.

As conservatives, we recognize that the government can’t make people feel connected to each other, and we’re less inclined to see the state, at any level, as the right tool to foster a sense of connection and community among our fellow citizens. (By the way, one way to help build that sense of connection is to see other people as your fellow citizens, not as “deplorables,” “human scum,” “libtards,” “teabaggers,” “sheeple,” and so on.) But that inability of the state to effectively build a sense of community and connection shouldn’t mean we throw up our hands and just hope for the best.

The good news is that when we listen to voices as diverse as Rich, Putnum, Obama, Trump, Carlson, Brooks, the other Brooks, and almost every lawmaker and commentator in American life, they all recognize the same problems in society and all want to figure out some way to make Americans feel more connected to each other; to feel like we have a strong support network around us to help us get through life’s rougher moments. If there’s consensus over the problem, then just maybe someday we could have a consensus over the solutions.

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