Are you a Dragon slayer?


A very dear friend of mine sent me with wonderful video, The Secret To Happiness, by Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute. You should really watch it if you have the time.

In his discussion, Mr. Brooks argues that at the root of all happiness are four aspects of a person’s life:

  • Faith
  • Family
  • Community
  • Work

Although he does not go very deeply into the reasoning behind this conclusion because he is focused on work, I have some thoughts of my own that I want to share.

Having studied happiness – mostly due to my own discomfort – in different countries and cultures around the world I came to the same conclusion as Mr. Brooks. The major difference between us is maybe in how we explain it. In this video, there is a slide he posts showing these four elements as interlocking parts of a puzzle. In my view, they are concentric circles with faith at the center, family and community the next two while work is the dynamic element that holds them together.

My reasoning is as follows. Whenever we communicate our thoughts there are a whole bunch of assumptions and premises that underly whatever is being said. We don’t think much about them because they are givens for us. And, we think everyone shares them with us. However, if we take a deep hard look at these assumptions and premises we realize they are based on some common set of values – culture – we share with our community.  A collective experience or consciousness we share with our society. Maybe those values have been shaped by our immediate and extended family but their impact will not be significant since it is relatively new as compared with the communities long history. Similarly, one’s personal experience can have an impact which will be an even weaker influence except in cases of severe trauma.

Therefore, it is the collective experience that warrants a closer look. All communities define themselves by a shared history, shared stories, shared myths. It always fascinated me how two cities in Italy, only 40 kilometers from each other, could have such distinct identities. Even after 150 years of national unification one is hard pressed to find a national identity. The same is true in other European countries where city, provincial and regional identities are more important than national ones.

Interestingly, all European nations have very strong national education systems which serve first and foremost to assert the central government’s view of the historic collective experience and identity over that of smaller administrative geographies. Thus, education is less about learning and much more about political cohesion; it is a socialization process.

Even the US it is possible to see a similar role for education. It is far more advantageous for society to have its youth believe in the same values as society on the whole than to identify with smaller subsets. If you think about this it makes sense. No matter how good is an educational system it will still be faced by the uneven ability of people to learn as a result of which those who “fall through the cracks” can either fight against the system or accept their fate and be part of the system. The former is much more costly to a community making the latter more beneficial.

Assuming that this reasoning holds it fair to conclude that a common set of values based on a collective experience – no matter how mythical it may be – provides certain benefits to society. But can we stop there? No. Once you start questioning the legitimacy of the above you are forced to concede that faith plays a fundamental role. Without faith that collective consciousness will not be accepted.

Again using the European experience as an example, the king got his legitimacy from God. Before that, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans got their legitimacy from the gods. In Eastern societies, legitimacy came from the gods or a lineage of esteemed and pious ancestors.

Faith, understood as a belief system, is at the center of the human condition. This is consistent with how societies evolve over time given the difficulty science has had to supplant faith. I will never forget a French episode of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, a popular gameshow, in which a French contestant  requested help from the audience on which celestial body orbits Earth: the sun, the moon, Mars or Venus. 56% of them said it was the sun, 42%  said it was the moon and 2%  said Mars. Poor Copernicus and Galileo, they must have been turning in their graves! Sarcasm aside, the point is illustrated.

Therefore, most appropriate model for understanding people is a series of concentric circles with faith at the center, a great big dot; community next, a fairly thick slice; family, a thin circle; and lastly, a very thin line, for the individual and their experience.

So far so good but this is too static a representation. A person may be very well adjusted knowing where they come from, have a strong sense of their community and the belief system they share but unless they are putting this to good use they will be dissatisfied. They need to feel that their community values them. They need to feel that they are participating in a positive manner to their life and the lives of others. This requires that we add a dynamic element to the discussion: work.

From this point of view, happiness is the result of an individual’s belief/faith, community, family, self and how they interact with the collective.

Think of this situation: A person who grows up in America it taught and learns that going to school and getting a good education will bring them a good job and lifetime of security. The person goes to school, gets a bachelors, a masters, a doctorate, and post-doctorate degrees but then no job in their field. Instead they work part-time at a museum as a guide for the yogurt exhibit. Will they be happy?

Take another situation: A person is taught and learns that they live in a meritocracy. In their job, they do a great job but their boss takes all the credit for themselves, pays employees who perform less well more, and then fires them on some trumped up reason. Will they be happy?

If your answer to both situations was “no” good for you.

One of the stories I like to tell is about a young man who leaves the security of his village to slay a dragon. When he returns from his odyssey he is received in one of two ways: as a hero or with indifference. Within the context of his community he will be perceived as a hero if there was a dragon, or dragons, that threatened their existence. If there are no dragons – and nobody even knows what a dragon is – then his return will treated with indifference. You need to have a dragon threat in order to be a hero; in order for that special quality you possess to be of value.

Are you a dragon slayer in a community without dragons?