48 pages 1 hour read

Arthur C. Brooks

Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


Coauthored by Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier challenges conventional notions about happiness and provides readers with practical tools for constructing a fulfilling life. A well-known happiness researcher, Brooks teams up with media sensation Oprah Winfrey to invite readers on a journey toward greater happiness, emphasizing that this pursuit is within reach regardless of external circumstances.

Published in 2023, this self-help guide sits at the intersection of science and spirituality. Brooks builds upon the popularity of his weekly column in The Atlantic, “How to Build a Life,” in order to combine his extensive research with Winfrey’s accumulated insight on happiness from her decades spent at the helm of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

This guide references the 2023 Kindle edition from Penguin Publishing Group.


In the introduction and first chapter of the book, Brooks and Winfrey complicate conventional understandings of happiness and unhappiness in order to challenge the notion that happiness is a destination. In their view, happiness is not a fixed endpoint, but is instead a dynamic and ongoing journey that requires intentional choices and actions. The authors argue that people should aim to move in the direction of happiness and focus on increasing happiness over time rather than viewing happiness as a stagnant state to be achieved and maintained.

Brooks and Winfrey share what they believe to be the three core components, or “macronutrients,” of happiness: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose, contending that these components must be present in the proper balance in order for an individual to experience sustainable happiness. The authors also acknowledge the role of unhappiness and negative emotions in life. Unhappiness, they note, is a useful and natural part of the human experience, as it can provide valuable feedback and motivate individuals to make positive changes in their lives. Moreover, all three macronutrients of happiness—enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose—contain elements of unhappiness within them, because all of them require some measure of pain, sacrifice, or effort. Within this framework, unhappiness is not something to be avoided or feared; instead, it is a necessary part of the overall journey toward happiness.

Brooks and Winfrey believe that emotional self-management, or the ability to regulate one’s emotions, is the key to building a happier life. They dedicate three chapters to exploring this technique, and in later chapters, they go on state that the way to use the energy that is freed by emotional self-management is to work on building the so-called “four pillars”: friends, family, work, and spirituality.

By espousing emotional self-management, Brooks and Winfrey argue that individuals have the power to choose how they will respond to their emotions, and it therefore follows that this choice can greatly impact their overall happiness. To this end, the authors focus not on external circumstances or uncontrollable factors, but rather on the internal choices and actions that individuals can take to shape their own happiness. One of the principles of emotional self-management is the practice of emotional substitution. The authors contend that in situations where negative emotions are misplaced, individuals can consciously choose to replace those negative emotions with more positive ones. This technique reflects the belief that gratitude, laughter, and hope can all effectively supersede unwanted negative emotions and lead to greater happiness.

In the latter half of the book, Brooks and Winfrey discuss the four pillars that they believe to represent the foundation of a happy life: friendship, family, work, and spirituality. Emphasizing the importance of interpersonal connection, they argue that establishing and nurturing meaningful relationships with friends and family is crucial for happiness, as these connections provide support, love, and a sense of belonging. In discussing family, Brooks and Winfrey also note that conflict is a natural part of familial and intimate relationships. They acknowledge that navigating the challenges and conflicts within family dynamics can be difficult, but they stress the importance of effective communication, forgiveness, and acceptance in maintaining healthy relationships.

In their chapter on friendship, the authors reference Aristotle’s delineation of the term, which divides friendships into three types: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of virtue. Friendships of utility are based on mutual benefit, friendships of pleasure are based on shared enjoyment, and friendships of virtue are based on a deep connection and mutual care. Brooks and Winfrey advise readers to cultivate fewer utility friendships and spend more effort on building friendships of virtue, as these are the most fulfilling and meaningful.

Winfrey and Brooks also explore the realm of work and its role in happiness. They recommend that individuals seek intrinsic rewards in their work, or rewards that come from the work itself rather than external factors such as money or status. They also note that different people may be suited to different career trajectories, and that one type of trajectory is not necessarily better than another. Additionally, they advise readers to prioritize their work-life balance and to avoid basing their central identity on their jobs.

The authors also discuss the importance of spirituality in building a happy life. They acknowledge that cultivating a spiritual practice takes intention and effort, but they argue that it can provide benefits such as inner peace, deeper meaning, and a sense of connection to something greater than oneself. In their conclusion, Winfrey and Brooks encourage readers to teach others about the concepts espoused in the book, noting that teaching others can reinforce the lessons learned and provide a sense of fulfillment.

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