Writers are like fishermen in the stream of culture. In most cases, an important idea isn’t enough to hook readers; it takes some bait, and keeping us on the line requires sustained ingenuity. Make no mistake, David Brooks’s The Social Animal is a heady primer on the latest trends in brain research, a field currently fixated on the role of the unconscious mind—the realm of feelings, desires, and imagination—in human happiness and prosperity. What makes these abstract concepts palatable, even endearing, is how Brooks—a New York Times columnist who lives in Bethesda—presents them in the form of a story. Raiding philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s toolbox, Brooks creates two characters, Harold and Erica, and trails them across their lives—from Harold’s childhood laughing fits and Erica’s extramarital affair to their final vacation, a cathedral tour of France—letting their impulses and emotions put flesh on the data.
According to Brooks, who can make cold science sound like a Hermann Hesse novel, research is confirming what self-help gurus have always known: Factors such as family, hard work, and love trump reason, IQ, and money on the path to fulfillment. “He had been born with certain connections,” Brooks writes, “and since the brain is the record of the feelings of a life, he had slowly accreted new neural connections in his head. And yet Harold couldn’t help but think how enchanted it all was.”