The Social Animal by David Brooks, NY Times columnist, intelligently explains and demonstrates what it means to be human. He helps us understand that our unconscious mind—more than our conscious mind—influences our emotions, decision making, perceptions and broadly speaking, the ways in which we make meaning. Brooks reassigns greater value—and appreciation—to our unconscious mind and suggests that as a society we would be well served if we did the same.
One of the most profound ideas I take away from The Social Animal by David Brooks, is that we focus on, measure and value things—such as I.Q. tests, S.A.T. scores and individual accomplishments—that don’t lead to happiness or satisfaction. As long as we evaluate ourselves based on these surface measurements, we are likely to live on the surface of life, instead of reaping the richness that exists at deeper levels of our mind, and in forming deeper bonds, and in finding deeper meaning.
When we become more aware of and receptive to our emotions, instincts and longings, we live more holistic lives, penetrating our own surfaces and delving into a richer existence.
The Social Animal does not promote navel gazing or self-indulgence; quite to the contrary, Brooks suggests that by accessing our unconscious minds and forming more meaningful connections, we will build better character which leads to better political and policy decisions—positively impacting the larger world.
As impressed as I am with the content of the book—lots of user-friendly data is presented in bite size pieces—I’m even more impressed with the structure of the book: the story.
Brooks tells two stories in one book. I see these as metaphors; one story represents the conscious mind while the other represents the unconscious mind. The conscious story is full of interesting facts and research that reveals how our minds work. The unconscious story is the tale of two people, Harold and Erica, and the journey they travel from birth to death.
When I say that one of the stories is unconscious, what I really mean is that it stimulates our unconscious. Brooks gets into our emotions, stimulates our memory banks, activates our yearnings and pulls us deeper into ourselves. As a practicing psychotherapist, I’m impressed with the usefulness of this book to both explain and help us experience what it means to personally grow and develop our character.
The critics who don’t appreciate The Social Animal seem to fall into two camps. One group wants to argue with Brooks about his interpretation of some of the research he quotes. The second group pans the book for lacking realism and depth in Brooks’ fictitious characters, Harold and Erica. Ironically, these critics prove Brooks’ point, which is that not everything can be measured and analyzed. Some things are to be felt and experienced—this book is one of them.
If you want to get the most out of this book and deepen yourself in the process of reading it, approach it as an experience. Don’t study it like a textbook. And don’t expect to be entertained like you might when you read a novel. Just read the story and notice how you feel, allow yourself to laugh, allow yourself to recognize yourself, allow yourself to feel the applicability of the research to your life.
And, if you are a therapist, I’ll go as far as suggesting this should be required reading. The Social Animal by David Brooks captures truths about what is required to foster growth and change, in ourselves and the people we work with.