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Hanna: The Social Animal

07/18/11 5:55PM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) If you're looking for some summer reading that might change how you see yourself and your world, commentator and Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna has a recommendation that might be of particular interest.

(HANNA) I just finished reading David Brooks' new book The Social Animal.

You may remember that the New York Times columnist wrote a book a decade ago called Bobos in Paradise , in which he chronicled the rise of the new bourgeois bohemians - hence "Bobos" - and the Latte Towns in which they live. You know that you are in Latte Town, wrote Brooks, when "you can hop right off the bike path, browse a used bookstore with shelves and shelves of books on Marxism that the owner can no longer get rid of, and then drink coffee at a place with a punnish name before sauntering through an African drum store or a feminist lingerie shop."

Brooks was talking about Burlington, which he claimed was Paradise for liberal-leaning professionals who combined enlightened capitalism and hippie counter-culture.

I hated this book, and yet, I loved it.

So of course, being the latte-sipping, buy local/think global Bobo that I am, I had to read Brooks' new book, in which he discusses what brings us love, success and happiness. Deeply informed by emerging neuroscience, his argument is that it is often the unconscious mind, not our rational choices, which shapes who we are and how we live. Because we are social animals, what brings us happiness are things like close friendships, deep ties to our community, and most profoundly, he claims, a long-lasting meaningful marriage.

Brook cites a wealth of studies, including Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone . Putnam also looked to Vermont, not as an example of shallowness, but as a place that has a high degree of social capital. Because we are small and interconnected, Putnam found, few Vermonters bowl alone, and this, he claimed, was the key to a thriving life.

Brooks never mentions Vermont in The Social Animal, but one can't help but see that the the kinds of connections we have here are what he claims that our unconscious yearns for - local commerce, neighbors we know, and opportunities for meaningful civic engagement.

Ironic, I thought. Brooks once chided my town for its superficiality but now, as he himself ages, and searches for some deeper meaning, he looks beneath the surface and sees something beyond pretense among the Bobos. Sure, we deserve some mocking - driving around in our hybrid SUV's, as we self-righteously struggle to balance our lattes and our organic lives - but we also deserve some credit for being intentional about creating community.

The book gave me insight into why so many laws intended to lift the human condition have failed and is a must-read for anyone interested in public policy.

But it also gave me greater insight into my own life.

Brooks points out that as we strive for individual achievement, we often let those ties that bind loosen, and slip away. That's not so good. So when I finished the book, instead of logging into my email, I called my husband for a long over-due date.

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