“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Humans have a bad habit of wanting things that are terrible for us. An abundance of refined sugar rots our teeth and blows out our insulin system. Avoiding exercise can weaken our bones and make us depressed.
Seeking ruinous things might seem like a failure of natural laws; however, evolution can explain a lot of our counterproductive behavior. We are wired to relax and seek tasty things, one common argument goes, because until relatively recently, humans were more likely to survive and pass on their genes if they got more calories and were under less physical strain. In most of the world today, this is no longer the case, so our nature is maladapted to modern life.
One of the best examples of this mismatch between what we want and what actually nourishes us is our desire for fame. From the youngest ages, people crave it. According to one 2012 study, fame is the biggest goal in life for children in the U.S ages 10 to 12. In a 2017 survey of 1,000 British children, the most popular choice for a future career was “YouTuber.” Grown-ups are less willing to directly admit that they want to be famous, but according to Gallup, 92 percent of American adults say that other people believe “a person is successful if they are rich, have a high-profile career, or are well-known.”
Despite how much we desire it, fame is terrible for happiness. “Fame is … That last infirmity of noble mind,” wrote the poet John Milton in 1637. It leads us to “scorn delights and live laborious days.” Indeed, fame militates against the ingredients of well-being. The sooner we can take this lesson to heart and teach it to our kids, the better off we all will be.
Assuming that you aren’t a pop star or the president, fame might seem like an abstract problem. The thing is, fame is relative, and its cousin, prestige—fame among a particular group of people—is just as fervently chased in smaller communities and fields of expertise. In my own community of academia, honors and prestige can be highly esoteric but deeply desired. Once, very early on in my academic career, I was introduced to a room full of colleagues as the first person to use genetic algorithms to model local tax regimes. I basked in the glow of that distinction.
Like our penchants for sweets and sitting around, some of our drive for fame can likely be explained by simple evolution: Being known and admired by others makes us more likely to attract a mate and pass on our genes in a competitive environment. Few of us recognize this kind of motive now; “I want 1 million Twitter followers so many people will have my children” sounds a little … odd. In modern times, we have come up with more acceptable explanations. One 2012 study found a high correlation between wanting fame and a stated desire for social recognition, financial success, and an attractive appearance, and to appear on reality television. According to a 2013 survey, people might want to be famous in order to be seen and valued, even by strangers; to have an elite, high-status lifestyle; or to be able to do good for others, such as by being a role model.
Even if a person’s motive for fame is to set a positive example, it mirrors the other, less flattering motives insofar as it depends on other people’s opinions. And therein lies the happiness problem. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the 13th century, “Happiness is in the happy. But honor is not in the honored.” In other words, fame is not found within ourselves but based on what scholars call extrinsic rewards, which research overwhelmingly shows bring less happiness than intrinsic rewards.
Worse, scholars say, fame has become a form of addiction. This is especially true in the era of social media, which allows almost anyone with enough motivation to achieve recognition by some number of strangers, and as everyone in the world knows at this point, can be highly addictive, especially for young people. But this is not a new phenomenon. The 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said fame is like sea water: “The more we have, the thirstier we become.”
No social scientists I am aware of have created a quantitative misery index of fame. But the weight of the indirect evidence above, along with the testimonies of those who have tasted true fame in their time, should be enough to show us that it is poisonous. It is “like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen,” said Francis Bacon, “and drowns things weighty and solid.” Or take it from Lady Gaga: “Fame is prison.”
Seeking out fame is a glitch in the happiness matrix: an urge that promises contentment and delivers the opposite. To defeat it, we need to be aware of our impulses and committed to countering them. Several practices can help.
Start by interrogating your motivations. Pay attention to when you are seeking fame, prestige, envy, or admiration—especially from strangers. Before you post on social media, for example, ask yourself what you hope to achieve with it. Is it truly to amuse or inform others, or share something uplifting? Or are you hoping to inspire a bit of invidious comparison?
Second, if your motives are more fame-based than you’d like to admit, consider the value that following through would bring relative to the cost. Say you want to share a bit of professional puffery or photos of your excellent beach body. The benefit you experience is probably the little hit of dopamine you will get as you fire it off while imagining the admiration or envy others experience as they see it. The cost is in the reality of how people will actually see your post (and you): Research shows that people will largely find your boasting to be annoying—even if you disguise it with a humblebrag—and thus admire you less, not more. As Shakespeare helpfully put it, “Who knows himself a braggart, / Let him fear this, for it will come to pass / that every braggart shall be found an ass.”
Third, ask yourself whether you really want to base some part of your happiness on the judgment of others, including and especially strangers. Imagine someone you don’t know forming an opinion about your looks, personality, or work. Perhaps the way you make your living offers you no way around this sort of judgment. But to seek fame per se—to attract attention to yourself as opposed to your work—is to subject yourself emotionally to that scrutiny, which will inevitably end in disaster for your self-esteem.
If the answers to these questions lead you to the conclusion that seeking fame or prestige is not in your best interest, then now is the time to stand up to your caveman impulses. Don’t boast or seek attention; delete the post and take a social-media break. Connect instead to someone who truly loves you for who you are, not just for the parts you hope someone might admire or envy.
The poet Emily Dickinson called fame a “fickle food / Upon a shifting plate.” But far from a harmless meal, “Men eat of it and die.” It’s a good metaphor, because we have the urge to consume all kinds of things that appeal to some anachronistic neurochemical impulse but that nevertheless will harm us. In many cases—tobacco, drugs of abuse, and, to some extent, unhealthy foods—we as a society have recognized these tendencies and taken steps to combat them by educating others about their ill effects.
Why have we failed to do so with fame? None of us, nor our children, will ever find fulfillment through the judgment of strangers. The right rule of thumb is to treat fame like a dangerous drug: Never seek it for its own sake, teach your kids to avoid it, and shun those who offer it.