PROVO — The most common question fielded by BYU students is, what are they studying?
But that's entirely the wrong question, a visiting lecturer told them on Tuesday.
The right question, the scarier question and the one that holds the key to their future happiness is why they are going to do it, said Arthur C. Brooks, a nationally known social scientist, best-selling author, columnist and president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Maryland think tank.
"If you get that right, you can change the world," he said. "If you don't get that right, you can become very frustrated."
Brooks, who laughed about being told he is "the favored Catholic on the BYU campus," delivered the fall semester's Wheatley Forum in Civic Virtue at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center. BYU and Brooks have established a strong relationship, spanning at least four visits to Provo over the past eight years.
Brooks shared national research data about one set of college-age students who set goals about relationships and another that set goals about fame, money and career advancement.
The good news? Both groups achieved their goals.
The bad news? Only those in the first group were happy.
Brooks said the problem is that too many people set goals from among what he called the four substitutes for God — money, power, pleasure, honor. Madison Avenue and movies, he said, propose a formula for happiness:
Love things, use people and worship yourself.
"Do that, you'll be following the world," he said. "You've got your substitutes for God, you're all set. Will you be happy? Not so much. The data don't lie. And your heart? It doesn’t lie either. You know it's true.
"So, the why of the world is wrong, which is why the world is wrong. That's why we are the rebels. That's why we stand in opposition to it. That's why we, as those of intellectual training — we try to train our minds to lead better lives — also understand the truth behind what we really seek."
BYU students and all those who seek to lead lives that help others, should remember three things when they make their goals and set their purpose, Brooks said. First, they should make their work a gift. They should work for the benefit of others. The way to do that is to invert the worldly formula:
Use things, love people, worship God.
Second, they should remember the value of others' work. There is equal moral worth between running a hedge fund and trimming hedges.
Third, "if your life purpose is true to the service of others, it means you have to be looking forward" to leaving your comfort zone to share it, he said. "If we don't, we don't get to share with the people who need what we have."
He said LDS Church founder Joseph Smith taught that all people are made for enlargement.
Brooks issued three challenges to the students.
First, they should write down their purpose and review it every year on their birthdays. "Am I living up to my own why? Is it still the right why?"
Second, make sure the purpose is not about them. "How am I going to serve?"
Third, go where you're not invited and share it.
"Be in danger, a little out of your element," he said. "That's the question of the rest of my life and the rest of your life too. It's tricky. If we do that, then the expanse, the concentricity, the influence of what we are doing will grow."
Brooks' latest book is "The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier and More Prosperous America."