On Monday I delivered the commencement address for UC Berkeley’s sociology department (from which I earned my own Ph.D.). It was quite an honor—and a daunting responsibility. What to say that would be helpful, meaningful… and brief? Here’s what I offered:
Greetings, Class of 2011! It is a great joy for me to be back here today with you sociologists.
When I was younger, on every major occasion like this one, my father would remind me of what a tremendous privilege my education had been. He would always say to me, almost admonishingly, but with tears of pride caught in his throat, “With great privilege, comes great responsibility.” This was coming from a man who didn’t go to college himself until he was 50.
I knew that my dad was right, but his reminder always weighed on me, like a mandate I could never quite live up to. Your education has also been a great privilege, of course. But I don’t believe your responsibility should make you anxious.
The responsibility I believe you now bear is to go out into the world and create a life in which you are happy.
I am not telling you to go out and be selfish. Don’t make the mistake that many people do, and confuse gratification or worldly pleasures with the stuff that truly makes up a meaningful, happy life. I am telling you to go out and create a happy life because I believe that this is the first and the best way to make the world a better place.
See, happiness and other positive emotions are very functional. They make us more creative and better problem solvers. They are also highly contagious, so when you become happier yourself, you increase the odds that the people around you will also be happy. As Thich Nhat Hanh says:
If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.
In my mind, a happy life is one that is filled with a lot of different types of positive emotions. Happiness is just one type of positive emotion, but as I talk to you today, I’ll be using it as a handle for something much larger.
Happiness is a positive emotion based in the present, but we also need to attend to positive emotions about the past, like gratitude, or the future, like hope and optimism. A happy life is also filled with positive emotions that are rather global in nature, like awe and elevation and inspiration. And I believe that positive emotions about other people, like love and compassion, are the most important ones for a better world and a happy life.
So THIS is your responsibility now, to go out and create a life full of all of these different types of positive emotions. Today I’m going to give you three ways that you can do just that.
But first, I want you to realize that no one is going to create your happy life for you.
Up until now, someone else has pretty much structured your whole life for you. From here on out, you’ll need to make your own conscious choices—choices that will lead to gratitude rather than entitlement, compassion rather than greed, engagement rather than boredom.
You may or may not have developed the skills in your childhood or here at Cal that you need to create this happy life we’re talking about. So in deciding what to say to you today, I thought back to when I was graduating from college, and to what I know now that I wish I had known then about how to craft a happy life.
You should know that I made a lot of mistakes in the first few years after I graduated from college.
When I graduated from Dartmouth in 1994, I had the world at my fingertips. I was quite good at racking up achievements that everyone else was proud of. I had a coveted, high-paying job at a big corporation. I was publishing my first book. I was engaged to a man whom my parents truly adored. I drove a BMW, and was admitted to business school at Harvard. I lived in an ultra-hip loft condo in the artsy part of town.
And I was very, very anxious most of the time.
I wasn’t creating the life full of happiness that I would like you to create. My job, while prestigious, was so wrong for me that I was both bored AND stressed out all the time. I had created a life totally devoid of passion. I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted, really—I only knew who others thought I was, and what others wanted me to be.
Here are the three pieces of advice that I wish I could have given myself when I was graduating.
(1) Make kindness the central theme in your life.
If you take only one thing away from this talk I hope it is this: If you are feeling down, or disappointed, the best way to get your happiness Mojo back is by helping someone else.
Kindness and compassion are THE keys to the well-lived and meaningful life. I know that this might be confusing advice coming from someone who just told you that it is your responsibility to be happy. But happiness, it turns out, does not come from thinking only about ourselves and what we want.
The things in life that make us happiest, ironically, are those things intended to make other people’s lives better; to bring more joy into the lives of others.
And we don’t have to be Mother Theresa in order to make kindness the central theme in our lives.Consider this story that I love about Marty Seligman, who is generally seen as the father of the positive psychology. When he first started doing research related to happiness, Seligman became so convinced of the importance of kindness for leading a happy life that he immediately started to look for small ways to be kind to those around him.
Now, you should know that Professor Seligman is also a self-proclaimed grouch. Around the time he was making this connection between happiness and kindness, there had recently been a 1 cent increase in the cost of postage, and he was feeling particularly disgruntled about needing to go to the post office to wait in a long line for only 10 cents worth of stamps.
But when he got there, he realized that this was his big opportunity to be kind. And so he waited in that long line, and then proceeded to buy 50 1 cent stamps for every other person in the line, so that no one else had to wait.
Acts of kindness like this—large and small—can completely change our own outlook on life, making us feel not only happy but downright elated.
I used to think that happiness came from GETTING what I wanted. That awesome black leather jacket. A high-profile promotion. A fairy-tale wedding. But what the research shows us is that happiness comes not so much from GETTING, but from GIVING.
One of the reasons why this works is that it is hard to feel sorry for yourself in the midst of an act of kindness or giving.
As you go out into the world, think about what you can give to those around you, in small ways and large. Do something every single day that intends to bring joy into someone else’s life.
(2) Let yourself feel what you feel.
We are living in an age of anxiety and stress, and when we feel stressed out (or sad, or disappointed, for that matter) our world offers us a host of ways to NUMB those negative feelings, to not really feel them.
For example, we can spend hours on Facebook avoiding our feelings. Or we can have a cocktail or five to take the edge off our fears. Or we can eat the whole pan of brownies. Personally, I tend towards numbing my worries and other unpleasant feelings by staying very, very busy.
The problem is that when we numb unpleasant feelings, we numb everything that we are feeling. So to honestly feel the positive things in life—to truly feel love, or joy, or profound gratitude—we must also let ourselves feel fear, and grief, and frustration.
The research on mindfulness is extremely helpful with this situation: It shows us that one solution is to just be very, very present.
Take anxiety, for example. Anxiety is really just fear that you aren’t allowing to surface. So you’re afraid that you won’t get the job, or you won’t find your calling. Let yourself FEEL that fear. Where in your body does it live? Is it in the pit of your stomach? In your throat? What, really, does it feel like? Does it have a shape, or a color?
As Omid Kordestani, one of the founders of Google, reminds us, “In life you make the small decisions with your head and the big decisions with your heart.”
Your emotions are how your heart talks to you, how it tells you what choices to make. If you want to be happy, you need to practice feeling, to practice listening to your heart. This is the way to know who you are and what you want.
(3) Forget about achievement and focus on the journey.
As Gertrude Stein said about Hollywood, “There is no there, there.” This is also true about your life. We Americans tend to spend most of our time and energy going places, striving for more: more money, more stuff, a bigger house, a faster car, more important friends, and more prestigious jobs.
But when we arrive wherever we have been working so hard to get to, we mostly feel let down. Unfulfilled.
This may be weird for you to hear, because the schooling that has taken up your life thus far has probably more often emphasized the endings—the achievements and the grades rather than the engagement and joy that comes from learning.
Graduation is actually a great example of this. You’ve worked your tail off for four or more years to get to this point. And today, the elation in this room is palpable. It isn’t that this graduation isn’t an amazing achievement or important rite of passage. It is.
But the thing is, one morning this week you’ll wake up, possibly hung over, and the elation will be gone. You won’t remember a thing that I’ve said, but that let-down feeling will be the realization that there is no there, there: There is just now. THERE, is HERE, in your heart. It is always IN you. It is never out there somewhere, in the material world.
I know from experience how easy it is to think thoughts like, “If I could just earn more money.…” Or, “If I could just live in that city…”, “If I could just be THERE, THEN I could be happy.”
But more than three decades of research on this topic show us that it is engaging in the journey, in the process, and in the present moment that will make us truly happy.
So if you want to go out and be a doctor or lawyer, that’s great, but make sure that you enjoy healing others more than you want to be called, “Dr.” Make sure that you find the law more exciting than the prospect of some large future paycheck.
As actor Bradly Whitford (of West Wing fame) said, “You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. … want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.”
In the spirit of living in the present moment, I’m going to end my remarks today by asking you to start creating and living your happy life right now. You may forget everything I’ve said today by tomorrow, but that is okay because you can use the three tips I just gave you right now.
First, ground your life in giving to others. Remember that one very profound form of kindness is simply to express gratitude to others. To whom can you give thanks today? Who has made your journey here possible? Who enriched it?
Second, really notice what you are feeling. How do you feel when you really express your gratitude to others?
You may still choose to drink yourself into oblivion tonight, but before you do that, take time to notice what your heart is telling you. Take time to feel. Notice whom you are going to feel sad to leave. Notice what you are relieved to be leaving behind. Notice what you are afraid of, and what you are looking forward to.
Finally, enjoy this journey. Right now, take time to connect with your breath. Look around at your families and your classmates. There will only be one of these days. Savor the energy in this room. You are already there.
Congratulations, Class of 2011.
© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.