As I was leaving Kettering University to become the Chancellor of IU Kokomo, I was asked by than President Stan Liberty ‘Would you be interested in giving a commencement speech?’ This is not the kind of opportunity that many are asked very often. I was delighted to be asked even though I knew from my experiences that such speeches are ‘the low point of an otherwise exciting occasion.’ In fact, many encouraged when I asked for advice ‘to be brief and be seated’ I didn’t want to do the standard commencement speech, the kind riddled with clichés about ‘pursue your dreams’ and ‘making your mark.’ As someone who spent years trying to understand the “human condition”, I chose to discuss the ‘Quest for a Meaningful Life and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ My goal was to share with the graduates some of my reflections and the complexities and paradoxes behind the seemingly obvious concept of a meaningful and happy life journey.’ We were all soon going to be “on the road again.” Here’s what I came up with:
Thank you for the opportunity to be the commencement speaker. Before I leave this great institution and become the Chancellor IU Kokomo and before you move into the challenges and uncertainties of adult life, I am delighted to share with you some of my observations about, and current research on, three things: the human condition, the human search for meaning, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, we celebrate commencement – but what, exactly, does that mean? The dictionary gives us two definitions: an academic exercise during which diplomas are conferred, and the moment when YOUR life journey into adulthood commences. Our university and others like it throughout the country and the world – have worked for many years to prepare students like you to pursue specialized forms of knowledge (science, technical, academic), to acquire multifaceted skills and competencies (analytical skills, cognitive skills, communication skills, and critical thinking), and to cultivate an ethic of active and engaged citizenship. Now that you have all acquired these outcomes – as best as we and the faculty can assess – it is time for us to ask ourselves if they are sufficient to help you lead and explore a meaningful and happy life journey?
My answer to you is that they are and they aren’t. A recognized that this is a confusing (but very academic and non – committed response…). The knowledge, skills and citizenship tools you gained are necessary conditions but not sufficient.
For, indeed, to have a truly meaningful and happy life journey those three areas of gain and achievements that we are commencing today need to be utilized against two key challenges, or rather two key realities, to be always borne in mind.
First, realize and try to believe the power of choice: you have total control over your life. You, and only you, get to choose your life journey and what it will be. I grew up on a commune and had no awareness of choice as a powerful tool. It was a commune based on a mobilized society that was focused primarily on the collective goals. Your education for citizenship was in the spirit of your ability to combine individual choice with a responsible commitment to public good and service. It is only the synthesis of these two focuses that will allow you free choice. Combining your individual aspirations grounded in passion for others that will allow you choose the path most suited for you! As the great philosopher Yogi Berra so eloquently put it, ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.’
The second and, I would say, more essential truth to know is that life is an ongoing search for meaning and happiness. Ongoing: it never ends, it never rests. Some try to find meaning and happiness through acquiring assets, accumulating pleasures, or seeking a single destination (CEO, President of the United States, Winner of American Idol). But happiness and pleasure are two different things. Don’t believe me? Go talk to any addict – it doesn’t matter what they’re addicted to. Always seeking to get more, to experience more, to gain more. This ongoing activity is not, ultimately the path to happiness. The skills and competencies that you have acquired here will help you to land a great job and, hopefully, a decent living. But once you have this you may, as David Byrne of the Talking Heads once sang, ‘tell yourself this is not my beautiful house, and you may tell yourself ‘this is not my beautiful wife… and you may ask yourself, ‘how did I get here?’’
The fact is that happiness is paradoxical. Despite its bouncy surface this Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ expresses a deep philosophical insight: happiness is paradoxical. And, at some level, I think we all understand that. The most popular course at Harvard is on happiness. It has vexed the human mind for thousands of years, from the earliest of Greek philosophers to today’s cutting-edge neuroscientists. So, let’s take a minute to understand this very paradoxical aspect of human existence. Aristotle, the student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great, stated that ‘happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.’ In his ‘Nicomachean Ethics,’ Aristotle tells us more precisely what he means. (http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/aristotle/). Happiness is living up to one’s full potential as a human being over a lifetime and not, as other Greek philosophers like Epicurus would argue, trying to accumulate as many pleasurable sensations as possible. As he states, ‘the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and… the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.’
Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke – whose concept of ‘life, liberty, and property’ was changed to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ by Thomas Jefferson during the writing of the Declaration of Independence – have seen ‘happiness’ – and the right to pursue it – as the foundation for our modern notions of liberty. By equating Locke’s ‘property’ with Jefferson’s ‘pursuit of happiness’, however, it has been easy to accuse Locke of advocating mere selfishness. But Locke, much like David Byrne, distinguishes between happiness and gratification. ‘False happiness’ – the pursuit of immediate enjoyment – in Locke’s view, leads to greater misery in the long run while ‘true happiness’ is achieved through virtuously applying one’s talents to one’s long-term goals.
In both Aristotle and Locke we see happiness as a lifelong undertaking, something that must be in accordance with one’s inner nature and is not to be confused with pleasure in its own right. Contemporary writers, like Dan Gilbert, see happiness as more fleeting, more evanescent. ‘Is happiness elusive?” he asks. “Well, of course we don’t get as much of it as we want. But we’re not supposed to be happy all the time – we have built in fear for survival. Happiness is a noun, so we think it’s something we can own. But happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.’
So, is happiness achievable? Or, better yet, what kind of happiness is achievable? I want to share with you four sources of meaning that, I believe, can lead you in the direction of happiness.
The first is cultivating an appreciation of others and the practice of being charitable and giving. The Buddhists call this ‘loving kindness’. As anthropologists have recently argued, human beings are unique in that, unlike other species, we advance projects for the common good and that such altruistic behavior has been essential to our evolutionary survival. (http://www.amazon.com/Cooperative-Species-Human-Reciprocity-Evolution/dp/0691158169/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1436133081&sr=8-1&keywords=cooperative+species). People are not mushrooms that mature in isolation, as Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth century philosopher, argued, but are social beings whose happiness depends on the quality of our relationships with others. Love is the opposite of fear and love implies, and prompts, reciprocity. As a former soldier I can tell you honestly: in the field, I fought for the safety of my friends above any cause. And since human beings are inherently social, it follows that any activity that increases our social bonds will help to produce happiness within ourselves. It turns out that ‘love thy neighbor’ is not an empty platitude. Churchill said it in his way – ‘we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give;’ the Beatles in theirs – ‘and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.’
Second, our happiness depends on our attitude. As discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive therapy are increasingly showing us, happiness is contingent on our state of mind. Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote one of the most profound books of the twentieth century, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ In it, he argues that our attitude, especially toward suffering and in times of difficulties, that is crucial for our long-term happiness. Human life, even in the best of times, is an often frustrating challenge and Frankl recognized that facing it head on, with an optimistic and forward-looking frame of mind, was essential for one’s inner-being. “Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man,” he wrote. And recent studies have shown that courage, optimism, and a sense of purpose can be taught. Thus, our second source of meaning is the recognition that happiness is mostly contingent on our state of mind.
A third source is establishing a career, a professional identity. Work should never be (just) about the pay, but should (and is) an essential part of our being. Ask anyone who’s been unemployed for more than a few months, joblessness leads to dramatic increases in depression (http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2014/06/09/how-unemployment-and-depression-fit-together/). Work doesn’t merely offer us the possibility of financial security; it gives us a place within the larger social world and a profound sense of self-worth. So, undertake your careers not with the aspiration of making lots of money, or eventually occupying the corporate suite, undertake your careers with the understanding that that is you are going to be. People in careers that fit their inner being almost inevitably are happier, and more successful, than those just ‘in it for the paycheck.’
And that leads to our fourth and final source of happiness: being grounded in self-knowledge; that is to say, having values that guide us and embracing our often contradictory personal attributes. Human beings contain ‘multitudes,’ as Whitman wrote, and the truly happy person recognizes them in him- or herself and uses them to enhance their work and their professional and personal relationships. Many of us are both highly individualistic and community-focused; seek to challenge the status quo and succeed within it; make plans and improvise; analyze coolly and work passionately; and innovative while respecting current practices, cultures, and traditions. Keeping aware that not only is happiness paradoxical but that we are as well, right to the core of our being, is a key aspect to understanding and approaching happiness.
It is my hope you take from this speech a few simple tenets: be committed to serving others and their well-being; be resilient and optimistic in the face of adversity; find work that is meaningful to you; and recognize and embrace your own many contradictions. Perhaps Anne Frank most eloquently captured it when she wrote that: ‘We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.’
I offer you my congratulations and hope you explore and discover a Meaningful Life and happiness, the ‘true’ happiness’ that you seek.
Michael Harris Kettering University, Provost
Michael Harris IU Kokomo, Chancellor
Sources: Tal Ben-Shahar, Marty Seligman, Dan Gilbert, Richard layard, Dan Baker, Andrew Oswald Cameron Stauth, Victor Frankl.
Perfectionalism V. Optimalism
*Based on a Commencement Speech given at Kettering University