From Hollowness to Happiness PDF Print E-mail

Saklan Graduation Dinner Address, June 2008

A week ago I saw REM in concert, and I listened to Michael Stipe sing the following lyrics: “I’m overwhelmed, I’m on repeat, I’m emptied out, I’m incomplete, You trusted me, I want to show you, I don’t want to be the Hollow Man.”

Graduates, I don’t want you to become hollow men or women. Since Saklan hosted Dr. Madeline Levine a year ago as a Parent Education speaker, her words of warning have haunted me; too many kids today are unhappy—and, she asked, what is ultimately more important than our happiness, well being and sense of fulfillment?

Fortunately, in this same era where we are experiencing epidemics of depression, there is also a countervailing current of new writing and wisdom about pathway to happiness. Books like HappierStumbling on Happiness, and The Geography of Bliss all seek to offer us guideposts for us to mark the way to this important reward.

I’ve read most of them—in part so as to share with you their wisdom—but also for my own sake: I don’t always find happiness easy to find. The best are the books by Penn Professor and American Psychological Association President Marty Seligman, especially Authentic Happiness.

Seligman tells us that yes, some small part of our happiness quotient is innate, is “determined”—we inherit it, it is genetic, it is who we are. But, and this is so important: not all of it is fixed. We can influence it considerably by our actions, by our choices:
Graduates, you can choose how happy you will be . Happiness is a discipline, a discipline of mind, which you can choose to practice.

Our opportunities to make these choices occur in three dimensions of time: the way we remember the past, the way we look to the future, the way we experience the present.

When we look back, and consider our past, we can choose to decide that the past does not rigidly determine our future, that a past trauma or failure does not limit our future success. And, we can choose, when looking backwards, to focus upon our good experiences and express gratitude for them. Finally, rather than let the bitterness of our disappointments linger, we can forgive those who trespassed against us. Gratitude and forgiveness, Seligman teaches and I remind you, are not favors we do for someone else—they are favors we do to ourselves, for ourselves. We can influence our own happiness by the way we view our past.

What about the future? By deciding to view the future with optimism, we can make ourselves happier.

Perhaps this is common sense, but it bears emphasizing: cynicism and pessimism might seem like sophistication, they might seem like realism, they might seem cool. But optimism will make you happier and more successful. To quote: “Optimism causes better resistance to depression when bad events strike, causes better performance at work, particularly in challenging jobs, and better physical health.” We can teach and train ourselves to be more optimistic. This is really important—and graduates you can do this too. Seligman has a comprehensive mechanism by which we can become more optimistic that is too long to completely capture here, but here is its essence: First recognize your pessimistic thoughts, then dispute them. They flit through our consciousness all the time, sometimes very high on our mental screen in large font, and sometimes very low on the screen, in tiny font. Train yourselves to look for them, be aware of them, grab hold of them. Then, FIGHT THEM: “Treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life is to make you miserable” and tell them how wrong they are.

Practice it with me: “Arghhh, I went up to the whiteboard and wrote the answer to the math problem and the answer was wrong. Oh, I have always been so stupid at math, I always get it wrong, I should never have volunteered, I will never be good at math.”

STOP! Fight back: “Actually, I got a B in math last year, actually I have been getting much better at math lately, actually the question on the board was worded strangely and anybody could have made this mistake.”

You can, and should, do this with any adversity: even a stubbed toe can release feelings of pessimism: I am always so clumsy, I never pay attention to anything, I am such a complete klutzFight it. Think: I haven’t stubbed my toe in the last two weeks, I have a pretty good track record this month of not-too-many stubbed toes, I think I can get some better shoes to protect my feet.

As we live in the present, we have choices to make also. Professor Seligman explains there are two forms of happiness, which he labels as pleasures andgratifications.

Pleasures are just that: delights with clear sensory and strong emotional components. Eating an Ice Cream sundae comes to my mind: this is a terrific pleasure, but it is momentary, is experienced in the senses, and requires little or no challenge to overcome or intellectual processing to succeed at. Now Seligman doesn’t dismiss these pleasures: he loves them as much as the rest of us who aren’t puritanical kill-joys. You should feel great about the pleasure of listening to your favorite song, eating your favorite food, or smelling your favorite perfume. You can and should even take steps to make the pleasures more pleasurable; Seligman advises you to avoid overindulging (that ice cream sundae isn’t so good if you have it everyday); and to savor your pleasures by paying deliberate conscious attention (rather than, say, eating that sundae while also talking on the phone and playing a video game—multitasking can really waste a fine pleasure).

But let’s talk about gratifications: Gratifications are those experiences which provide us a different kind of happiness—not a sensual pleasure where we are enjoying our body’s reactions, but an almost out-of-body type of experience, where we forget ourselves, our self-consciousness glides away and we are truly living in the experience itself, fully, completely and utterly absorbed. Playing tennis or volleyball is often used by example: it is hard, it requires effort, and we often begin by feeling very self-conscious about not being good enough, not knowing what to do. But then, we get lost in time: we enter into the zone; we find ourselves experiencing what is sometimes called “flow.” Sometimes it can be found reading a good, but difficult, book; by clearing a forest or building a house; sometimes by solving a complicated puzzle; sometimes by truly helping another person in need. Gratification, or entering into the zone, is harder, much harder to come by, than the pleasures, but they are ultimately much more significant to your long-term happiness. Seligman tells us that whereas the pleasures are just momentary delights, consuming the present, the gratifications are experiences of psychological growth.

Although I am sharing with you the scientific findings of contemporary, academic psychology, we cannot help but recognize how parallel much of these truths are with the truths of ancient wisdom philosophies. The Christian tradition teaches us to express appreciation and gratitude, to forgive those who trespass against us, and to view the future with an optimistic mindset: no wonder adopting Christianity seems to bring so much happiness to people living in depression. In the Greek philosophical tradition, Aristotle taught that the telos, orthe aim, of lifeis Eudamonia—a life well lived, a life of happiness and well being. And for the Greeks, as Aristotle explained, we achieve our happiness by practicing our arête, which is that skill or activity in which we display our excellence to the fullest—in other words, by living a life of gratifications, not pleasures.

Graduates: Look back with warmth and gratitude, look forward with optimism. I know there are days when we read the papers and we fear for the future, but there is still much to be optimistic about. Even as I was writing this, I had pop up on my computer screen a link to a New York Times article, The Future is Now, Or Pretty Soon at Least which tells us that Ray Kurzweil, a famously successful forecaster of technological trends predicts that in five years we will have very viable alternatives to fossil fuels, in ten years we will have a pill that will prevent weight gain, and in fifteen, the science of longevity will begin to greatly advance the human lifespan.

But most of all, seek your arête—live by your personal excellence, take pleasure but commit to a life of gratifications—because it is by finding flow, by losing yourself in the richness of intense experience, that ultimately, your life will be most happy and most fulfilling.

To return to that excellent band, REM, let me share with you some famous lyrics from them which are sometimes dismissed as ironic or cynical but which I am choosing to embrace for their sheer joy and optimism: If you “Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines—gold and silver shine”— you can be: “shiny happy people holding hands.”

Thank you, and congratulations Graduates!

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