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COMMENCEMENT 2009 - Valedictory Address

President Mark D. Gearan
May 17, 2009

 

A year and one half ago, I read an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal about the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the new happiness index they were implementing. From the article: “Developed in the 1980s by Bhutan’s fourth king, Gross National Happiness, or GNH is a Bhutanese twist on Gross Domestic Product….As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they’ve decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time…..Happiness is defined by King Wangchuck, who is credited with creating GNH and whose philosophy still guides the commission, can be found in a life that incorporates cultural traditions and respects the natural world.”

I found the entire concept of a happiness index fascinating. How could this small kingdom – the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined – come up with the standards? Was it possible?

It got me to thinking about our own country and the unlikely phrase Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

The phrase “Pursuit of Happiness” has always struck me as somewhat out of place in an otherwise legal statement of our new nation’s political philosophy. But our forefathers were clear: pursuit of happiness was an unalienable right we were endowed with by our creator.

Around this same time, I came across a wonderfully witty book by NPR Correspondent Eric Weiner titled, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. The author spent a year traveling and visiting the world’s most and least happy places including Bhutan, of course. He looks at the scientific literature on happiness and draws some conclusions on certain cultures and the ingredients for a life happily lived: “Recent research into happiness or subjective well-being reveals that money does indeed buy happiness. Up to a point. That point, though, is surprisingly low: about $15,000 a year. After that, the link between economic growth and happiness evaporates. Americans are on average three times wealthier than we were half a century ago, yet we are no happier. The same is true of Japan and many other industrialized nations.

Think about it as Richard Layard, a professor at the London School of Economics has: “They have become richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer and they are healthier. But they are no happier.”

Weiner notes that the Bhutanese King’s idea dates back to 1973 but it only really took off following a 1986 article in The Financial Times by journalist Michael Elliott. Elliott, as it turns out, was a guest this year on campus for the President’s Forum. “The idea caught on with other developing countries and even a few rich industrialized ones. Papers were written. Conferences were held. Praise was sung.”

During the presidential election last year, Syracuse University economist Arthur Brooks published a book Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America – and How We Can Get More of It. Professor Brooks argues that politicians overlook happiness, “because they measure what’s easy to measure. They talk about money because money is easier to measure than human thriving. But when people in the exit polls come out they talk about cultural values as why they voted for a particular politician.”

Adding: “Happy people treat others better than unhappy people do. They are more charitable than unhappy people, have better marriages, are better parents, act with great integrity and are better citizens. Happy people not only work harder than unhappy people, but volunteer more, too – meaning that they increase our nation’s prosperity and strengthen our communities. In short, happy citizens are better citizens. Better citizens are vital to making our nation healthy and strong.”
Other research has shown “happy people have better health habits, lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and higher endurance levels.”

So this all begs the question I ask on your Commencement Day – what will be your happiness index? How will you measure it? What are the metrics you will employ to determine your well being? You already know how you will measure other indices of your life: net worth, assets, liabilities, degrees attained, number of children, number of marriages, number of homes, cars, boats. But when you’re back on the Quad for your 25th or 50th Reunion, will you be happy? How will you know?

We know you graduate into a time of exponential change but with the enormous privilege of a college degree – ranking you among the most elite in the world today. How will you use that privilege?

In attempting to answer these questions, I turn to our Honorary Degree recipients -- women and men who our Board of Trustees accorded this institution’s highest honor. We hold them out to our graduates as exemplars of lives led with meaning and productivity and, yes, happiness.

First, our distinguished speaker, the Honorable Carol Browner has worked at the highest levels of government advising two U.S. Presidents on the major environmental and energy issues facing our planet. The daughter of an Irish immigrant, Carol Browner gives testimony to the power of hard work and advocacy for causes and ideas that matter. She has used her considerable intellect and unyielding commitment to environmental sustainability to make a difference in this world for all of us.

The life of the late Dixon Kunzelmann details a narrative of blending significant private sector responsibilities and success with devotion to his alma mater. Mr. Kunzelmann found happiness in his family and friends and his lifelong attachment to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He cared deeply for this place and nurtured it as a member of our Board of Trustees. His example shows us the dynamic qualities of loyalty and devotion to an institution he loved for its formative role during his undergraduate years, allowing for his success.

Jane and Jim Gerling are models of civic engagement. They lead by example to involve themselves with efforts in our community to better the lives of children and families. Individually they are impressive. As a team, they are formidable. And they take their role as citizens with great responsibility and purpose.

These four degree recipients all offer different paths: in government, business, education, ministry and not-for-profits. But they all have a shared commitment to service.

Each has their own happiness index, I suspect. But it is noteworthy that they all serve.

The Austrian psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl felt that happiness was really a by product, observing, “Don’t aim at success. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause great than oneself….Happiness must happen….You have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

Whatever your approach, I urge you to reflect on the question of your Happiness Index. What will make you happy?

The current edition of The Atlantic has a fascinating piece on a study that has been conducted on 268 Harvard graduates for the past 72 years since they entered college. Author Mark Ostow notes that “the project is one of the longest running and probably the most exhaustive longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history.” When finished, it seeks to answer the question “What Makes Us Happy.”

So the time has now really come. You leave us today to begin your journey. We thank you for making a difference in our classroom and outside of the classrooms, in Geneva and all across the globe. We hope you take the lessons learned here and go on to lead a life marked by service to others. We hope you will come back to visit and bring your stories back to advance the generations that will follow you.

We hope your Happiness Index takes from Henry David Thoreau’s guidance: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams!
Live the life you’ve imagined.”

Thank you and congratulations.