By July 6, 2006Blog
(This is the text of a commencement speech I gave last week for a graduating 8th grade class. This private school in Santa Cruz, California goes from K-8; this graduating class happened to be all boys.)

First of all, I want to say congratulations. You are the graduating class from what I believe is the best school in Santa Cruz County.

What I love about this school is the combination of high expectations, along with a culture that encourages both a love of learning and good manners. All of these are important, as I will talk about this afternoon, not just because it helps you to become better people, better citizens, and better friends, but it is crucial for your own personal happiness as well.

One of the hard things about being a 13 or 14 year-old teenager these days is something that I’m sure you are all familiar with. It is the desire, and the need, to display a kind of behavior that mocks things like high expectations, love of learning, and good manners. It is usually described as being “cool”, but there is a more accurate word for it: Cynicism.

Cynicism is actually an ancient Greek school of philosophy. Its founder was Antisthenes, who was a follower of Socrates. Socrates believed that if a person knew Truth – with a capital “T” – then he or she would naturally choose the Good – with a capital “G”. The highest task then became to find Truth at all costs; the rest would take care of itself.

The big idea of Cynicism is that all of the institutions, social conventions, and other structures that people have created, just get in the way of knowing Truth, and knowing Truth is the top priority.

So, in order to come to know Truth, you have to reject these institutions and social conventions. By rejecting these you would get a glimpse into Truth, and, as the belief goes, you would then be happier.

But part of a cynic’s behavior is also marked by a kind of sarcastic and condescending view of people who accept and live with the conventions of a society. This means that if you have created a happy life for yourself using the opportunities that human achievement has made possible, then you are, in the cynic’s view, deceiving yourself, and deserving of ridicule.

Also deserving of ridicule is the idea that you can be happy with your family or respectful of people who make things happen in the community. If you enjoy your work, enjoy school, love your country, are willing to support institutions that you find useful, then, to a cynic, you are fooling yourself.

As I’ll show in a minute, this is a very silly way to pursue a happy life.

But let’s look at what might be useful about cynicism. It is important to question established rules and conventions, so that you can learn whether or not they are of value. Do they help us to live happy, successful, and engaged lives? Or do they serve to entrench outdated ideas that actually get in the way of the good?

It is extremely useful for you to re-evaluate the assumptions by which you live, so that you can be open to the feedback from the world that you need in order to improve.

That said, there is no value in the sneering sarcasm and condescension that goes along with cynicism. It is possible to question, to evaluate and re-evaluate the usefulness of rules and conventions, to be dynamic in your own growth and exploration, while also holding an optimistic, grateful, and benevolent spirit.

There are lots and lots of good things in the world, structures and institutions that make life better. There are good elements of human nature. It is in our interest to find what these are, and what it is about them that work. It is in our interest to support those things – and on the other hand, to find what doesn’t work, and to change those things as we can.

But cynicism is fundamentally a helpless and passive stance. It is a stance of disengagement from the world as it is. The cynic observes and ridicules, mocking those who live according to established ways.

The bitterness, the sarcasm, the biting comments, they don’t come from a position of active engagement in making things better, they don’t come from a position of strength; they come from a position of anger and resentment that things are not already the way the cynic would wish them to be.

So tonight, as you celebrate your graduation from this wonderful institution, I would like to steer you away from Antisthenes and the Cynics, and toward someone much smarter and wiser: Aristotle.

Aristotle believed that happiness is not a state of being, it is not a state of knowing some hidden and mysterious Truth – with a capital “T”. Happiness is an action.

It isn’t something that you possess, or a feeling that you just experience when you’re having fun. Happiness for Aristotle comes from practicing your virtues until they are habits.

Happiness is based on taking action in the world as it is, in relation to human nature as it is, and the institutions, conventions, and other structures that are available; not from a passive and wishful thinking that these should all somehow be different already.

There are actions that you can take in life, that research in my field of Positive Psychology is showing can clearly improve your level of happiness. The interesting thing about this research is that it is showing that many of the things you have been taught about virtue and good character, turn out to be the core elements that make for a happy life – for you.

For many people, the case for virtue is kind of a circular argument: You should be virtuous because, well, because you should be virtuous. It is just the right thing to do. A good person should be virtuous. Be good, you know… because! Or the ever popular: “Be good because I say so!”

But the reality of human nature is that it includes a large measure of self-interest. To base a commitment to virtue on a denial or an opposition to this self-interest is not an effective strategy.

If you expect a whole world of people to be good because it will “make the world a better place”, or “it will help others”, or “it is what is expected of you”, or “it is your duty”, you might as well build yourself a bunker and crawl in.

It is not that these are not good and desirable things, and it is not that we aren’t motivated at all by such good will; it is just that it is not part of human nature to do large, long term things that do not also include somewhere any personal benefit.

Tonight, I want to encourage you as you make your way into the world, to be good people. For your sake. Not for my sake, not for your Principal’s sake or your teachers’ sake, not for your parents’ sake, or anybody else’s – though we will all benefit from and be grateful for your goodwill.

You’ve heard enough about why it’s good for others that you live with virtue. That’s a given.

I want to encourage you to be good people because by doing that you will build for yourself a happier, more satisfying, and more successful life.

Let me give you some examples of how virtue is in your own interest.

Honor is what you do when you own your own life. Living honorably means that you take your life seriously, and take responsibility for creating a meaningful existence. This includes your relationships with other people. You should seek to live an honorable life not only because the world improves when there are more honorable people in it, but because honor is an expression of self-possession and self-love.

You should strive to become more optimistic, not because people will like being around you, or because you will do better at work – nice and good things, and true – but because optimism is the antidote to depression and helplessness, and you will be happier if you are more optimistic.

You should be forgiving, not just because you have been told that it’s good and right. It’s good and right, in part, because by forgiving you allow yourself to let go of holding a grudge, and holding a grudge keeps you in a negative relationship with the past.

Forgiveness frees you from whatever and whomever it is with whom you had been holding a grudge, and frees you to live a happier life. That this may be moving and humbling to the one forgiven is a separate possibility.

You should cultivate and express a sense of gratitude not just because it is a nice thing to do for others, but because we know from the research that feeling and expressing gratitude is essential to living a happy life.

And it is one of the easiest things that you can practice as a new behavior to make yourself happier. You can become more grateful very easily; the simplest thing you can do is, every day, just think of three good things that happened that day.

And just as holding a grudge keeps you focused on what was bad in the past, feeling gratitude focuses you on what was good in the past.

Gratitude is like optimism for the past, just as hope is optimism for the future.

You should live with integrity, not just because good people live with integrity, but because life is much better when you are congruent between what you think, what you say, and what you do. Life is much better when you are honest, when people trust you, and when you trust yourself.

You should treat others as you would have them treat you, not just because it is “The Golden Rule”, and so you have been told that you are supposed to do this, but because developing a deep capacity for empathy is at the heart of good relationships of any kind; and good relationships are at the heart of living a happy and successful life.

You should develop a sense of self-discipline and focus in whatever you do, not only because it will make you a better worker, or that it will “build character” – which it will – but because the happiest people are those who have developed the capacity to focus and absorb themselves in their work and in their play.

This ability to focus and apply yourself, whether or not you feel like it at the time, is what creates a sense of “flow“, which is necessary to living a happy life.

You should develop a strong capacity for self-regulation, not because it will make you a better citizen, and a more reliable person – though it will, and that is all to the good – but because self regulation is the act of taking possession of your life.

It is the difference between owning your life, and being at the mercy of your feelings and impulses.

You should be friendly and playful, not just because other people will like you better, or because you will be more popular – though this is true – but because it is a more joyful way to live this one precious life. It’s more fun.

I want to end with a quote from a now old movie, Say Anything, where the main character is wrestling with whether or not to treat a girl with whom he is falling in love with a kind of uncaring, cool attitude, as his cynical friends suggest he should do, or if he should treat her with respect and admiration, which is what he really feels, and how he would like to treat her.

His genuine friend with whom he was talking this over asked him why he wouldn’t treat her with respect and admiration. He started saying something like, “Well, the guys say I should ignore her and act cool – pretend I don’t care.”

His true friend looked him straight in the eye and responded: “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man.”

You are all on your way to becoming men. Treat yourself with respect and admiration, and don’t be afraid to treat other people with respect and admiration as well.

Look forward to your High School years, they’re bound to be a lot of fun, and challenging, and full of complexity. But you’ve had a great start here.

Let that great start help you to own your own life as you grow into men, and let the guys follow your lead, not you theirs.