Creating Your Best Life

Cutting-edge scientific research on goal-setting and happiness from a top motivational coach.

The Commencement Address I Will Not Give - Yet

Oprah says private planes matter. Here's what I think.

Oprah Winfrey has taken heat for her recent college Commencement address in which she said that having a private plane is an essential that everyone ought to enjoy in order to obtain the good and meaningful life.  I agree that a private plane is convenient, and that it opens up lots of free time for busy people to do good works for others, but I can think of a few other pieces of advice I would want to impart to young adults as they ponder how to approach their futures. 

I've been working for over twenty years on issues around excellence, happiness and goals.  Through coaching hundreds of people, and receiving tens of thousands of letters from readers of my books, I've decided that there are a few non-negotiable pieces of wisdom that everyone ought to know and embody to maximize chances of success and happiness.  

Ideally, this would be done in a commencement address or a "last lecture" of sorts, but I have not earned the status in life that would generate this invitation, so this is my opportunity to sketch out what I'll call, "The Caroline Doctrine," for lack of a wittier title.

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Imagine that I have already given an opening set of pithy remarks -- some funny -- that have lubricated the audience and prepared them for the following advice.  So with that imaginary opening, I now go head-on into life advice for a bunch of high school or college graduates who are looking for some direction: 

1.  Smile as much as you can.  Since research has demonstrated that happy people are the most successful across all domains of life, you might want to up your chances of being happy by initiating a smile, even when you don't feel like it.  Not only will smiling create the right chemistry in your body to feel good, you will probably cause other people to smile, too, as they "catch" your look.

2.  Create a roadmap, but be prepared for detours.  Research shows that the happiest people wake up every day to clear-cut goals, but that happy people also know when a goal has become unworkable due to changed circumstances, and they change direction to accommodate that new reality.  Goals create a roadmap, and without that guide, you will run the risk of being reactive to life, as opposed to proactive.  This is the difference between being on the stage of life versus handing out the program for others.

3.  Work hard and don't quit just because something is hard.  No matter which high achiever you study, there is a consistent theme around the time that they put into achieving their goals.  Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Mine That Bird to the unlikeliest of victories at the 2009 Kentucky Derby, is renowned for his work ethic, detailed in this profile: Along the same lines, don't walk away from a meaningful goal unless you've given it everything you've got.  Research has found that authentic self-esteem comes from doing hard things outside your comfort zone, and not picking the low-hanging fruit in your life.

4.  Have four friends and nurture those friendships.  Friends are the coin of the realm in a flourishing and happy life, and four seems to be the tipping point.  As we've become more preoccupied with our own lives, and less likely to join in-person groups, isolation has become the norm and depression has skyrocketed.  Put birthday reminders in your calendar and send a card.  Say yes to parties.  Attend that wedding that is hard to get to, and smooth out difficulties as they arise.  Your reward will be better health, more resilience in hard times, and more joy in the good times.

5.  Identify the plus-minus factor of the people around you.  A statistic commonly used to evaluate basketball players is called the "plus-minus factor."  What this means is that when a certain player is on the court, he either plays better or worse when another player is also on the court.  I find that the happiest people systematically strip out, or neutralize, the people who drain them of energy and rob them of their best shots, leaving only the people with the highest plus-minus score on their home court.

6.  Play every day. Children do this naturally, but adults rarely do it any longer by their fifties, which is why zest is so low as a character trait at that point for most people.  Play helps with executive functioning, builds relationships, and enhances curiosity.  Curiosity is a sign of happiness and security, because curious people approach the world with a sense of "What is out here for me to learn and explore?"  So find a way to play, whether it's by doing an April Fool's Joke on someone or wearing something goofy.  When you take yourself so seriously that you cannot crack a spontaneous smile, you have begun to die.

7.  Say thank you early and often.  Gratitude is closely associated with happiness, but people also like to be around and work with those who recognize what others bring to the situation.  If you thank people, and notice and comment when good things happen to you, you will not only incentivize people to help you again, you will probably be more likely to have their support when you most need it.

8.  Build your willpower muscle every day.  Generation Y spends an inordinate amount of time being interrupted and responding to non-urgent items that arrive via cell phone, text message, Twitter, Facebook and all manner of technology.  Avid Facebook users average a full academic grade lower than peers who don't use Facebook, for example, and researchers report that small children can't even hold a pose in freeze tag as long as previous generations.  This all boils down to a simple fact -- today's young adults cannot say no to themselves or delay gratification in a way that will allow them to succeed at goal accomplishment, which doesn't bode well for a future that will involve focus and hard work.  So say no to yourself every day when you want to say yes.  The domino effect of building your willpower will be impressive in its depth and breadth in your life.

9.  Respect and fear the power of alcohol.  I know this isn't a popular statement, and that many will find it unrealistic, but alcohol is the one substance that has been found to impede all goal accomplishment.  Alcohol lowers inhibitions around food, sex, drugs, anger, words and even more alcohol.  Know your limits, respect them, and get help with this if you need it.  You'll never regret cutting down on alcohol, but you'll always regret being unable to control it.

10.  R.S.V.P.  and do what you say.  Good old-fashioned manners will grease the wheels of life with everyone you meet, although common courtesy appears to be dead.  Respond to invitations.  Return phone calls.  Answer questions posed to you.  If you say you'll be somewhere, be there.  If you offer to help someone, follow through.  Your word ought to be the most important thing you give away, so treat it with respect, and you will be respected back.

Now go out and live your life, but do it mindfully, gracefully and with friends at your side.  For the most part, life will take care of itself if the building blocks are in place, but make sure that the building blocks are similar to the ones above, and that lead you to make the world a better place.


Caroline Adams Miller is a graduate of Harvard and the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Her latest book is Creating Your Best Life.


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