As my second child prepares to graduate from high school and launch herself into the collegiate world and the wider universe beyond, I find myself thinking about the last few months I have with her before she leaves us to start the next chapter of her life.

Any parent who has experienced a child leaving for college knows that although they come back for visits and meals and money, they never REALLY come back, and that your influence on them wanes more than a little bit when they have almost complete dominion over when they go to class, when they get up, and what they choose to do in their free time. They are almost fully-formed, confident that they know more than their parents do, and we have to take bite-sized chunks of time to connect with them and give them all of the wisdom we wish we’d had when we were their age.

For the last several years, I’ve written my thoughts about what I would say if I were asked to give a commencement speech to this age group (it’s on my bucket list – someday it will happen!), but until that invitation, here are some of the most important things I’ve learned in life and in my work with men and women around the world on how to create their own best lives.

 

  1. Take more risks without knowing the exact outcome. Over and over, I’ve asked clients to tell me about the highlights of their lives, as well as the biggest rewards they have experienced as a result of taking risks. Without fail, every major “win” in their lives has occurred when they have screwed up their courage to do something gutsy, but that wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. Examples have included traveling solo in a foreign country, stepping outside the family norms to pursue a different type of work, or taking up a competitive sport at midlife. The research is clear on this point: in the short-term, we regret the things that don’t work out, but long-term, our most toxic regrets come from the risks we don’t take. Bottom line: Don’t follow the herd.  
  2. Don’t be a quitter. My children grew up as part of the sadly misguided “Generation Me” that was told that everyone is a winner, regardless of effort or outcome. One of the biggest disservices we can do is send our children into the world with the idea that the playing field is level everywhere, and that all comers get soccer participation trophies. That’s not reality, although it is when you fall down the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland,” where the Dodo Bird proclaimed after a foot race, “All have won, and all must have prizes!” The truth is that people who drop out when the going gets tough, like at red belt stage in a black belt martial arts program, have mediocre self-esteem because they know that they never truly tested themselves. New research out of the University of San Francisco even found that it’s the things that create the most discomfort during the day, and that stretch us outside our comfort zone, are the things we are proudest of at the end of the day. That’s the outcome and self-esteem we want. Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to be in emotional or physical pain if you are striving to achieve something hard.  
  3. Don’t be a Debbie Downer. Some of the most interesting research on behavior has been cascading out of Harvard Medical School, where it’s been found that behaviors ranging from quitting smoking, to obesity, to happiness, all happen in clusters. Thus it seems fairly obvious that if you want to flourish in life, and find the best possible outcome to every situation, you need to align yourself with positive, proactive, kind people. It’s even been found that how close you are in a company to people called “positive energizers” – people who make you feel hopeful, motivated and valued – is more predictive of your success than where you are in the influence network or the information network. The negative “de-energizers” – or Debbie Downers – have the exact opposite effect. Know what behavior you exude, as well as where the positive energizers always are in your personal and professional lives. Bottom line: Steer clear of the “black holes” who suck away your energy and happiness.  
  4. Have four in-person friendships. To be categorized as a flourishing person, you have to meet the definition of having strong interpersonal relationships. My daughter’s generation tends to text, email, Facebook, video chat and tweet their friends hundreds of times every day without ever being in physical proximity. Too much internet socialization has been found to increase isolation, while all the signs point to socializing in person as a key deterrent to depression. One study found that having at least four friends improved one’s recovery time from surgery, and another study found that loneliness is more toxic than smoking to one’s health. Go to your friend’s parties, be with them in times of sadness, be happy when they receive good news, and remember their birthdays and comment on them (Facebook is actually very useful in this way). Bottom line: The more you tend to the garden of friendship, the more blossoms you’ll enjoy.  
  5. Create a road map for your life. One of the most comprehensive studies of its kind found that the happiest people wake up every day to clear-cut goals, many of which involve relationships with others as well as doing meaningful work. Most people, however, wake up every day and react to what was left undone from the previous day, while proactive people wake up every day and do things that they have deliberately chosen to do, and that are part of a set of short-term and long-term leveraged goals. Choose the latter approach because you will always be on the stage of your own life instead of passing out programs in the back of the theater for others. Bottom line: Ask yourself every night, “Did I move the ball down the field in my own life today, and what did I move it towards?”  
  6. Give thanks for your good fortune by giving to others. People who are self-involved, and who don’t make an effort to connect with others, are not only unhappier, they are also disliked by their peers. When you always find a way to express gratitude to others (thank you notes, a quick call to someone who did something nice, a smile for the person who held the door for you), you not only get the validated chemical “helper’s high,” you make a difference in someone else’s life. A new study has even found that “Generation Me” has 40% lower empathy levels than previous generations, partly because of the overexposure to media violence and the drop in interpersonal face time, so find ways to fight those trends. Bottom line: Say thank you every day whenever you have a chance to do so.  
  7. Don’t allow an addiction to destroy your quality of life. Over twenty years ago, I wrote the bestselling book, “My Name is Caroline,” about my harrowing descent into bulimia and my hard-fought recovery in my twenties. Since that time, I’ve watched countless friends, and well as their children, live unmanageable lives of addiction to all kinds of things ranging from food to online gambling, which has cost them their dreams and their self-respect. If a substance or behavior is costing you the quality of your life, get help now and use your youth to get on solid footing and improve your self-regulation skills, because if you can’t learn to delay gratification, you will be unable to achieve any substantive goals. Bottom line: If you don’t have complete and voluntary control over your behaviors when you need to be, get the help you need.  
  8. Act childlike, not childish. When children are young, they have the quality of “zest” in abundance, but for adults, “zest” is one of the least common traits they possess. Zest is correlated with happiness because people who have zest are curious about life, eager for a challenge, inspirational to others, and contagious in their capacity for fun and play. Laugh regularly, play April Fool’s jokes on people, do outrageous things at times, and exercise to keep your spirit strong. If you have zest, you’ll never be described as someone who “has the lights on, but nobody is home.” Bottom line: Stay young at heart, and don’t die before your time.

Although ten tips is a nice, round number, I think these eight pointers summarize what has stood out most to me most in the last year as I’ve waded through recent research and observed friends, family members and clients successfully leave behind a legacy they are proud of, wherever they go. May we all continue to learn and grow throughout our lives, finding role models and inspiration that keep us moving along the path of deliberate choice, and may this graduation season give us the fresh impetus to reexamine the principles that guide and motivate us.
    

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About the Author

Caroline Adams Miller

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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