Lessons from the Science of Well-Being for New Graduates and their Parents

About 550 words of wisdom for students leaving their bubble...

Posted Jun 08, 2009

For the past decade, I have been teaching my dream course called "The Science of Well-Being," exposing my students to what scientists have learned about happiness, positive emotions, love, creativity, forgiveness, mindfulness, curiosity, and meaning and purpose in life. This is my launching pad for dispensing advice to graduates about how to leave the sanctuary of college.

Regardless of your SAT scores, GPA, and the U.S. News & World Report ranking of your college, odds are that you are as bad as everyone else at figuring out what is going to lead to a fulfilling life. When asked, people think that novel, uncertain events will be less pleasurable than feeling absolutely certain and possessing every bit of information possible in a situation. However, scientists are finding that when events are new and uncertain our pleasure is more likely to be intense; it will linger longer and be more meaningful. What this means is that most of us are doing the exact opposite of what will bring us fulfillment.

How can you thrive in an uncertain, unpredictable, rapidly evolving world?

Explore your deepest, most central values by devoting time for introspection. Schedule this time as you would your workout sessions and doctor appointments. Imagine, for a moment, that you could wave a magic wand to ensure the approval and admiration of everyone on the planet, forever. In that case, what would you choose to do with your life? Think about your answer. Don't let the opinions and expectations of others determine the outcome of this exercise. When you are the author of your behavior and choices, you'll devote more effort, make more progress, and derive more satisfaction and meaning from your goals.

Search for lessons and inspirations in unexpected places and don't surround yourself with people who are too similar to you. Recognize that your knowledge and perspective is limited. Only through multiple perspectives can we grasp the totality of an idea or issue. Talk to strangers that look and act nothing like you. Econ majors: hang out with musicians and capture their joy in improvisation. Dancers: take a Math major to lunch and enjoy the thrill of their focused approach to problems.

Don't judge yourself harshly against people that appear more knowledgeable and successful than you. Every so-called expert was trained by what worked in the past for a future that will present new problems. Take a close look at how the wizards of Wall Street tripped over their knowledge.

Be willing to be anxious, uncomfortable, and mistake-prone because these are the natural consequences of taking on challenges. As soon as someone thinks they know what they are doing, they pull out their recipes and start applying old ideas to new situations. This often marks the end of productivity, creativity, and innovation. Proudly proclaim that you will be a lifelong learner, never an expert.

Time and energy are the most limited and valuable commodities in life. Forget about accumulating 1000 friends on Facebook. Nourish a few significant, meaningful relationships with people who will support your explorations and provide a safe haven to which you can always return. Discover your strengths and find new ways to use them; discover your passions and devote effort to them on a daily basis.

Forget about the pursuit of happiness. Create a life that matters and you might catch happiness along the way.

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoidance of danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."
~Helen Keller~

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. For more about his talks and workshops, books, and research go to www.toddkashdan.com or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena