- High School
Most of you know that I’m a psychologist, and one of the reasons I love Shakespeare is that he was one of the greatest psychologists of all time. You can see brilliant psychological insights throughout his plays, but one of my absolute favorites is the speech by Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet. You will remember that Romeo goes to him heartbroken after he kills Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt and is banished so he has to leave Juliet behind. Romeo is all “Woe is me,” crying on the floor and tearing at his hair, and the Friar says:
“What, rouse thee, man! Thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead.
There art thou happy. Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slewest Tybalt. There are thou happy too.
The law, that threat'ned death, becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile. There art thou happy.
A pack of blessings light upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love.
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable!"
So here’s Romeo with no small cause to be upset, but the Friar says to look at all of the ways in which he is happy. Or, as your grandmothers might say, the Friar tells Romeo, “Count your blessings.” In fact, he goes even further than that and warns that people who focus only on the negative will die miserable.
Over four hundred years later, modern psychologists have done a great deal of research into the subject of happiness, and what they have found is that Friar Lawrence was right. People who practice gratitude are just plain happier than people who don’t. They are also healthier and they sleep better. Importantly today, at a time when resilience is so needed, it turns out that grateful people are also more resilient because gratitude lowers stress hormones. Grateful people are less likely to have mood disorders like anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to have happy, healthy relationships, especially if their partner is also typically grateful: They create a cycle where one partner feels grateful to the other so behaves even more nicely, which is then noticed by the other partner who then behaves even more nicely, which is then noticed by the other partner who then behaves... well, you see where I’m going. Grateful partners create their own positive cycle. This is of course especially powerful if we actually tell our partner what we are grateful for. Quite often we forget to do that and only remember to tell people we love what they’ve done wrong.
When we break the pattern of the negative, we begin to appreciate our lives, each other, and ourselves. One exercise that is actually quite powerful and supereasy is to interrupt negative thoughts by noticing three things around you that make you happy - takes 20 seconds and there are always 3 things! Another that turns out not to be so easy is to try to write down five things each day that make you happy. Challenge each other to do that. My guess is that you’ll find it easy for the first couple of days and have to dig deeper the next few, maybe into the past. If you keep it up, though, it becomes easier and you do become happier. And don’t keep your thoughts to yourself - if you think of a person for whom you are thankful or to whom you are thankful, drop them a line. It will make their day, of course, but it will also make yours. It turns out that one of the very best prescriptions for being happy, healthy and productive is the one that Shakespeare told us about all those years ago. And it is especially important when things are tough or times are hard.
Because being grateful isn’t about denying that things are tough or times are hard. It’s important to acknowledge the difficult things in life or in a relationship. But the trick is not to stop there. Recognize the difficult, and then put it into perspective by also recognizing the terrific. So I don’t want to deny that this cohort has had - at the very least - huge and unusual challenges over the past three years. Let’s acknowledge that. But then let’s take our message from the Friar and figure out where we are happy.
It is undoubtedly true that the world of work has been jettisoned forward about twenty years by the necessities of the pandemic. Were it not for Covid, you could have entered the workforce four years from now and watched as people slowly worked toward flexibility in the workplace over the next twenty years or so. For example, we knew three years ago that we could use technology to connect and that maybe not everyone needed to be onsite in the office every day. Nonetheless, people continued to commute to work not necessarily because they needed to but because that’s what was done. But the pandemic forced people to find alternatives now, and we discovered that we could meet online for everything from court dates to conferences to committees to working groups to trainings. Society, and especially organizations and businesses, tend to be conservative about changes like these. Going forward it is true that the entire industrialized world is aware that these new tools exist and that they are sometimes - not always - even preferable to meeting in person. And of course the tools we have today are being improved upon as well so we really can all meet in virtual reality soon. There art thou happy.
The same can be said about the field of education and schools. We’ve known for a long time that schools cannot and should not be defined by the walls of a building, but one of my favorite quotes is of Admiral Rickover who in 1983 said “changing schools is like moving a graveyard.” For most people, it wasn’t enough to know that we should change. They retained the status quo because change is scary and difficult. The fact that suddenly schools were forced to find new ways to provide education means that now everyone is thinking out of the box because we had to. Nothing is considered crazy anymore. That means that you won’t have to fight to get your own kids education that extends beyond the walls of their schools. There art thou happy too.
And as hard it may have been, we also learned a lot individually, didn’t we? We learned to be flexible and patient (whether we liked it or not) and resilient in the face of difficulties and disappointments. People in this school showed incredible levels of creativity and kindness, reaching out to help others outside of the school and to help each other within it. Some of you told the visiting committee from WASC that you had learned to be much more self-directed. You have all just managed and organized wonderful Independent Study Modules and what I hear was a terrific and well-deserved Prom. You are all headed off to interesting and exciting new adventures in a world with new tools and new attitudes. There art thou happy.
You are entering what will literally be a new world, not only like most kids who are going away to the new world of college, but in a new reality that is profoundly changed and in some ways unrecognizable and in many ways unpredictable. Your generation will perceive innovation as necessary, not disruptive, and you will be joining an entire cohort of others who will consider improving the world to be their calling and their duty and their challenge.
There art thou happy.