May 20, 2024

Commencement address: Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D.

Arthur C. Brooks, Ph.D.
Keynote speaker
Providence College commencement
May 19, 2024

Father Sicard, Bishop Henning, faculty, trustees, families, and most importantly, my fellow degree recipients from Providence College. What a delight it is to be with you here today. I’m honored to be receiving this honorary degree, and even more so to address you on this most joyous day. An incredible achievement.

Now, as you heard in that gracious introduction from Father Sicard, I left college at 19. That was not my choice. I dropped out of college. Well, dropped out, kicked out, splitting hairs. At this point, I didn’t have the experience that you’re having here. I went on the road as a musician because that was all I knew how to do. I had to make a living. I spent all my 20s working as a musician. My parents called it my gap decade. I made it back to college by correspondence and graduated a month before my 30th birthday, and I always wished I could have had this experience, this beautiful social and intellectual experience that you’re having.

But you know what? I am having this experience through the eyes of my daughter, Marina. Oh, she’s a psychology major. I’ll be in the audience as a parent one year from now. She’s having a wonderful experience at this beautiful college. She’s also a women’s rugby player, I’m happy to say. Yes, indeed. The day after tomorrow, she’ll be leaving for Quantico, Virginia, for the Officer Candidate School, the U.S. Marine Corps. I don’t know where she’s sitting right now, but she’s not happy with me.

I talk about happiness for a living. I’m a scientist, and I work on the science of happiness. I teach the subject of the science of happiness right up the road at the Harvard Business School. My class is the most popular elective at the Harvard Business School. Not because of me, but because we all want more happiness in our lives.

My students are in the last semester of their last year of their MBA program getting ready to graduate, and they’re starting to figure something out. Worldly success in business might not be the secret to happiness. And as they’re heading out, my class is kind of the last chance saloon. Maybe there’s something more to it.  I have 180 students enrolled in my class. I have 400 on the waiting list, and there’s even an illegal zoom link they think I’m not aware of.

I only have 15 minutes with you today. I was going to make a joke and say, I only have 90 minutes with you here today, but my guess is you’d get up and leave. I can’t tell you in 15 minutes what I teach my students, but I can give you a few ideas that I think are most important. On your graduation day, I’m going to give you the three things I want you to think about. Not that I think you should do, but the three things I think you should not do if you want to live your happiest life now.

The world is full of lies about how to live a happy life. You know this is true. You can get rich by telling people that they’ll be happy if they drive a certain car. You can get elected president of the United States by convincing people that their lives will make sense if they just get angry and hateful enough about politics.

That’s all the bad news I have in my speech. Now, the good news there’s not just lies out there. There are people who tell the truth as well. There’s a specific group of men and women who have dedicated themselves to correcting the lies about the good life, and they’ve been doing it for 800 years. This is the Dominican Order of sisters and brothers and priests. In case you haven’t been paying attention, they started Providence College.

I want to tell you about three big lies that the world has probably told you that can really hold you back if you pay attention to them. And I want to give you the truths that the Dominicans have taught over the centuries that can save you a lot of trouble in your life.

Here’s lie number one: You need to have your whole future figured out right now.

Now, you’ve probably heard that you come to college for a specific reason, to figure out your specific career and your life ambitions. You’re supposed to figure out what your passion is and what you’re good at, and what the world needs from you. And only you. And maybe, besides feeling happy and jubilant about finishing at Providence College, maybe you’re a little insecure about that, because just maybe, you haven’t figured those things entirely out by now. It turns out that’s really good news if you haven’t. College, we hear, is supposed to give you all of the information that you need and a blueprint for your future, and in a sort of Road to Damascus way, you’re supposed to graduate very confident and clear in your worldly goals.

If you aren’t, well, who knows? Maybe that means you’ll never get a job that you love and you’ll never really succeed as a result. That’s fake news. In fact, you should not have your future all figured out. Not now. And not later. This is what we learn from a 13th-century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart. He taught again and again that, in his words, we should live without a why. Now, that can be misinterpreted as we should be directionless or not have goals in this life. And that’s not what he meant at all. He meant that we should always remember that there’s one ultimate goal in life, and everything else is subservient to it. We should be flexible in everything except in loving God and loving others. That’s what we have to be focused on for the rest of our lives. That comes before our careers and our money and our worldly ambition.

Look, ordinary goals are good. I recommend them to everybody, including myself. A lot of research shows that, of course. But they should be just intentions, not attachments. Directions in life, not attachments that distract us from loving others and doing God’s will.

If you’re still a little insecure about your future right now, I have a secret. Me too. And all of them, too. And that’s a good thing. We should work hard in whatever opportunity we find on this earth and in our lives, but stay open to God’s providence. So each night, starting tonight, offer up your life and offer up your future to the Lord and ask that his will, not yours, be done. Let God guide the incredible adventure of your life starting today.

Lie number two. This one is even more common. Lie number two is that suffering is bad. You know, you’ve probably heard this again and again. that your suffering is evidence that there’s something wrong with you. This is actually pretty similar to a big lie that people were hearing in the 1960s. You know, back in the ’60s, the hippies used to have this motto, “If it feels good, do it.” Right.  I remember my father hearing that and saying, “That’s the end of America.” He was kind of right. That was a dumb motto because it led to a lot of suffering and a lot of addiction and a lot of broken families. But today’s unofficial motto is even worse: If it hurts in my life, make it stop. Sadness and fear today are too often considered to be evidence of pathology or even sickness. People increasingly see ordinary sadness, ordinary suffering and stress, as evidence that they have an emotional disorder.

The truth is that life is complicated and difficult. Negative emotions are normal and healthy. There isn’t something about sadness and anxiety in your life that makes you weird. On the contrary, look, you’re doing hard things. If you’re not sad and anxious sometimes, then you need therapy.

Now, I didn’t come up with this idea, of course. Let me give you an example of somebody who had a lot of pretty eloquent words about the importance of suffering. Saint Rose of Lima. She was a 17th century Dominican tertiary. She was the first person in the Americas to be canonized as a saint by our church. She dedicated herself to serving the poorest of the poor in Peru, her native country, where she suffered a lot. She had ill health, suffered from all sorts of setbacks in her life, and great torment before she died at the age of 31.

She was an expert on pain and suffering. Hers, her own, and that of others. You might think that she’d hate it, but you’d be wrong. Here’s some words of Saint Rose of Lima. Grace comes after tribulation. Without the burden of afflictions, it’s impossible to reach the height of grace. The gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase.

There’s a funny thing that I’ve discovered as a behavioral scientist about human beings. Satisfaction in your life only comes after pain and struggle. That’s the truth. If you don’t struggle for something, you won’t enjoy it. If you cheated to get an A on an exam, which obviously none of you ever did, you won’t enjoy the A. There’s no sweetness to it. You stayed up all night working on it, then it’s great.

It’s a funny thing. Remember when you were a child and your parents said, “Don’t eat before dinner?” Obviously why they lied to you at that point. They said, “It’s bad for your health.” That’s not why they wanted you a little hungry at dinner. They wanted you to suffer a little bit at dinner time because then dinner was good. They couldn’t quite put it into words, but they wanted the joy that comes after struggle so that you can live a satisfying life and learn how to defer your gratification. That’s what a good life is all about.

Now, you know, don’t get me wrong, suffering can be adaptive. It can be a medical problem, as in the case of clinical depression. But suffering per se is not evidence that you’re broken. Remember this as you struggle in the coming years. Remember that our Savior, Jesus Christ suffered. His Blessed Mother suffered. Are you suffering? That means you’re a human on earth. Lean into your life. Be fully alive.

Lie number three. Now it gets a little bit more complicated. You’ve often been told, and you will be told increasingly in the future, that you need to know your truth.

It’s a big problem. That’s an expression that we hear a lot today. My truth. It didn’t exist in my generation. I wouldn’t have understood it. But you’ve heard it a lot. You need to know your truth. Everyone has his or her own life experience and so each person knows his or her own truth. This is what’s led us to a culture of identity politics full of in-groups and out-groups who all have their own truths, all fired up by activists conscripted as child soldiers into our culture war, keen to keep us angry and at each other’s throats.

That leads to a lot of misery. Let me tell you about some very early research in my own field. Back in 1984, a famous psychologist by the name of Daniel Lapsley was studying the cause of a new phenomenon that he was starting to see, which was rising levels of depression among young adults, adolescents and young adults. People your age.

People didn’t know what was going wrong. Why was this happening? It was a new problem. Of course, we know the end of that story. It’s exploded in the subsequent decades. He asked these adolescents that he saw were suffering a lot to react to a number of statements such as, “Everyone’s opinion is just as good as everyone else’s opinion.” And something else, like, “There is no such thing as the truth.” His conclusion was stark and clear from the research. A belief in relative truth will bring you clinical depression. Why? Here’s why. Here’s why. Because if you believe that you have a unique source of truth, that you are the true North, that there’s nothing more right and authentic than you, you’re saying that you are God. How boring, how depressing, that you’re God. I don’t want to be God. I want a better universe than that.

Now good news. You’re finished at a college here that has a word on its crest. Veritas. It doesn’t say Veritas mea, which is my truth. It says Veritas. There is truth. How do you get it? For this, we turn to the perhaps the greatest Dominican mind of all besides President Sicard. Of course, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century angelic doctor, and his Summa Theologica, taught that there’s really just one divine truth, the ineffable mystery of the truth of God. But here’s the problem. You can’t find it on earth. You can’t reach it entirely on earth. But that’s not the point. The point is approaching the one truth, that ultimate truth, trying to find it.

How do you do that? The answer to how you find the ultimate truth is by listening to other people. The mayor of Providence, Mayor Smiley, in his brief remarks, said, “Listen to other people, especially those with whom you disagree.” A competition of ideas fundamental to a free society. There’s not a lot of that out there. Is there a lot of a lot of humility out there? There’s not a lot of information about what other people think. Say, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

How can you be humble? Let me give you an example of how I try to do it with Harvard University. We also have the crest that says Veritas on it. But I dare say that at my university we don’t have enough humility. You may have noticed this. You know, one of the things we say at Harvard is that listening is also known as waiting to talk. All right. On my birthday each year, I practice a little bit of humility.

When I was a younger man, I used to have a bucket list. Y’all know what a bucket list is? It’s a metaphor where you take your cravings and desires, your attachments, and you write them down and you imagine yourself succeeding in all these things, consuming all of these things. It’s not what I do now. Now I have what I call my reverse bucket list, where I take my strongest opinions and I write them down. See, these are my attachments. And then I across them out. Not because I don’t believe things, but because I will not be attached to and controlled by my opinions.

2024 is a kind of an important year in my reverse bucket list for two reasons. Next Tuesday I have a big birthday. It’s got a zero on it. OK, now it’s pretty obviously not 50. I hope it’s equally obvious it’s not 70. So by process of elimination, you know how old I’m turning on Tuesday. But 2024 is also an important year because this is an election year in the United States, and everybody’s got strong opinions, and we’re all being encouraged by the media and the malignant narcissists in Washington, D.C., to hate each other because of our opinions.

So you know what I’m putting on my reverse bucket list? My political opinions. Yeah. See, I need fewer political opinions because I need more friends.

Give it a try.

Humility is the secret of happiness. Humility is the true secret to success in life. Here’s a quote from Saint Dominic de Guzman himself: Wear humility rather than fine clothes. That’s not just about being virtuous, it’s about being happy.

Now I’m almost done. But I want to sum it up in something that you can remember, because this is a graduation speech and nobody ever said I remembered every word in my graduation speech. Let me give you a formula. No, let me start with the world’s formula of lies on how to live a good life. See, it sounds really simple and easy, but it’s all upside down. Here’s what the world tells you to do. Graduate from college today and do three things: Love things, use people, and worship yourself.

That’s what the world tells you to do. Use things in your life, materialism, material success, etc., that will bring you happiness. Use people. People are there for your consumption and your gratification. Do that. And last but not least, don’t forget that you’re the star of your psychodrama. You’re the only thing that matters. That’s what the world tells you to do. I get it.

I’m in the world to give you the right formula for happiness. To sum up all of this Dominican wisdom that I’ve been summarizing here in my remarks sounds just like that, but it changes the verbs and the nouns. So here’s what I want you to remember in six words.

Use things. It’s abundance. It’s freedom. This is America. But don’t love them. Only love people, because people are made to love in God’s image. And most importantly, worship God.

Here’s your formula: Use things. Love people. Worship God.

Follow that formula as you leave here today from this great college. It will never steer you wrong. You’ll begin a journey of love and excellence and truth. And you know what? It’ll bring you the happiness that you deserve. God bless you on this great day. God bless Providence College and Go Friars.

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