May 31, 2003
Thank you, Kai. That was lovely. And thanks to all of you who selected me for this tremendous honor. I must admit that when Kai told me I had been chosen, I was very excited — because I thought about the opportunity to dispense lots of sage advice and use phrases like "In the final analysis...." But then I realized there was a little problem: I don't really know all that much.
As an example: I took a year and half of chemistry in college and to this day I can't tell you why you don't have to boil wet laundry to get it to dry.
Or, to take another example, I still don't know the definition of "liberal arts" — though I'm pretty sure it's not a bunch of paintings done by the ACLU.
So I don't have all the answers. Fortunately, I have a few — in fact, I know the answers to the two questions you'll be answering for the rest of your life.
"It's just outside Philadelphia" — cuz folks have heard of us; they're just not always sure where we are.
"No. In fact, it's always been co-ed." — cuz, well, you know why.
Thanks to you folks, I have also answered some questions about myself. More than a dozen years ago, I ran my first psychology experiment at another institution. At the end of the experiment, I made the huge mistake of passing out a questionnaire that asked the participants to describe the physical characteristics of the experimenter — i.e., me. What was I thinking? Here are some of the actual descriptions I received:
"Thin. Gaunt. Boney-faced. Not athletic looking."
And my personal favorite:
"No fashion sense."
Fast forward to earlier this year when I was awarded tenure. You see, like you, 2003 is a graduation year for me — except whereas in your case, you're moving on, I've just been told I'm staying — forever.
Anyway, at the time my tenure was announced, there were a number of postings to the Daily Jolt. For those of you who don't know, the Daily Jolt is a web-based discussion forum, in which individuals can anonymously post pretty much anything they want to say about anyone. And here's what folks had to say about me:
- Andrew Ward got tenure! He's such a cutey-pie.
- He is hot! Geek chic from tete to toes! Mmmmmmmmm...
I must tell you: When you folks were in your first year, that was the first time I taught Psych 1 by myself. I decided to buy a whole slew of new suits and look rather spiffy for my lectures (this suit is one I bought for the same purpose this year). So I spent quite a bit of money on a whole new wardrobe. One day I was lecturing on color vision. In particular, I was talking about color blindness, and I mentioned, only half in jest, that one of my colleagues had solved his color blindness problem by wearing the same clothes every day.
The next lecture, a student who, mind you, sat right up front every time came up to me after class and said the following:
"Remember you talked last time about that person who wears the same thing every day? Was that you?"
All those suits — all that money wasted (though maybe not if I am "Geek chic").
Here are the rest of the student comments from the same forum:
- Absolutely sooo hot.
- Yeah, i'd jump his bones if i got half a chance. Yeah Baby rrrghhhhhhhhhhh!!!
- Smart and sexy!
And because pride cometh before the fall Ð the last comment:
- Andrew Ward hot? Dear Lord, you people need this spring break to get your eyes checked.
Something else I have learned from you folks — you work hard.
You see, you had the courage to do something I couldn't. You enrolled in Swarthmore. I had the chance, mind you. I was accepted and came down to visit. While I was taking the tour, some students walked by me and said, "Man, this place is so hard. I have so much work to do!" I figured this place was not for me.
Do you really work that hard? Yes, you do. My first year here, I taught a class that had five students. Boy, do I long for those days, having just today almost completed grading 155 exams. If I skip out early, it's only because I have a few more to go.... Anyway, at the end of that course, I handed out a teaching evaluation. The student comments: "Give us more reading, more writing. We're Swarthmore students Ð we can handle it."
So when you graduate tomorrow, you are justified in joining the other 17,908 living Swarthmore alumni in declaring that you did indeed graduate from the toughest college in the country.
And I encourage you to continue to strive for excellence in whatever endeavor you end up pursuing. There is nothing so rewarding as a job well done. As but one example, consider the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the subject of a outstanding 1997 documentary by Ken Burns. The film opens with an observation from a fellow architect and rival, 90-year-old Philip Johnson. He says of Wright:
"I hated him of course. But that's only normal when a man is so great — it's a combination of hatred; it's a combination of envy, and contempt, and misunderstanding — all of which gets mixed up with his genius."
Later Johnson describes a project that Frank Lloyd Wright completed in 1936: The great administration building of the S.C. Johnson Company in Racine, Wisconsin. The building includes a great hall fashioned to look like an underwater glade — with a lily-pad ceiling that diffuses natural light throughout the structure. It's a remarkable achievement.
Here's what Johnson says about Frank Lloyd Wright's work:
"What he did was something that's unheard of in the business world. In the business world, you have a lot of offices — they have to be 5 feet apart. They have to be all glass to the outside. And then you get numbers on them and you take an elevator — this is the normal American Program: Just build me an office building. And what did he do — he built a palace; he built a church. He built something that just soared. It's the finest room in the United States today — it still is."
That, my friends, is a job well done.
BUT (and when you talk to a research psychologist, there's always a BUT): The film is a cautionary tale. For, by all accounts, Frank Lloyd Wright's personal life was a disaster, and he was a rather dastardly fellow. Indeed, Ken Burns opens his film with a quote from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats:
"The intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work, and if it take the second, must refuse a heavenly mansion, raging in the dark."
Now Yeats was a bit of a depressive — so here's your mission — here's my charge to you:
Prove him wrong. Prove Yeats wrong.
Sigmund Freud said the definition of a successful individual is one who has achieved meaningful work and meaningful love.
So, my advice to you is really quite simple: Find something and someone to love — and if you have to choose, I'd go with the someone. It might not lead to your becoming the subject of a PBS documentary, but on the other hand, your chances of ending up on a reality TV show will be immensely improved. I can see it now on Fox: "When Swarthmore alums date...."
What's the best way to succeed both in work and in personal relationships? One variable that has increasingly become the subject of psychological study is happiness. Become a happy person.
Happy people have more friends. Of course, one has to be careful with the causal direction. Are people happy because they have friends or do happy people draw folks to them? Probably both.
As another example, psychologists tell us that rates of depression decrease with age. People get less depressed as they get older. One possibility is that, when you look at older cohorts, all the depressed people are already dead. But I don't think that accounts for the effect. Life becomes easier — or at least we get better at coping with it.
As another example of order effects, consider the following study. Students were called up and asked two questions:
- How happy are you?
- How's your dating life?
When the questions were posed in that order, there was a modest correlation — happy people do date more. Interestingly, for half the subjects, the order of the two questions was reversed. Then there was a huge correlation. So order matters.
Finally, consider the results of a study in which students in the Midwest were called on sunny days or rainy days and asked to indicate their mood. Those called on sunny days were in a better mood than those called on rainy days — with one exception. In one version, the questioner first asked about the weather. That allowed those in the rainy day condition to decouple their personal mood from their circumstances. And situations matter — everyone from my social psych course knows that — you probably say it in your sleep.
As an aside, I should mention that the researchers tried to replicate the study at Stanford, but there were no rainy days!
So why be happy?
Health psychologists tell us that people who are optimistic, who hold so-called positive illusions about themselves and the world around them are actually healthier. Some of these illusions are fairly widespread — consider, for example, the answer to the question, "Are you a better than average driver?" 80% think they're better than average — which is possible if there are a few really bad drivers you pull down the whole distribution (I can think of a couple of candidates — they all park their cars next to mine, apparently using the Braille method), but that's unlikely.
Normal, healthy individuals get through life with a bit of positive illusion.
Now, I'm not recommending you become delusional or psychotic, but thinking that things are slightly better than objective reality dictates may not only be normal and healthy — it may actually be self-fulfilling.
A recent study suggested that happy people actually live longer than the rest of us. According to the study, there are ways to either shorten or lengthen your life — here they are:
- Smoke 1 pack a day: Lose (on average) 3 years
- Smoke 2 packs a day: Lose 7 years
- Drink heavily: Lose 7 years
- Drink lightly: Gain 2 years
- Exercise: Gain 3 years (All those nights in Mike Mullan's gym — why am I bothering? I guess so I won't be thin, gaunt and not athletic looking!)
- Happy: 9 years
One time when I mentioned this finding, some wisenheimer asked, "What if smoking makes me happy?" To quote one of my colleagues, "Go for it" — you'll gain 2 years!
So what if you want to become a happy person — how do you do it? First, pick your grandparents — unfortunately, genetics appears to matter. But psychology matters to. Consider this very simple study:
Happy and unhappy people (it's easy to find them) were asked to rate the desirability of 10 desserts. They were then actually given their second choice dessert and asked to rate it again along with the other choices. The researchers then focused on what happened to the desirability ratings of individuals' second and third choices.
What do unhappy people do? They elevate the attractiveness of the dessert they actually got and they derogate the one they didn't get — thank goodness I didn't get that third choice (which had previously been rated nearly identically to their second choice).
What do happy people do? They say, "I got my second choice — that's great. And if I had gotten my third choice instead? That would have been great, too!"
In other words, happy people get to be happy — what do unhappy people get to be? They get to be right. So there's your choice: You can be right or you can be happy — think about it.
Here's a second study: Happy and unhappy people perform a task while seated next to another person. In one version, the other person does worse than they do. Both happy and unhappy people get a little charge out of that — out of outperforming another. In a second condition, the person does better than they do. Unhappy people are devastated; happy people barely notice.
Camus said that to be happy, one must not be concerned with the affairs of others — in other words, don't worry if someone is outperforming you. Just be happy.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting you close off yourself to other people. The Swarthmore campus, unlike many college campuses, is unique in that it is not surrounded by any fences or walls. I encourage you to live your life the same way — live a life without any walls.
An illuminating study looked at suicide rates among severely depressed individuals who had completed treatment. Sadly, anti-depressants did not make a difference in suicide rates. What did make a difference? A very simple manipulation: A therapist wrote to some of the patients expressing a simple connection, just checking in on them. That simple gesture succeeded in lowering suicide rates — I encourage you to be a source of comfort and contact for others and to stay connected.
What else do we know about happy people?
They appreciate the little things in life. And little things matter — both in positive and negative ways. Indeed, research suggests that everyday hassles actually take more of a toll on our health than more major negative life events.
So the fact that everyday we struggle to find parking on this campus is actually killing us! I know that it's killing me (to which my students can attest).
Ya know, Clark Kerr, former President of the University of California and a graduate of this institution (he just celebrated his 70th reunion) put it best (and I am paraphrasing here):
"The secret to a good College is enough romance for the students, football for the alumni, and parking for the faculty."
It seems to me that on at least 2 of those 3 counts, Swarthmore has dropped the ball. Mind you, I'm not endorsing any of those 3 in particular — well, except the one about parking.
And if romance has so far alluded you, don't worry: social psychology has the answer, thanks to a wonderful study that was conducted in the 1970s. This study, which many of you know about, was not conducted in a laboratory. Instead it was done at the Capilano Narrows Canyon in British Columbia.
The canyon features a walking bridge suspended 230 feet above the riverbed below. And the bridge is one of those Disneyland bridges that shakes a lot. Here's what the researchers did — halfway across the bridge, they stationed an attractive female, who stopped individual men as they passed by and asked them to take part in a brief study. At the end of the study, the female handed a card with her phone number to the male and told him that he could call her "if he wanted to know more about the study."
A second study was conducted in the same manner, except this time the study took place on a sturdy bridge, a mere 10 feet off the Canyon floor. The dependent variable was the following:
Who calls the attractive female. Who did call? The men on the shaky bridge. Why? It's a classic case of so-called misattribution of arousal. They are feeling aroused because of fear, but they mistake the source of the arousal and conclude instead that they are feeling lust.
SO, if you want someone to fall in love with you, here's all you do: Take them on a roller coaster — or take them to the gym. Wait for them to become very physiologically aroused and then declare your undying love for them. They'll misattribute their arousal as attraction to you and you'll be on your way to a lasting relationship.
Because as many of you have heard me say before, psychologists know the answer to the age-old question, "What is love?" Love is simply undifferentiated arousal in the presence of an appropriate other. It's poetry, I know. See what a practical science we are!
As I said, it's the little things that matter — in positive ways, too. Benjamin Franklin said it best:
"Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day."
In Franklin's case, he was referring to the fact that he was happy that people sweeping the street created a situation in which folks didn't get dust in their faces.
In my own case, one of those small moments happened a couple of years ago when I had the privilege to escort one of the honorary degree candidates to graduation. That meant I got to sit in the front row on the stage at the amphitheater. While one of the graduating seniors — who I must admit I didn't know all that well — was walking across the stage to receive her diploma, she came over to me and shook my hand. That simple gesture meant an awful lot to me. Especially when I think back to my own graduation and realize that I was in a total daze and could barely grip my diploma — let alone have the presence of mind to shake the hand of a professor.
It's those little joys and surprises that make it all worthwhile.
Finally, research tells us that happy people don't have any fewer negative events in their life than unhappy people — they just look at them differently. They know that the world is an ugly, horrible place and they know that it's a wondrous, miraculous place and they choose to live in that second world rather than the first.
Life, after all, consists of fantastic triumphs and terrible failures — I know — I've experienced both. I've been blessed with wonderful people in my life, and I have the best job in the world. But like some of you, I have suffered setbacks, including the loss of a close family member at all too young an age. Life is wonderful and beautiful and terrible and tragic — and in some ways — in some ways — it's the terrible and tragic that gives the wonderful and beautiful their meaning.
Happy people know this.
I think back to the wisdom of another graduation speaker — in 1990 Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, bestowed this piece of wisdom on the graduating class at Stanford University:
"In life, it doesn't matter how many times you fall down. What matters is how many times you get up." Words to live by — to be sure.
Switching gears slightly, I should mention that 1990 was the year I graduated from college — I tried to summon up wisdom from the commencement speaker at my own graduation, but it was pretty hard. First of all, the speech was in German. The speaker was the German chancellor at the time: Helmut Kohl.
Well, they did have a translator. And it wasn't that the speech was bad — it just wasn't all that relevant to me. As I recall, it was something about how no one should ever invade Poland again. Now don't get me wrong — I agree with that — but it's not really up to me.
Now I suppose if someone came to me and said, "Andrew, we're thinking of invading Poland — are you with us?", I'm pretty sure I'd say "not so much." Unless I was in a really bad mood that day. Like maybe if I couldn't find parking or something — "I can't find a parking space — let's invade Poland!"
Well, what if you just can't seem to be a happy person? — then by all means at least be a nice person. Tip O'Neill, the powerful former Speaker of the House of Representatives had a sign on his desk that read, "It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice!"
It's not always easy to be nice. And frequently nice behavior is not always rewarded.
Indeed, this wisdom was echoed in something I heard while I was watching the news as I was going to bed the other night at 3 a.m. — it was an early night.
While the program was showing temperatures around the country, there was a soundtrack playing in the background and it was a song that I had never heard before. It turned out to be a musical setting of a piece written by Mother Theresa, the Catholic nun who worked with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. The piece read as follows:
If you are kind,
People may accuse you
of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be Kind anyway.
If you are successful,
you will win some false friends and
some true enemies;
People may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness,
they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
Finally, let me say this — if none of what I have said has any resonance for you and you are feeling anxious about life or your future, all I can say is, be patient — in time the answers will come.
There's a wonderful scene in the film, All that Jazz, the semi-autobiographical account of the life of the brilliant choreographer Bob Fosse — creator of such hits as Cabaret and Chicago. At one point he's completely distraught while trying to choreograph a dance and says to his leading dancer:
"I can't face those dancers. I'm stuck. They keep staring at me and nothing is coming out. Nothing is coming."
The dancer reassuringly turns to an associate and says, "He always says the same thing about every number in every show." I take great comfort from that, especially when the ideas won't come. Be patient. The answers will come.
Perhaps no one made this point better than the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote words of encouragement to a struggling 20 year-old poet — and I will close with these lines:
"You are so young, so... I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
Congratulations, Class of 2003, and thank you.