MP Kwek Hian Chuan Henry’s speech at the Graduation Ceremony of James Cook University Singapore on 2nd Apr 2016
I thought hard about what to say today. So I searched my memories of my own graduation 15 years ago, when I was a youth sitting down there, just like you. I asked myself, if there is one thing I wish I knew sitting down there 15 years ago, what would it be? The me of 15 years ago would have wished not for more advice on how to climb up the ladder of success in corporate life.
Rather, the me of 15 years ago would have wished that someone provide me with a simple road-map to leading a meaningful and happy life. That would certainly have saved me a lot of heartaches and hard knocks in life. Therefore, I would like to talk today about a special kind of happiness, which is, happiness that comes from leading a meaningful life.
Let me start with a concept from psychology called “flow”. To understand happiness, psychologists asked a large number of people to record down how they feel when they are happy.
The result was surprising. It does not matter whether the person is an artist, business person, or teacher. Many of them described being happy under similar circumstances. I am sure you and I have all experienced it. It usually goes something like this.
You are doing something that is difficult and yet you are trained for. You are completely focused on what you are doing. And when it happens, time stops. Your ego disappears. You feel almost like an external observer, looking at yourself. You feel connected with the world. And when you complete what you are doing, you feel that you have grown a little.
This is what psychologists refer to as a state of flow, which is highly correlated with moments of happiness. This could apply to a martial artist completely absorbed in perfecting a flying kick. Or a violinist fiercely concentrating on a complex symphony.
In short, flow or moments of happiness, can be found by taking on challenges that you care about. And, these moments must add up. This means, what makes you happy today, must contribute to what you believe in the long run. Otherwise you may feel happy for the moment, but upon reflection, you will feel hollow, incomplete, and in conflict.
What do I mean by that? Let me give you an example. Let us say you are a salesperson. You love the daily challenge of closing a difficult sale. At the same time, you are also someone who cares deeply about leading an ethical life. So if you spend your career selling a product that benefits people, chances are that in the long run, you would lead a happy life because your happiness through your daily actions adds up to your long term goal.
But if you spend your life promoting a product that has questionable values, even if you are recognized as a successful salesperson, you can bet you will not stay happy for long. To sum things up, happiness means taking on daily challenges that you care about, and these daily challenges must lead to a worthy life-long goal that you believe in.
Now let’s get to the really difficult part – which is finding what you believe in. This is a much harder question. I read books about it. I asked wise people about it. I observe what people do to find it. No easy answers. But let me share three ways that worked for me. I hope you will find them useful.
One, experience life. It is easier to find out what you believe in, when you have experienced life’s full diversity. I am sure your university has provided you with a thoughtful and diverse education. So build on it. Go explore the world. Go learn new things. Go take the road less travelled.
Two, reflect constantly. There are many ways to do so. Some of us reflect through writing journals. Some of us reflect by talking to friends and family. Some of us reflect by praying to our own Gods. For me, I meditate. Meditation help me reflect, helps me find my inner voice, helps me filter out the noise and other people’s opinions.
Three, live without regret. As a member of parliament, I meet people of all ages. Some of these people are old and frail, at the evenings of their lives. And occasionally I will try to get a sense of how they feel about their lives.
Many of them have lived a full life. But most of them, will have some sort of regrets, big and small. And in the end, they have just three kinds of regrets. Regret because they wish they had loved more. Regret because they wish they had done their duty. Regret because they wish they had lived a life they chose.
Now that I have shared with you the roadmap to happiness through leading a meaningful life, what does it mean? It means, by and large, you alone, and no-one else, are responsible for your own happiness. This is both a liberating and frightening thought.
So in closing, as you stand here before your friends and family, ready to experience life after graduation, let me wish you well. I wish you will remember that you make your own happiness. I wish you will find something you believe in, something you will dedicate your life towards. I wish you will experience life, reflect constantly, and live without regrets.