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The key to happiness is in helping others

The key to happiness is in helping others

By Jay Scheurle |

Oak Meadow School Graduation Address 2023

Good afternoon!  I am very pleased to welcome all of you to the graduation ceremonies for the Oak Meadow School graduating class of 2023.  And hello, graduates!  This is your big day.  Are you ready?  We are ready to honor you and your wonderful achievements and also your many contributions to our school community.  

Let’s also take a moment to honor and acknowledge our wonderful teachers and staff members who are the heart and soul of our school.  These fine educators make Oak Meadow an exceptionally caring and outstanding place for our students to learn and grow.  Would our teachers and staff members please stand so we can thank you?  

It’s always a great pleasure for me to take a few moments to talk with our graduating 8th graders.  8th Graders, we are proud of you and very proud of what you have accomplished here at Oak Meadow.  We know that the high schools you will be attending are very fortunate to have you joining them.  I always hear glowing reports from high schools about our Oak Meadow graduates, and I’m sure I will hear the same about you. 

This afternoon, I’d like to talk with you about something that I think will be helpful for you as you get ready to begin high school.   At my previous school, we asked parents what they most wanted for their children.   Was it to go to a fancy school or college?  Was it to make a lot of money in life?  Was it for their children to be famous?  They told us that their greatest wish for their children was that they wanted them to be happy in life.  Oak Meadow Moms and Dads, wouldn’t you agree that you feel the same way?  

So what exactly is happiness and how do we achieve it?  What makes you happy?  Some say happiness is a warm puppy – I’d have to agree with that – or perhaps a beautiful day with friends and family at the beach or in the mountains – or doing well in school or getting along with your friends.  Those are all positive and happy experiences, to be sure.

But building happiness for a lifetime is a process that continues every day.  And sometimes, that can seem a bit daunting as we look out at the world today.  It doesn’t always feel or seem like a very happy place.  There seem to be more angry, anxious, and upset and sometimes downright mean people than ever before.  And feeling angry, anxious, upset or mean is not a happy experience for anyone.

There is a famous Chinese proverb that says,  

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

It turns out that is not just a warm, fuzzy, “feel good” sentiment.  There is actually a great deal of science and scientific research behind that philosophy.  Studies have shown that if you look at the factors that determine our level of happiness, only 10% comes from our circumstances in life.  And up to 40% depends on our behavior and our activities.  

Research over many years has shown that when we help others, we trigger chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, feel happy.  An article in the New York Times from 2020, called “The Science of Helping Out”  quotes many scientists, psychologists, scholars and professors, who all say that scientific research shows that during a crisis, or any time we are feeling stress or anxiety, the people who cope the best and are the happiest, are those who help others.  Our bodies and our minds benefit in many ways when we help others.  Our stress is lowered.  We feel less anxious.  

Dr. Adam Grant, who has written a book on the subject of giving says “There is a lot of evidence that one of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity.”  That is not just about the generosity of giving money – it’s about having a generosity of spirit.   Studies have shown that stressful life events take a greater toll on people who are less helpful to others, and that even small acts of kindness, empathy and helpfulness are important.  It’s about finding meaning and purpose in something bigger than yourself.  

And according to the studies cited in the article, “having a strong sense of purpose protects us from stress in the short term and predicts long-term better health, a lower risk of dying prematurely and better financial health.”

Your parents want all of those things for you, too – good health, less stress, a long, fulfilling life and a comfortable financial situation.   Happiness is like the icing on the cake….. or the chocolate chip in the cookie.

That sounds like a win-win-win- and more win!

Science tells us that the key to happiness is helping others.  Helping others drives us to be more successful, makes us more resilient, and makes us feel good.  The social-emotional learning tools that your teachers have worked to help you understand and practice are wonderful building blocks for you to use and expand as you go on to high school  We all want you to be happy going forward, and the key to that will be seeking out ways to help others in your life – to find a deeper sense of purpose in feeling responsible not only for your own health and well-being, but also looking for ways to feel responsible for the greater good.  If you look for it and are open to it, you will find ways you can help someone.

Every kindness, every small act of helping someone,  is going to help you find happiness in your life. In high school, it can be as simple as sitting next to someone in the cafeteria who is sitting alone or asking them to join you.  It could be helping your Mom or Dad with a chore or errand when they least expect it.  It could be sharing something with your brother or sister.  It could be calling a friend who you know is feeling down and offering to talk.  Or calling your grandparents just to say hi and to see how they are doing.  

It could be volunteering.  There are infinite opportunities for you to find a way to help others every day.  It’s going to bring them happiness when you help them, but it is also going to help you and make you feel happier. 

In closing, I would like to share an inspiring example of helping someone that illustrates this in a most heartwarming way.

It’s been called one of the most notable moments in sports history.  It happened during a cross country race in Spain about 10 years ago.  A runner from Kenya named Abel Mutai was just a few feet from the finish line.  But because he didn’t speak or read Spanish, he got confused about what the signs were saying about where the finish line was, and he stopped running because he thought he had completed the race.  

Behind him was a Spanish runner named Ivan Fernandez.  Ivan realized what was happening and he started shouting at the Kenyan runner to keep going a bit for those few extra feet to get to the finish line.  But Abel didn’t speak Spanish, and did not understand him.  Eventually Ivan caught up because Abel  had stopped, but instead of passing him, Ivan went up behind him and he gently pushed Abel forward to cross over the finish line to victory.

After the race, a journalist came up to Ivan and asked him, “Why did you do that?”

Ivan replied, “My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life where we push and help each other to win.”

The journalist insisted, “But why did you let the Kenyan win?”

Ivan said, “I didn’t let him win, he was going to win.”

But the journalist was persistent. “But you could have won!”

This is how Ivan replied, “But what would be the merit of my victory? What would be the honor of that medal? What would my Mom think of that?”

Just in running his race, Ivan found himself  with an opportunity to help someone, and he made the decision to do it honorably and with integrity.  Based on the science of happiness, if that is how Ivan lives his life, I think he must be a very happy person, indeed.  Perhaps we should all try to be a bit more like Ivan Fernandez.  Science tells us that is the key to happiness. 

I’m wishing you happiness in high school and beyond.   Congratulations, 8th graders.