Harvard interim President Derek Bok bid the Harvard College Class of 2007 farewell Tuesday (June 5), urging graduating seniors to consider the true roots of happiness in life, and cautioning that while society values wealth, for most people money does not equal satisfaction.
Bok spoke to the graduating Class of 2007 during the annual Baccalaureate Service in the Memorial Church. One of Harvard’s oldest Commencement rites, the Baccalaureate Service provides Harvard’s clergy and president a chance to address the seniors before the more scripted ceremonies of Commencement Day itself.
The service began with a procession of the graduating students from the Old Yard to the church, during which students doffed their caps as they marched past the John Harvard Statue. To the tolling of the Memorial Church’s bells, the students filed past parents and family members (who were assembled in Tercentenary Theatre to hear the service piped outside the church) and then filed into the Memorial Church itself.
“[The Baccalaureate Service] is the College’s way of giving its good wishes to you, its high hopes to you, and it is its last chance to convey anything useful to you,” said the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, who conducted the service.
The Baccalaureate featured readings from texts of religions representing the diversity of the student body, including Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity. Gomes opened the service, welcoming students to their “last rites,” and closed it as well, sending them on their way with a blessing that God grant them “work until your life is done, and life until your work is over.”
The ceremony also featured traditional hymns and anthems sung by the Commencement Choir and the assembled students.
Bok’s address was the Baccalaureate’s centerpiece. He opened with an anecdote about a successful venture capitalist who comes down with cancer in middle age. Unable to find treatment, the man goes to a doctor and says he’s willing to try anything. The doctor mixes up an experimental drug cocktail and treats the man with it. The man improves and leaves, relieved.
A few months later, however, the man comes back to the doctor’s office, changed. Not only has the cancer returned, but having not been strong enough to work and having been given the intervening months to reflect on his life, the man realized how selfish and unpleasant he had been and no longer cared whether he lived or not.
Bok said the story, which was true, is not surprising in light of research into happiness and satisfaction in recent decades. Though American society has grown wealthier, expectations have risen just as fast. Individuals who have much already today often believe they need more.
Similarly, Bok said, since the late 1970s, college freshmen have cited making money as their main goal after college. Lawyers, doctors, and business leaders are all making more than they did before. Still, when the roots of happiness are probed, people who make money their central focus are unhappier than those who live according to their values, Bok said.
Research has shown that many things make up a happy life, Bok told the students, including service to others. The top two items, however, have been shown to be a happy marriage and good health.
In the end, Bok said, the secret to happiness can’t be learned in books, it has to be learned through trial and error.
“The journey of discovery matters more than the final destination,” Bok said. “That may be why Harvard offers so few courses on how to live a satisfying life.”