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Increasing Happiness by Creating Fulfillment

Heather Wright '87 delivers Commencement address

Increasing Happiness by Creating Fulfillment

Heather Wright ’87
2022 Commencement Address
June 11, 2022

Good morning Pine Point class of 2022! Thank you, Head of School, Diana Owen and President of the Board of Trustees, Megan Hodgson for having me here today.

Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, family, friends, and graduates, I am so happy to be here with you this morning to celebrate this momentous occasion in the lives of our graduates.

I have had the honor of attending many Pine Point graduations over the years — as a student, a member of the graduating class, sibling, alum, and aunt. Last year I was here for my nephew Joaquin’s graduation, and I’m looking forward to attending Lorenzo’s graduation next year. But this will likely be my most memorable Pine Point graduation, as I’ve never experienced it from this side of the podium. It is my very great honor to be able to address you today.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a 50-year-old woman has a lot of advice for graduates. As I think about the state of the world today, I have a lot of doubts about conventional wisdom. So instead of me telling you some very true stories about how in college I had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to get to class before UGGs were invented, … What I really want is to tell you about the toolbox you’re holding inside you right now to chart your own path through life.

Look at all these people who came to watch you graduate today and to celebrate this huge accomplishment. And I know there are many others who hold you and your life dreams in their hearts.

As the chosen spokesperson of these, your greatest fans, I will tell you that if we had to agree on one thing to grant you all, the thing we want most for you in life is happiness.

I work for a large consulting firm. My team and I are focused on creating programs that essentially do that — increase people’s happiness at work. This concept is rooted in three things — building relationships, making an impact, and growing as a person — that create fulfillment. The science behind this shows that when we feel a sense of belonging, take pride in contributing to the broader community, and experience personal growth, happiness hormones are released in our bodies.

I want you to understand when you leave campus today as an alum, that your Pine Point education has fostered in you the ultimate toolbox to do exactly these three things. In other words, you already hold the key to your own fulfillment and the happiness that comes with it right here in your hearts and minds. Unlike your cell phone, you can never lose these things. Or accidentally leave them at the airport.

But you do need to remember to use these tools! So let’s talk about each one, starting with relationships.

Building Relationships

Building meaningful, authentic relationships is one of the most reliable paths to a happy, fulfilling life. We are social creatures by nature and life brings a lot of challenges that are better faced together. Our relationships also help shape our identity, our sense of who we are in the world. Healthy relationships drive belonging and inclusion, which are critical to our mental health and happiness. And a healthy sense of self will make you better able to make good decisions and weather criticism. So how do you build healthy, authentic relationships?

Graduates, from what I hear, you are a pretty close-knit group and you could probably tell us all how this is done. Humans do their greatest bonding not through orientation icebreakers, school dances or Minecraft marathons; humans do their deepest bonding when collaborating to overcome challenges. I know you have done a lot of this kind of collaboration in your years at Pine Point — working together to get the ball up field before the clock ran out; building sets, rehearsing lines and doing each other’s makeup backstage before the big show; giving each other critiques and inspiration for your wax museum monologues; hauling in the otter trawl after a long day on the Mystic River. BTW, after your Pine Point experience, you may be surprised how few people actually know what an otter trawl is.

The relationships you’ve made here at Pine Point will stay with you as long as you continue to value them and invest in them. Two of my dearest friends are Ratna Bindra and Kittson Steinberger, who sat with me here where you are 35 years ago, and have sat with me through all the greatest wins and losses of my life over these past 35 years. I will text them a selfie of me in front of the Pine Point sign before I leave campus today.

But here’s what I want you to understand, you aren’t just taking friendships with you when you leave today, you are also taking the skills to develop and foster friendships everywhere you go. This is one of the great gifts of a Pine Point education.

Making an Impact

Let’s talk about the second path to happiness — making an impact.

The impact you make over the course of your life defines you. The impact you make over the course of a day can be what helps you fall asleep at night. The awareness of your impact, big and small, good or bad, can shape the decisions you make, the speed at which you progress goals, and how you view your place in the world.

There is a lot of emphasis in our culture on “success” or “winning”. But what if instead we asked ourselves “Did I show up? Did I contribute? Did it make a difference that I was there?”

The Dalai Lama recently tweeted: “The real source of inner strength and self-confidence is warm-heartedness.” I have found this to be true in my life — when we focus on others, or on our impact in the ecosystem we operate in, we are less self-conscious. I want to share a simple example to illustrate this. There may be times this fall, that you find yourself in a room or at an event where you don’t know anyone. If you focus on yourself you may feel some anxiety or self-consciousness about being there alone. If you focus on those around you, you will not be alone. If you focus on how you can contribute at the event, reaching out to someone else who looks like they’re alone, offering to help set up or clean up the event, or listening attentively to what others are saying, you will find purpose eases your self-consciousness and fulfillment replaces your anxiety.

This is another gift from Pine Point that you are taking with you. You know how to contribute and you will always find a way to jump in — you show up and it matters! This is what Strong Minds, Caring Hearts means to me — you have a lot to contribute and you want to help.

You make an impact every time you give someone your full attention, when you choose kindness, when you pick up someone else’s litter or fix their mistake for them. When you own and fix your own mistakes. Maybe you planted vegetable gardens for the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, or were a part of the interviews and biographies of senior citizens at Stoneridge or the coastal cleanup at Sandy Point. If you think about how you felt when you did these things, you know how making an impact can make you feel good.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we can do enough, but do not underestimate the power of the many seemingly small actions you make across your lifetime. My mother-in-law’s temple has been working on efforts to end the senseless gun violence in this country. When her congregation was feeling helpless, their rabbi reminded them that even the strongest rainstorm is made from individual drops of water.

Take pride and satisfaction in the impact you make, for this is one of your paths to a fulfilling, happy life.

Lifelong Learning

And finally, I want to talk to you about growth.

Evolving as a human being — is crucial to fulfillment and happiness. School is an obvious pathway for this. You will continue to grow and learn as you go on to high school and whatever training and schooling you choose beyond that. But I know you’re already planning on that. What I want to encourage you to embrace is this idea that you will be a lifelong learner, beyond your formal school years.

This is also referred to as having a “growth mindset”. We saw during the pandemic that people with a growth mindset had an easier time adapting to change. Did your teachers say, well if you can’t come to school, we can’t have school? No, they said we can learn new ways of working and create a new, effective learning environment. We saw many people use the newfound time at home to learn to play an instrument, bake bread, take up a new hobby…. If you talk to my mother today, ask her all the new things she’s tried over the last two years! When you are a lifelong learner you don’t say, “I can’t”, you say “maybe I could…”

Throughout my career, I have said yes to opportunities that may have been easier to turn down. Taking on new challenges can be disorienting and the journey doesn’t always go as you envision, but you will grow. This growth can provide fulfillment and happiness as well as create other opportunities for you over time.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, February 24, it quickly became apparent that my company had a role to play in addressing the war’s impact on our employees, our clients, and the broader community. My CEO established a team to coordinate our Ukraine response and I was asked to lead the day-to-day operations across several of our business functions. While I was flattered to be asked, I also had a lot of doubts about my fit for this role—what did I know about war? What did I know about Ukraine? But I thought about what I did know — I knew I could build trusting relationships and lean on those I already have, make an impact for our people and clients, and grow my skills, knowledge and perspective to do what was needed in this moment.

In the past three months, we have helped our colleagues bring family from Ukraine to the US, provided grants to our colleagues in Ukraine who have been displaced by the war, withdrawn most of our work from Russia, and contributed over $2M in humanitarian aid. And while I was focused on the needs of the people we were helping, I had one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

As you collect your diplomas today, remember that you already possess the skills you need to live a fulfilling and happy life. Get out there and build relationships, make an impact, and continue to grow as a person. I look forward to reading all about it in View Points! Congratulations Pine Point class of 2022!

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