Editor’s Note: Too often we don’t know if our kids are thankful for all we have given them. Recently, my daughter graduated college and wrote this letter to her dad…and they both (reluctantly) gave me permission to print it. I am proud to do so.
In brainstorming a way to thank you for the monetary, emotional, and practical support you’ve provided over the course of my college education, I’ve conceded that no hug or note, hand-written or otherwise, can adequately show my gratitude.
Consequentially, I’ll simply thank you for a few of the things you’ve taught me over the years which have had a profound impact on my life and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
Without meaning to minimize the knowledge I gained from my college classes, I’d like to mention that some of the most important lessons I drew from my higher education were merely reinforcements of concepts you’ve been instilling in me through my upbringing.
In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to Kenyon college a few years back, he submitted that “the real, no-bull-value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”
Without boring you with an academic review of positive psychology, below is an incomplete summary of the great lessons which you’ve both consciously and often unconsciously reinforced in me to help me achieve this sense of meaning and awareness. Ironically, I’ve had to dismiss your most overused proverb, “Do as I say, not as I do” in many of these instances.
For as much as I taunt you for collapsing on the couch after dinner many weekdays, I’m not forgetting the impressiveness of your ability to find small pleasures and satisfactions in participating in temple community, scratching mom’s head, indulging in a scoop of J.P. Licks with those disgusting fake chocolate sprinkles (sorry I had to), or immersing yourself in the transient drama of a Sci-Fi thriller when you could just as easily sit there complaining about how shitty your day was.
These simple acts and perceptions embody the following principles of positive psychology (AKA the science of happiness):
1. Money only buys happiness to a point.
I remember sitting at The Wild Coyote, at that corner table overlooking the tennis courts, when you first drew out your graph of happiness on a napkin (or at least this was the first time in my working memory). You described that from your experience, money only serves to provide happiness to a certain point and then has a negative effect on life satisfaction. Not having read any academic literature on the subject, you taught us this concept with complete confidence.
As demonstrated by my very specific memory of this scene, this lesson had a clear impact on how I’ve viewed the value of wealth. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that in a psychology class early on in my academic career that my professors essentially agreed with your experiential hypothesis. Numerous studies have reported that above $75,000 in every first world country, wealth is not correlated with happiness. Yet, people with incomes greater than $75,000 felt that their lives were better for their wealth, which should not be misconstrued for genuine happiness: “The more people make above $75,000, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole, but it “doesn’t make them any more jovial in the mornings.”
While you did not draw out this principle on a napkin, and you may well have never heard of “Flow” in its defined psychological terms, you’ve epitomized the value of flow in creating happiness and life satisfaction. Flow is a concept defined by positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (even my professors struggled to pronounce his name). It is basically the state of completely focused motivation that humans can experience when devoting themselves to a meaningful challenge. Unlike the “zoning out” we can experience when staring at a TV, flow is unique in that by definition it involves a task requiring a lot of effort and concentration. Basically, we find flow in our passions, not our hobbies, and the hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy while performing this activity. When you are captaining your boat Exodus, untangling ropes, fixing equipment, and sailing through rain or sun with a huge smile, I have no doubt that you have found your flow. You’ve instilled in me a desire to find my Exodus (pun intended) in an activity that perpetuates the effortless joy you find in sailing.
3. Goal Setting
While we abstractly understand that setting goals for oneself is a “good idea,” fewer people actually concretely view goal setting as means to both success and life satisfaction. You’ve instinctively taught me from a young age that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it well. You’ve never been okay with half-assing anything, and I now recognize the value in this. Even when you were helping me with my silly art projects in elementary and middle school, you were reinforcing this idea that a little extra effort goes a long way (and a dad with power tools doesn’t hurt either). In developing academic, professional, and intellectual success, you’ve taught me that my character and persistence is as important as my talent. The number of people I’ve encountered that will do their work simply adequately but not exceptionally is shocking to me, as I’ve had you as a role model to rule out “good enough” as an option.
I could go on and on about all the other things you’ve taught me that have actually been proven measurements of life satisfaction and happiness, from the value of quality relationships (as demonstrated by your marriage, commitment to community services, and the small but tight knit group of friends you’ve maintained over the years) or the value of your work-hard, play-hard mentality (everything in moderation, including moderation). I am so lucky to have such a supportive, socially and academically intelligent dad to pass on his wisdom. I am so excited to continue to learn from your experience in professional successes, relationships, and general adulthood.
I love you so, so much.