Mistakes I Made in Searching for Happiness
President Adrian Tan delivered this Commencement Address at the 2022 NUS Law and Music Faculties Commencement Ceremony on 7 July 2022.
I am here to talk about your life: the one that you have had, and the one that you are looking forward to.
How will you live your life? How will you judge it? How will you define it?
I have tried to answer these questions for myself. In doing so, I have made many mistakes. I shall tell you about them.
I will start with my first mistake.
After graduating, I thought that my aim in life was to collect material wealth. I did not come from a rich family. I grew up in public housing in a single parent household.
But I went to a good school. I had privileged classmates. They became my friends. I visited their vast mansions, sat in their splendid gardens, chatted by their twinkling pools.
They had all that, which I did not have. But they had something more. They had confidence. They had security. They had happiness. Or so I thought. And I imagined that money helped to secure happiness.
So, for the first part of my career, I focused on collecting material wealth. I wanted to increase my income. I wanted my own home. I wanted to be free from debt, and with it, I assumed I would be free from doubt, anxiety, and trouble.
I saw money as an armour against the uncertainties of the world. I thought that, if I had enough of it, it would insulate me against worry, stress, and fear.
Gradually, I realised that money had its limitations. In your journey through life, money will be a good companion. But it cannot be your guide. You cannot consume your way to happiness. You will merely be eating yourself.
I turned elsewhere. I began collecting knowledge. I read widely. I listened to lectures and debates. I watched films.
This was the way I thought: the more information I had, the more knowledge I would learn, and the more wisdom I would acquire.
And, with wisdom, I would find answers. I would be happy.
What I did not understand was this: I am human. I am finite. I am flesh and blood, with a pre-determined shelf life. Even if I spent every waking moment collecting knowledge, I would fall short. It is beyond my ability to understand the questions of life, let alone find the answers.
Having tried collecting material wealth and collecting knowledge, I turned to collecting relationships. Surely, happiness is found in making connections with fellow human beings.
In my work, I met many people. I saw the world through their eyes: a vast, indifferent world, where individuals are ignored and forgotten, unless something is done to make them heard.
And then I realised that, in searching for happiness, I had made the biggest mistake of all.
We have no duty to be happy. Happiness is not our purpose. As human beings, we have a larger purpose, which is to serve others.
In each of our lives, we might have a brief moment when we have material comfort, health, knowledge and human connection. And we must seize that moment, not to pursue happiness, but to serve the wider community.
We must use those gifts that we receive, and those abilities we have developed, to help someone else be happy, or at least escape unhappiness.
What then should we do? One way is to give voice to others. In our work, our professions, or our art or craft, we must speak for them. We must tell their stories. We must give meaning to their lives. Only by doing so will we find meaning for ourselves.
How shall we accomplish this? To be an advocate for another person, we must first connect with that person. Connection is an important, though elusive, property. It is like sleep: the harder we chase it, the farther it slips away. Like sleep, the best way to achieve connection is to be silent. We must be still, and quiet, so that the other person can find us, talk to us, and so that we can listen with clarity.
What will happen when we connect with and speak for others? We become their advocate. We become their ally, so that they are no longer alone and isolated. We present their personal world to the larger world. We add them to the community, improving their personal lives while enriching the community itself.
When you leave this world, if you have connected with other human beings, told their stories, and enriched society, you will have lived a life of meaning. The goal is not to seek happiness for ourselves, but to provide it to others. That is a life of service, and I commend it to you.