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Happiness

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Savannah is the valedictorian of the senior class of 2012 at Rockport High School in Massachusetts. This is the speech she gave to her peers and the school community on her graduation day.

True happiness. The one thing that I wish for everyone in this room, country and world is that -- true happiness. Generally, we derive true happiness from two things: activities that produce endorphins and the feeling of importance. And easily enough, we can guarantee ourselves endorphins with sex, chocolate, spicy foods, exercise and meditation. But throughout life, unaware of exactly how we do it, we build up our feeling of importance. For some of us, the importance is stable, and for others, it is not. Importance comes from the attitude we have toward ourselves, and in turn, from our confidence and self-esteem. Though lasting importance entails the more trying and challenging means, it is far more fulfilling than the ephemeral.

Too often, we compare ourselves to other people and build a false self-esteem; we build ego. We are not truly happy with ourselves, but happy to be better than others. This is being prideful. You are proud because of a comparison with yourself and others. You are richer than your friends; you are smarter than your coworkers; you are more attractive than the other men or women in your age group. You are proud because you have qualities that someone else does not. Some of these qualities are uncontrollable, and some of them you were born into without effort. Can you be proud of something over which you have no control, and in which you take no active part to make so? Can you be proud of being the best when you did not try your best? Where is the accomplishment in being if that state of being simply came to you? Furthermore, if you were no longer better than others, if you no longer received compliments, would you feel confident? This is the hole in pride's glory; with nothing to boast about, you lose confidence. When there is no way to feel better about yourself through superiority, you lose your foundation for self-respect and self-belief. Without strong self-belief, you cannot be truly happy.

True self-esteem does not originate in pride supported by the comparative inferiority of others. Rather, we generate it within ourselves, of ourselves. We build self-esteem through self-directed activities, success, accomplishments and recognition of those accomplishments even in the absence of praise from others. And we build self-esteem by being happy with ourselves. Rather than pride yourself on being smarter than your coworker, recognize the value of your thinking ability, and how you have made an effort to further your ability to ponder, comprehend, and explore new ideas. In being happy about your progress and accomplishments, your only standard is yourself. You win the freedom to be wrong, to be worse than others, but to still improve yourself and explore without guilt or self-deprecation.

This method of self-evaluation will help us through the rest of our lives, but especially at this time of pronounced growth and change. Many of us going to university or new towns will feel lost, unsure of ourselves. We will not be established in these new places as who we previously were. Our reputations and our familiarity with others will be gone. My dear friend and Rockport alumnus Margo Balboni shared with me her reflection on identity after a similar experience in college. She confided in me that "the answer is not to give... external indicators so much power over your view of yourself. You've got to develop an inner core of conviction in the person you know yourself to be, regardless of others' judgements, and draw your self-respect and self-esteem from that." Sure and firm self-esteem will keep us steady and confident when we emerge into a new world. Never lost, we will always know who we are, wherever we are; we will have come to be happy with who we know ourselves to be.

Pride feeds on the compliments and inferiority of others; its source is external, unreliable, and apt to change and regress. Rather than relying on others, be happy about your accomplishments by comparing your progress now with that of the past. Building from yourself is the only way to be comfortable with and trusting of yourself. Maintaining self-esteem is the only way to be truly happy. Pride leads to ego and dependence, but recognition of self-worth leads you to independence and life-long happiness.