Salutatorian: Joseph Serpa

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Joseph Serpa, salutatorian for the class of 2020, offered some perspective on happiness to his classmates. — Jeremy Driesen

Today, I am going to talk about happiness. Although it may be hard to think about happiness during these trying times, that’s exactly why I want to talk about it. If I asked everyone to think back on what made them happy over the last four years, I would hear a variety of answers. It could be the friendships, the sports, or the community. Maybe it’s shooting the game-winning three, winning a league championship, or acting on the performing arts center stage. But if I asked all the parents here today what they want for their graduating seniors, I bet I would get the same answer: Happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is not as simple as you might think. Happiness is more than an emotion, it is a state of being. It is said that on average, happy people are healthier, live longer, earn more money, and do better in school and life. Yet happiness is not something that can be given or bought. Happiness is an overarching quality of life, a general characteristic of our lived experience.  

Believe it or not, anyone can improve their happiness by practicing six skills in their day-to-day life. 

The first happiness skill that we can practice is mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the moment, allowing you to pause and reflect upon the current situation. As humans, it’s difficult to be happy when we’re not paying attention. Yet this is complicated by our possession of the attention-sucking blackholes known as iPhones, or Androids if that’s your thing. Mindfulness is found in the moments when we turn off the distractions in our lives. It can be found in the calmness of the water, noticing the rhythm of waves against a boat; the realization of strength that comes from pushing yourself in a race; or watching the colors of the sky at a Menemsha sunset. Staying in the moment allows you to be aware of events happening around you. The past five months have forced us to be more aware of what’s happening around us. This awareness can lead to opportunities that would have otherwise passed us by. In the fast-paced world that we live in today, it is important that we slow down enough to be present.

In addition to mindfulness, happiness is also a function of human connection. As social beings, human connection is a necessity. It is no secret that experiences are richer with people in them. Making an effort to understand and help others helps us achieve happiness. As we embark on the next chapter in our lives, it is important to find friends that understand and accept you — friends that make you smile, and make the time fly by. When you do find those friends, the work doesn’t stop there. We need to work at maintaining those connections, and be ready to help when the need arises. Over our four years in high school, we have made countless friendships and rekindled old ones, even made friends with teachers and administrators. We have gone to a prom, homecomings, football games, the list goes on. In these times of social distancing, we have all come to value our friendships even more. This pandemic could not keep us apart for our graduation, no matter how untraditional. My graduating class has shown great strength through this pandemic, highlighting the importance of human connection. 

If you are mindful and cultivate human connection, why not add in a positive outlook? This entails believing that the future can be better than the current moment. Although this can seem difficult, our brains are wired to make good out of bad, and be able to find the silver lining in a situation. Actions as simple as changing your perspective can have an immense impact on how you interact with the world. Our class has maintained a positive outlook through the tough times of COVID-19 in order to be here today, and further our hopes and dreams for a brighter future that doesn’t involve masks and Zoom classes. It is up to us to keep moving forward with a positive mindset, even when we don’t know exactly what the future holds. 

To your positive outlook, develop a purpose. Purpose is feeling like what you do and who you are matters. By working toward a goal and following daily habits, people tend to show higher levels of happiness. Find what you’re good at, take those classes that interest you, and see how those skills can help you connect to the world beyond yourself. Each one of us has interests that are unique. Going into the world, we must expand on these interests. 

To your purpose, add gratitude. Gratitude is recognizing and appreciating the good that people contribute. All of our experiences, the good and the bad, are learning opportunities. We learn to be grateful for the good from experiencing the bad. Gratitude is almost always associated with greater happiness. We are thankful for our teachers and administration, for everyone who made our high school experience something to remember. We are thankful for the friends, and especially for the memories. 

Along with gratitude goes generosity. Generosity is the willingness to invest your own resources to serve the welfare of others. Generosity can manifest itself in simple actions such as paying it forward, giving the gift of time, helping someone in need, or spreading positivity. As I stand here before you, I have brought every person who encouraged me and believed in me up on this stage today. Their generosity has shaped who I am. My class has given an immense number of community service hours to make the island a better place. Our seniors have helped with the food pantry, interact club, best buddies, electronic disposal days, and hospice events, to name only a few. Despite our busy schedules, we have made time for our community and given back to this place that has given us so much.

Happiness is something, like all things worth pursuing, that requires hard work and perseverance. Now more than ever. Happiness requires training the brain and body to see the world and interact with it in a way that is most likely to produce more happiness. 

Life will be full of challenges. There will be many things that we are not good at. There will be times when we are overlooked or treated unfairly. We may even discover that something we thought would bring us happiness does not. It is what we do with these experiences that defines us.

It can be difficult to experience happiness as people are struggling for change; during times of racial injustice, protests, and a raging pandemic. But cultivating happiness leads us on the path to moving forward. We become able to sit with difficult emotions and learn to live above them. Instead of ignoring the countless emotions that make up the human condition, we can use our emotions as feedback as we work to create a more just world for our generation and the generations to come. 

We have proven that we have it within ourselves to create happiness.  No matter what journey you take next year — attending college, entering the workforce, taking a gap year — remember to call upon the skills you already possess.

Be mindful of opportunities. 

Be grateful that you have opportunities. 

Pursue your strengths and work at relationships. 

Be generous with your words and time. 

Eventually, not instantly, your time will come. 

And remember …

Whenever happiness emerges, it is your responsibility to share it.

1 COMMENT

  1. masks or not. social distancing or not. many people are getting sick at graduation and the same people complaining about people going out etc are the same ones showing up at graduations.

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