One summer evening, when David Brooks was coming home from work, he saw his children playing and laughing outside. In this moment, he said, he experienced pure joy, and decided that he wanted to live a life that deserved times like that. University students should take their time at school to find something that brings them joy now, rather than later in life, the New York Times columnist and PBS NewsHour commentator said Thursday at the First Year Academic Convocation.
Each year, the freshman class is assigned a book—this year, The Road to Character by Brooks—and attends a speech by the author.
Brooks advised the freshmen to spend their four undergraduate, and possible four post-graduate years, finding something they love, describing college as a time to explore passions and discover new ways to find happiness. After graduation, he said, students have to close in on one spouse, one career, one faith, and one community.
Brooks explained how he realized when sitting next to the Dalai Lama at an event in Washington, D.C., that the Dalai Lama radiates pure joy by laughing unexpectedly. Although he was not sure how to react to his unprovoked laughter, Brooks explained, he admired the joy that the Dalai Lama experienced and shared with others.
Similarly, he met a group of women who radiated joy while helping immigrants find their way in the United States. Brooks said that these women were full of goodness and possessed a gratitude for life.
After encountering people like the Dalai Lama, Brooks set out to understand how to find his own inner joy.
“I want to be that guy who has 2,500 people show up to his funeral,” he said.
Brooks believes that finding a balance in life is a key component to finding internal happiness—a balance needs to be found between work life and home life.
“Our culture encourages us to be proud of ourselves,” he said.
In 1950, several students were asked if they considered themselves important. Twelve percent said yes. In 1990, several students were asked the same question and, this time, 80 percent answered affirmatively.
Brooks explained that narcissism is on the rise—statistics show that students are more concerned about being famous and financially secure than having good morals. It’s important, he said, to know that inner joy is important.
Reaching that inner light, though, can be trying, he said, because we all have to suffer to get to that happiness.
“These moments remind you you’re not who you thought you were,” he said.
Suffering, he believes, will elicit empathy for others who are suffering. And it can allow us to turn the pain into redemption. Brooks used the example of author Dorothy Day, who for much of her life, he explained, suffered from substance abuse. When she had a child, however, she was able to turn her life around and become a successful author and a dedicated volunteer.
Brooks said that it is also important to find a vocation beyond your job. This is something that you are summoned to do—you cannot choose a vocation.
Finally, the author stated that the most important decision to make is falling in love.
Brooks spoke about the author George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who loved every man she met. In a letter to one of her lovers, she wrote that she was not ashamed. This showed, Brooks said, that she had her own internal criteria as to what was right and wrong. Eliot, he explained, ended up marrying another man. She gave up all of her friends to marry this man. The two were madly in love, and it was he who encouraged her to begin writing fiction.
Brooks concluded by saying that we must be vulnerable and willing to fall in love.
He reminded the audience of the importance of reflecting on our days before we go to bed and to always ask ourselves questions.
“We need to spend our lives building an inner light to have peace,” he said.