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On Happiness: An Excerpt from Toni Morrison’s 2011 Rutger’s Commencement Speech

On Happiness: An Excerpt from Toni Morrison’s 2011 Rutger’s Commencement Speech

Munk's Junk (Everything Else)
Toni Morrison Rutgers
Miss Morrison photographed at the Rutgers Commencement by Julio Cortez, Associated Press

It’s graduation time so I thought it was the propitious moment for Stargazying to share something uplifting and commencemenntish.  I found this lovely nugget from the May, 2011 commencement speech at Rutger’s University delivered by the wonderful writer Toni Morrison.  I love what she had to say about happiness as a goal:

I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” as the third right—although I understand in the first draft it was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.”  Of course, I would have been one of those properties one had the right to pursue, so I suppose happiness is an ethical improvement over a life devoted to the acquisition of land, acquisition of resources, acquisition of slaves.  Still, I would rather he had written life, liberty, and the pursuit of meaningfulness or integrity or truth.

I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here.  I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness.  It’s not good enough.  Of course, you deserve it.  But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than  a barren life, it is a trivial one.   It’s looking good instead of doing good.


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