Our students bring me great joy. Joy is a necessary part of our journey—it helps us find purpose, it gives us a greater sense of well being (makes us feel good) and it helps to build strong relationships.   

Our students bring me great joy. The members of the Class of 2023 have demonstrated many ways to find joy big and small over the past three years, even while the world was turned upside down and inside out. Joy in finishing your first semester finals at Stonehill…joy seeing familiar faces, even if it was in virtual class when we were remote…joy in seeing your friends and professors again in person. You’ve shared the joys of some great results in your research lab, or when your team advanced in the playoffs. And joy can be silly too!  Hypothetically speaking, you might find joy from sending pictures to your professors of your horse wearing a Santa hat (which admittedly brought us great joy, too). 

Your time in college is an opportunity to find joy in learning new things. Many of you might look at your fall schedules or four-year-plans and see courses that fulfill a requirement or are prerequisites—classes that you’re taking to “check a box” now so you can do something more enjoyable in the future. But, why wait for the joy? We can find joy now, and I urge you to keep your eyes, ears and hearts open to finding joy, because you never know when you might stumble upon it. 

You might find unexpected joy in the subject matter of one of those prerequisite courses.  This is how chemistry majors, for example, end up with a business or philosophy minor.  The joys might also be found in the friends you meet in your classrooms, a professor that keeps your attention, makes you laugh or nudges you to think in a different way. Finding joy in these spaces may require you to be brave and step out of your comfort zone as you try new things. Certainly not every moment will be filled with joy, but my hope is that you find enough joys in the present, where you are right now, to sustain yourselves through the hard things. And if you follow that joy, you will more easily find a path that is both satisfying and exciting. 

From my personal experience, joy came from Organic Chemistry I. Which was unexpected, if I’m being honest, because like everyone, I was pretty terrified to take that class. Suddenly I was having a great time doing organic chemistry practice problems.  Practice problems were giving me joy…as in, I was so excited to do practice problems that I would save them as rewards for doing my less joyous homework.   

And then…I got my first exam back.  A 65!  I was a bit shocked…I had done the work, I had actually enjoyed it! And the results did not bring me any bit of joy whatsoever. But, I dug into the joy I felt from doing practice problems a bit more…instead of being discouraged, I used the satisfaction and curiosity that brought me joy to motivate myself to improve. I met with my professor and stayed the course, and soon the outcome started to match the joy that I had in learning the subject. Ultimately, this joy sparked the passion that I bring to work with me every day. Because sometimes it’s both the joy in what you’re learning and joy in the process of learning that leads you on a path toward a fulfilling career. 

So, in the spirit of my joy of teaching organic chemistry, let’s take a look at these two molecules (some of my former students HAD to know this was coming!). I am holding two ball-and-stick molecular models, with a black ball at the center with four sticks (representing bonds) protruding from that center toward the corners of a tetrahedron.  Each stick has a different colored ball at the end (green, white, red and blue). They seem to have the same composition and they are also mirror images of one another. Upon initial examination, you might think that these molecules are exactly the same. But upon closer inspection, they are not the same. They are what-we-call “non-superimposable." We can’t make one molecule line up perfectly with the other, the way you might be able to align other objects, like a pair of socks or two iPhones. So why am I showing you this? 

I want you to try to remember that “comparison is the thief of joy”  

A lot of the joys in our lives are stolen when we make comparisons, even if it’s human nature to do so. Of course, sometimes we need to make comparisons, like we did with these two molecules. I am very guilty of comparing molecules to each other (and making students do the same…but there is some joy and purpose to comparing things in science, I promise). These molecules look similar, but are different—they can have different properties in different environments, and you can’t say that one is inherently better than the other simply by looking at them.   

We all are undoubtedly guilty of comparing ourselves to others, and even though this quote, “comparison is the thief of joy," is my favorite quote, I am not great at following this advice. It is really really difficult to see yourself, your experiences and your realities as they truly are - without comparing yourself to others and their experiences. The problem with comparing ourselves to others is that we are often left with the sense that we are not enough…not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough. I’m guessing that all of you have at one time looked around your classrooms, your Instagram feeds, parties, etc. and have made comparisons. Your self-talk may sometimes sound like this: 

“That person is smarter than me.” 

“Everyone else is having so much more fun than me.” 

“I am struggling and everyone else is thriving.” 

These types of comparisons are often invalid, in our heads, and based not on data, but on our own feelings or observations. Most of the time we can’t possibly know what the realities of others are. Thinking about the seniors I know: some of you work full time jobs, are on athletic teams, or take care of siblings or elders…all while being a full-time student.  Others of you have long commutes to-and-from campus every day. Some of you are struggling with health issues of all types, including anxiety. 

It can be hard to feel the joy of a 75 on your chemistry exam when you compare yourself to someone who got a 95 on that same exam. But, you have to remember that the circumstances that led to that 75 vs. that 95 are entirely different and incomparable. That 75 might be a significant improvement for you and the joy of that accomplishment should not be stolen by comparing it to someone else’s work. When we try to compare ourselves to others, we lose the joys of our victories, our hard work, and all of the joys that come from rising to the challenges that our unique situations bring.   

The truth is that all of you have unique strengths, situations, challenges and talents, and how those affect your interactions with the world are different. These are what make you non-superimposable with everyone else—you are incomparable! Spend your energy learning who you are in this moment, leveraging your uniqueness, and working on being the best version of yourself—acknowledge your mistakes, learn from setbacks, but don’t forget to celebrate your joys and successes.  

But…you should also double down on joy by celebrating the joys of those around you.  Our own Stephen Cobbs, who introduced me a few minutes ago, taught me a little about this recently (another joy of my job is how much I get to learn from our students and this is a great example). Stephen was invited to participate in an NCAA conference, and when he returned, he burst into my office to tell me about a speaker at the conference who spoke about “mudita” which is a word that comes from Pali and Sanskrit and means sympathetic or unselfish joy—the joy that we feel with the good fortune of others. It was a term I was unfamiliar with, but a feeling that I experienced quite often, particularly when I see a hardworking student crush a final exam or when a student gets offered their dream job or internship or gets accepted into graduate school.   

And I know…when something good happens to someone else, it may be difficult to truly feel celebratory…because…it’s easy to feel jealous and compare our situation to theirs.  But instead of comparing to others, we’re going to elevate the joys of others so that the joy fills us up and keeps returning to us all from every direction. Our students, and especially the our seniors, will have many opportunities to practice mudita this year, and when you feel pleasure from the success of those around you, and you will see that joy multiply and radiate outward to others.  

So let’s make a promise to one another as we start this new academic year: to look for and find joys in the present and unexpected, to not let comparison to others steal our joy, and to unselfishly experience and celebrate the joys of those surrounding us. Thank you.