Commencement Address to University of North Carolina at Greensboro Class of 2013

By Norman B. Anderson
May 10, 2013


Good morning, everyone. To Chancellor Brady, the UNC-Greensboro Board of Trustees, distinguished platform guests, faculty members, families and friends of the graduates — and of course those getting degrees today — thank you for the opportunity to participate in this very special day.

Returning to Greensboro and UNCG is very much a sentimental journey for me, since within just a few miles of this Coliseum, I was born, raised, and attended public schools, from kindergarten through high school. My parents co-pastored the United Institutional Baptist Church on East Market Street for nearly 50 years.

But of most significance for today, 30 years ago, in 1983, I sat where you are now, to receive my PhD from this great institution, and it was truly a life-changing experience.

I know that many of you faced challenging times during your studies and wondered if you were even going to make it to this day.

I know I had those times during my PhD studies. But at UNC-G, I learned that those challenges are surmountable with the proper mindset and effort — and that lesson has remained with me throughout my career. To this day, I still consider obtaining my doctorate degree from UNCG to be my greatest achievement, because it stretched me intellectually way beyond my perceived limitations. Everything else I’ve done over the last 30 years has been icing on the cake, in my view.

But today is about you, and on this special day, I just have one question for you to ponder:

What are you going to major in now? And I don’t mean in an academic sense, I mean in a LIFE sense---what things are going to be the focal points of your life from this point on?

You will no doubt have numerous “majors” in your lives, with careers, family, public service and other things being major focal points. But today I suggest that you also, “major in psychology”. And this goes for all of you, whether you are getting psychology degrees or not.

So why do I say you should “major in psychology” from this point on? Because it is crucial that you have a strong psychological and cognitive foundation from which to navigate your life and to succeed in the modern world you are entering — a world that seems to get more complex every day.

Here are just three reasons why I think that now is the time for you to “major in psychology”:

College graduates today face enormous challenges, particularly because of job instability, high unemployment, and income stagnation. Economic issues are a major concern for college seniors, with more than 50 percent of you already carrying at least $20,000 in debt.

These economic pressures can take a psychological toll, especially for young adults. At APA, each year we conduct and distribute a national survey called Stress in America. This year, we found that stress was highest in people 18 to 32 years of age, like most of you. We also found that this age group had the greatest increase in stress over the last year, with the major contributors to stress being economic and work-related issues.

Beyond these economic and job pressures, you know that life has other challenges, such as establishing and maintaining satisfying and fulfilling interpersonal relationships, health concerns, and coping with all the “breaking news” that confronts you constantly each day through traditional, old timey media like newspapers and television, and new media like email, texts, Twitter, Facebook, and other technologies that didn’t even exist when I graduated.

These challenges highlight the necessity of acquiring scientifically established skills that build emotional and psychological resilience and that help you meet your personal and professional goals. Such skills are the keys to successfully navigating your world, and they have been shown in study after study to help people cope with vexing life circumstances.

The second reason to “major in psychology” is so your generation will be the one to accomplish what no generation before you has been able to. And that is, for once and for all, bring mental illness out of the shadows.

Why is this important to you? Because the chances are great that someone you know — a loved one, or even you — has experienced or will experience a mental disorder in your lifetime. This could be a prevalent and challenging condition, such as chronic depression and anxiety, or a rarer but severely disabling condition, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or autism.

Here are some quick facts about mental illness that confirm my point:

  1. Mental disorders are so common that about one in four adult Americans suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder.

  2. Nearly 50% of all U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime.

  3. Mental illnesses result in more disability in developed countries than any other illness, including cancer and heart disease.

  4. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for people between the ages of 15 and 44. By 2030 depression is estimated to be the leading cause of disability in the world.

  5. Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death among adults in the U.S.

As if mental illnesses weren’t tragic enough in themselves, they also contribute to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, and lead to significantly lower life expectancy.

Mental disorders have profound negative effects on families and other relationships, on workplace productivity, and of course, on a person’s overall quality of life.

Despite all this, and for a host of reasons, our health care system is poorly equipped to properly address mental illnesses, even though many of the most common mental disorders are very treatable, and recovery is possible.

The Obama administration will soon initiate a National Dialogue on Mental Health. It is my hope that your generation will fully embrace the goals of this dialogue and become a strong voice for helping to bring mental illness out of the shadows.

Beyond coping with daily challenges and addressing mental illness, the third and final reason to “major in psychology,” is so you can achieve optimal mental health.

Optimal mental health includes things like self-acceptance, having a purpose in life, having positive relations with others, continuing to grow and develop as a person, having an overall sense that life is worthwhile, and experiencing what we all want, long-term happiness.

Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that only about 17% of the U.S. population experiences optimal mental health. I want that number to increase, and I want you to be counted in it!

So what contributes to optimal mental health? To keep it simple for today, let’s just focus on the happiness part. Research has established that a combination of three factors is important for enduring, long-term happiness.

One factor is your life circumstances, which include things like your early life experiences, your current living conditions, and the positive and negative major events of your lives. But surprisingly, life circumstances account for only about 10% of your long-term happiness.

Genetic factors account for about half of your long-term happiness.

So what determines for the remaining 40% your happiness? The simple answer is: you do! The rest is totally under your individual control. Research has shown that enduring happiness involves the actions we take, the thoughts we think, and the goals we set for ourselves every day. We are in complete control of a large percentage of our own happiness, so the onus is on us to fully realize our happiness potential.

In conclusion, I challenge you to “major in psychology” by using the ability to learn that you obtained at this great university. Use that ability to acquire and embrace the knowledge and skills to successfully meet the day-to-day demands that you will inevitably face.

I also challenge you to be part of the generation that brings mental health issues into the daylight and to full parity with other health issues.

And I challenge you to consistently, actively, and consciously do the things that will lead to enduring happiness for you, for the rest of your life.

Once a professor, always a professor, so to help you meet these challenges — I will provide a few references in the written online version of this talk that will be on the APA and UNCG websites.

Thank you for listening, my very best wishes, and enjoy the rest of your special day.


Concerns of College Seniors

Hurtado, S., Pryor, J.H., Palucki Blake, L., Eagan, K., & Case, M.H. (2012). Findings from the 2011 Administration of the College Senior Survey (CSS): National Aggregates. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI).

Stress, Life Skills and Resilience

APA. Stress in America (stress by generations).

APA. The Road to Resilience

Norcross, J. (2013). Changeology: 5 steps to realizing your goals and resolutions. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Norcross, J. et al. (2013). Self-help that works: Resources to improve emotional health and strengthen relationships. Oxford University Press.

Southwick, S. and Charney, D. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R. and Williams, V. (1999). Lifeskills: 8 simple ways to build stronger relationships, communicate more clearly, and improve your health. Three Rivers Press.

Mental Illness

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.

Mental Illness Awareness Week Guide. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Resource Center to Promote Acceptance, Dignity and Social Inclusion Associated with Mental Health, October 2010.

The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America.  National Institute of Mental Health, NIH.

Global Burden Of Mental Disorders And The Need For A Comprehensive, Coordinated Response From Health And Social Sectors At The Country Level: Report by the Secretariat.

Optimal Mental Health, Happiness

Diener, E. and Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Wiley-Blackwell.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin.

Mental Health Basics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ryff CD, Keyes CLM. The structure of psychological well–being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1995; 69:719–727.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, 1999.