Five Lessons for a Happy Life from Obama’s State of the Union

Last night the President was talking about something bigger than policy.


By now, we’ve all heard the ambitious policy proposals President Obama put forth in last night’s State of the Union address, among them: effective climate change policy, universal pre-K, sensible gun control laws, immigration reform, a higher minimum wage, and investment in research and development not seen since the Space Age. But the most compelling parts of his speech had nothing to do with policy. They were basic but long-lost guidelines for how to play well with others. Here’s a sampling of quotes from the speech that play to that theme:

1. Quoting JFK, Obama said, “It is my is my task to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.”

2. “None of us will get 100 percent of what we want.”

3. “We were never sent here to be perfect.  We were sent here to make what difference we can.”

4. “We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare.”

5. “This country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”

He was speaking, of course, to the divided Congress before him, including folks like the grimacing John McCain, the women of the GOP who refused to applaud a proposal on equal pay for equal work, and John Boehner, who couldn’t manage to get up off his duff for Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old woman who’d waited in line for six hours to vote last November.

But he was also speaking to the rest of us. And it was sad that he felt we needed to be reminded of basic rules of civility that we should have learned in kindergarten.

In our competitive, achievement-oriented world in which we’re increasingly atomized, group-averse, and squirreled away with our portable devices, maybe a refresher course on how to behave within a community is in order. Last night, Obama provided the perfect lesson plan. Beginning his speech with JFK’s words on coming together to fix what’s broken, he proposed a policy that’s forward thinking, but his hope for how to get there—with a call for thinking beyond selfish needs and desires—was refreshingly old school.

This morning I asked my daughter to help her sister put on her shoes. When she asked why, I said “Because our country is counting on you.”