Most of us wish we were happier at least some of the time. In the West, we pick from a list of goals expected to boost well-being, targets outside ourselves: a better job, a more pleasing mate, and more status; money, too. But if we extend our reach in a different direction, we might find an unexpected road to joy: one demeaned or ignored by much of the human community.
I suggest we start by looking East and backward about 2500 years. An ancient teacher thought mankind’s flourishing required relationships invested in ceremony and ritual, in deference and respect. Here was a far more formal, harmonious way of interacting with others than we observe today.
The way fathers and sons addressed and behaved toward each other, for example, was a matter of custom and civility. Love, in part, was demonstrated by investing ritual deeds with sincerity, not grudging routine. Virtue and benevolence flowered in the performance of patterned actions and words. They became embedded in how people went about their lives, made their living, and honored the family.
What might be a ritual? Utterances and gestures as simple as our handshakes or embraces and expressions when greeting or parting. Somewhat more elaborate customs include how people are seated at a meal, who is served first, and who takes precedence in getting extra food. Use of stately words of address replaces familiar pronouns.
Voices don’t talk over others, but convey honor and recognize a hierarchy of roles. How we dress for dinner matters. So too, all expect the meal to unfold in a relaxed fashion. Our behavior indicates the importance of the event, not something less significant than whatever comes next.
Delight is taken in the simple presence and happiness of loved ones and guests. Think of conversation within appropriate boundaries, not a script.
This might sound unnatural to you in a world where time is money and ceremony reeks of elitism. Before you dismiss the notion, however, consider the growing incivility in our much less formal, modern, Western civilization, where corrosive vulgarity and worse are often excused.
Think, as well, how we skate over opportunities for rich and meaningful social contact with friends and relatives, speeding through meals, checking the iPhone, and treating wait-staff in an indifferent or demeaning fashion. We do so at the risk of diminishing ourselves and triggering a reciprocal lack of kindness, patience, and interest from those we claim to care about.
Confucius, whose Way I am referring to, formalized his guidance during the chaotic and dreadful Warring States period in China. Little happiness was present. People, we are told, were reduced to animals.
Herbert Fingerette put the Confucian view this way:
To become civilized is to establish relationships that are not merely physical, biological, or instinctive: it is to establish human relationships, relationships of an essentially symbolic kind, defined by tradition and convention and rooted in respect and obligation.*
No zero-sum game of winners and losers lives here. Every honorable person has a place.
As Confucius wrote, “Virtue does not exist in isolation; there must be neighbors.”
Many of us, trying hard to get through a challenging day, are not at our best. For those who attempt to follow the Way, however, the danger is in performance done solely out of duty, to signal our goodness, or curry favor.
Were such self-interest and riches enough to guarantee happiness, the USA would be the happiest place on Earth. Instead, it ranks 10th of 40 rated countries in life satisfaction in the 2017 OECD report.
Society is men treating each other as men … according to the obligations and privileges … out of love and loyalty and respect called for by their human relationships.*
In so doing we prioritize the group over the individual. We invest this beautifully choreographed social dance with a gracefulness that offers us grace. Profit, ego, and selfishness are restrained. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom enlarge.
Our human potential grows, not to become athletes of conventional success, but like those whose humanity, not financial or political triumph, we say we admire the most.
Nor is this an extreme form of self-sacrifice. We are still permitted to make a good and honorable living. We needn’t give away decent clothing and a place to live, but are discouraged from taking license just because we can.
Reciprocity thus increases. Barbarism justified as a necessary means to a desired end meets with shame. We serve as models and thereby bring out the best in those we care about. They are drawn to us.
The elusive notion of happiness resides in the group’s ritualized performance, which, like a theatrical production, is larger and more meaningful than the individual players. In embodying our role, we share the bounty of human contact where all partake.
Can we do better for ourselves and our fellow creatures by striving to be members of an orchestra rather than itinerant soloists?
Confucius believed changing the world starts with what we control, what any single person begins to reflect upon and do.
We can do worse than find out if he was right.
The top photo comes from the Himeji Oshiro Festival, June 26, 2010. It is the work of Corpse Reviver. The Respect Expressway, a hallway sign, was created by rrafson. Finally, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Dan Lutz, date unknown. The first two are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; the last, from the Art Institute of Chicago.
*Fingarette, H. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Hts., IL: Waveland Press, 1972.