Is There a Better Path to Happiness?

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.

Fingarette adds:

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.

36 thoughts on “Is There a Better Path to Happiness?

  1. gaylelillianablakely

    Another great post, Dr. S! Deontology is overrated whenever relationships are negated. In the end, some say relationships are all that matter. Others, still, believe that legacy matters. Both would be optimal, but lecagies absent relationships are easily forgotten. Your article seems to touch on a balancing act of philosophies in order to achieve happiness, or at best, perceived happiness for both individuals and other individuals in their world; all duty or all self-sacrifice without meaningful relationships (including rituals that connect us to one another) may not bring about happiness. I am probably missing a few points you mentioned, but hopefully I am understanding your post enough to benefit (without having much knowledge of philosophy on my part). Did I miss anything? Is there any additional points or corrextions to my interpretation you would like to add?

    Also, on a psychological note, it would appear that those dealing with severe narcissistic injuries and related addiction problems continue to chase their desire for happiness without ever having achieved real happiness, lest they fool themselves or are lacking in empathy to care. Your notion of relationship and its connection to happiness appears to be significant. I wonder if those with narcissistic or certain (if not all) addictive tendencies are even capable of finding happiness. What do you think?

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    • Thank you, Gayle. I think you understand the ideas in general. Remember, though, that there is much more than I’ve put into 900 words. Confucius believes humans are good by nature, but their goodness takes the form of “sprouts” that must be nurtured.
      His philosophy is much less based on thought (complex and rational arguments) than Western philosophers, though he comes out pretty close to Aristotle in his belief that being good to others also brings each of us happiness. It is worth emphasizing that this is more a way of living than anything we’d categorize as a religion. There is a very good free course online from edX. Also, you might want to read a book on Mengzi, the greatest Confucian philosopher after Confucius himself. It is on Hackett Classics and translated by Norden.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gaylelillianablakely

        Thank you for your reading and online tutorial recommendations! I have never read into Confucius before, but I like the idea of nurture. Living is more than thinking and rational thought. When I see those with cognitive impairments looking happy despite their disabilities and SES, such examples make me wonder about happiness as an emotion and a way of life. They seem to live freely without putting much thought into worrisome things, though they have also been nurtured by ’round-the-clock care, too.

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  2. I agree with Confucius that rituals help our cave man brains travel along the evolutionary trail. The challenge here has always been finding community among a nation of diverse tribes. Do you think it will ever happen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think we need some cause that is unifying for it to happen. Confucius thought that if we were desperate — that is, in need of food, clothing, housing — the average person would behave badly. He believed only a small number of people, those of an especially noble character could behave well under those circumstances. He and his disciples frequently attempted to give advice to rulers. Unfortunately, only a handful of the rulers listened and put the advice into action. Nonetheless, they didn’t give up. Philosophers like Mengzi, a Confucian disciple, believed history was cyclical: periods of good rule eventually giving way to tyrants and vice versa. I’ll leave it to you, Joan, to determine where we are in the cycle.

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  3. Interesting post, Dr. Stein. The individual pursuit of happiness is, for me, the privilege of an affluent society. In the developing world from whence I came, life for the majority of citizens is a daily pursuit for survival.

    We humans are social animals. We did not evolve as individuals but as communities sharing the same goals and beliefs. Urbanization has fractured our connectedness and led to isolation. It’s no wonder that we suffer from so much depression.

    The Confucius Way of life for ending the chaos of the warring states in China’s ancient past may not work for a Christian Western Civilization like ours. But, it can certainly provide us with new ways of building harmonious societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gaylelillianablakely

      Rosaliene, I was waiting for your reply because I thought you would present us with a mention of those who struggle. I wonder what your thoughts are on whether happiness can be attained even in the most impoverished places.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dr. Stein, based on my observations and personal experiences along this journey called life, I’ve found that happiness is a human construct.

        The impoverished may find “solace” in a belief in a superior being who cares for them. These humble and morally good people–the ones I have been blessed to spend time with–believe that it’s the will of their god that they must face such suffering and deprivation in their lives.

        The working poor–among whom I lived in Brazil–may find “contentment” in enjoying the simple things of life and the intimate connections with their loved ones and neighbors. They take nothing for granted. Every achievement, however small, is celebrated with a grateful heart as a blessing from their god or gods.

        Those of us who live comfortable lives–and I am numbered among them–take what we have achieved, in our pursuit of happiness or the American Dream, for granted. We think not of the millions of people, here in the USA and in distant lands, who make the American Dream a reality.

        I have learned that true happiness–the one that fills our heart with love for our fellow human beings–comes with giving freely to others without expecting anything in return ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      • Your last paragraph, in particular, is one that Confucius would have agreed with. You are on the “Way,” Rosaliene. Seriously.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, Gayle, I didn’t realize that you were the one who had raised the question.

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      • gaylelillianablakely

        It is totally okay, Rosaliene. I liked your answer, which made sense. And, I sometimes have a tendency to stir the pot or hijack conversations. My apologies for that, but I could not help myself. Such an interesting post by Dr. S that brought about interesting and insightful responses.

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    • I agree with your insightful comment, Rosaliene. Confucius thought a delight in benevolence and “good behavior” were a challenge for those who were impoverished and struggling to get by, just as you do. I also think that the role of shame, looked down upon these days outside of certain religious communities, kept rural social groups in some sort of moral check. Though they also did much that was repressive and destructive, we can see what happens when “anything goes.” As you suggest, urbanization, the anonymity of the city, mass media, the birth control pill, the decline of religion in most first world countries, and the social/sexual revolution of the ’60s were all beginning steps toward our present shameless condition at the higher level of government and elsewhere.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree with you Dr. Stein about the moral decay of our society, but as I look back upon our society, the decay has always been here, when a race of people were enslaved, then lived under the rule of apartheid, women were subservient and had to fight for their rights and even with these rights, they continue to fight against misogyny, the rich have always been richer and the working class have always had to fight for what was theirs. But now it is especially ugly….the meanest and corruption is especially outrageous, and it is spilling over into our own little communities. To cope, I am choosing to limit my time on the internet, Twitter, and obsessive news consumption, and this has made a difference and helped return me to my former self before the presidential election in 2016. If I focus on my own little world and engage with others without wondering about which tribe they belong to, I feel that life is much happier and richer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gaylelillianablakely

      Nancy, me too regarding avoiding news and the internet. I am much happier but still trying to find my way back to peaceful, resilient me.

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    • You are certainly right that evil, including slavery, wasn’t invented recently. Your comment also raises another important and topical question: when so many are worn down, stressed, and depressed about political events, who and how shall people combat what they consider an existential threat to the republic and (with respect to climate change) to the world?

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are absolutely right about this. We all should fight back like the people did in Puerto Rico, and were successful, and that includes me. I have protested in many rallies over the past two years and I work the phone banks during the election cycle for the Democratic Party, (And have tolerated worse abuse than I have ever encountered on my job). I am aware of all current events but I am no longer drowning myself in it because it has effected my health. I will continue to involve myself as I have been doing.

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  5. drgeraldstein

    You are a courageous soul, Nancy!

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  6. gaylelillianablakely

    Can’t we all just get along? (LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. gaylelillianablakely

    Are wars or resistance to structural violence caused by two or more groups whose perceived attainment of happiness is threatened by one another? And is it possible for all groups to achieve happiness, or will the happiness of some lead to the detriment of others? Put another way, is world peace possible, given that peace includes happiness? Or can peace occur without all parties being able to achieve happiness? On an individual level, people are asked to regulate their (primarily negative) emotions. But is not happiness also an emotion that should be regulated as well?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m no authority on such important, but lofty questions, Gayle. Our natures are such that we habituate to most everything. In other words, blissed-out on your first strawberry ice cream, one bit isn’t enough. And even many bites leaves one wanting something else, probably not more ice cream. Presumably this allowed our ancestors to survive, but the arrow of evolution pointed toward producing offspring who would launch our genetic stuff into the future, not feel wonderful all the time. And, as everyone knows, living in the world has many, many challenges even in the best of times. But, I sure hope we can do better than we are.

      Liked by 2 people

    • gaylelillianablakely

      When I took an ethics philosophy course a while back, we learned to identify basic philosophers in people’s arguments. Although I have long forgotten the names and principles of most famed philosohers, I seem to be reminded of Aristotle and virtue, Bentham and pleasure vs. pain/greatest happiness for most, Kant and his categorical imperative, and Rousseau and all being born good. I have not read into Confucius yet, or I completely forgot about reading about him, but he seems to be more in line with Rousseau or vice versa. I feel like Hume, hope for being what Confucius/Rousseau claim, strive for Aristotle’s principles on virtue, and try to understand Kant’s categorical imperative. We all have choices with regards to being ethical or unethical, or to make excuses and switch philosophies when one does not work out, but the arguments presented by the fathers and mothers of philosophy are still arguments presented in the backgrounds of religious debates, religious wars, and non-religious wars. Is there a way to combine philosophies or make sense of when to determine which philosophy is most appropriate to the circumstance? Religion can bring about pain as much as it can pleasure or happiness, so that practice or belief does not guarantee absolution, happiness, piety (in a universal sense), or virtue. Arguments concerning empathy, egoism, egotism, and altruism suggest that one person cannot encompass only one of the polar extremes; there is always a little bit of egoism in altruism, and altruism in egoism, when we throw away the doormat and recognize that we as individuals are equally as important as others when we self-care or other-care. There are egoistic and altruistic motives in both actions whenever we consider ourselves as part of the community for which we seek peace, love, harmony, virtuous relations, and survival. If we were to be a doormat and self-sacrifice, we negate ourselves as part of the community we are sacrificing for and put ourselves less than in order to egoistically empower others. If we love ourselves selfishly, we altruistically consider ourselves as an integral part of society in some conscious or unconscious way and therefore know what it is to be nurturing to the self, even though we lack nurture to others directly. Balance for both seems to be key for happiness, but stray too far to either side and wars break out… within the self and/or with others, thus leading to pain instead of pleasure, suffering instead of happiness. …But how to combine philosophies via tolerance is another matter altogether. I am still seeking the answers to that one. Perhaps universalism and cultural relativisim need to shake hands somewhere and make a treaty.

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  8. I think you’d like Confucius disciple Mengzi (Mencius). He melds heart in mind into one, pretty much. Confucius philosophy and that of his most important disciples are far less legalistic and rationalized than Western philosophers. But, importantly, he is also very practical.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. gaylelillianablakely

    Just watched a YouTube Tutorial. I love this philosophy because it seems to be the foundation for theories and hypotheses on betrayal/interpersonal trauma, victimization, rehabilitation, restorative justice, and forgiveness. Pathways to internal and external peace include an understanding of the premise that all humans inherently have virtues that simply need to be nurtured, especially when there was a lack of nurture growing up. But who does the nurturing, and to whom?

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    • The “sprouts” of benevolence are within us, according to Mengzi. We nurture them ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gaylelillianablakely

        I believe in nurturing what exists within, but I also believe that we as a society are also partly responsible for nurturing others as well. If others can hinder, stunt, harm, and curse, so too can others nourish, comfort, encourage, love, teach, and care.

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  10. Mengzi was a teacher, though he was careful to point out that he could only assist in the growth of those who wanted their benevolence to grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gaylelillianablakely

      That is understandable. But then there are those who inspire others to grow when their motivations are low… Those are the ones who help the lowest of lows, the weakest, the downtrodden, and the ill. Some people are so blind, hurt, tired, and scared that they need a little help from the outside. There are ethical philosphers out there who promote caring and caregiving, and even altruism. I do not know who they are, but they are out there. A teacher may be limited in those areas, but an encourager is not.

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      • You can read Mengzi yourself and decide whether he gave others a chance to demonstrate they were sufficiently open to help. He did this by speaking with them, asking and answering questions.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’d also mention that the Mengzi writings we have suggest he spent his time talking to students and to leaders. He believed that a benevolent leader’s example and presence was so powerful that it influenced people far and wide. Those most downcast were not the focus of his attempts to influence them directly, but he did advocate policies that would elevate their living circumstances. His advocacy was aimed to change the leadership. He believed that would be the most efficient way to help the downtrodden.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gaylelillianablakely

        Thanks for explaining that. I like Mengzi and the idea of transformative relationships. It is hard to find such relationships today, but I know that it exists.

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