Modern conceptions of happiness are misleading because the focus is in the wrong place. In pre-modern and traditional societies, happiness came about because people were tied to something outside themselves. Connections to family, fellow citizens, and clan, actions performed and attitudes developed, and duties carried out were the constituent and necessary components of happiness.
In the pre-modern world there was no “self” or “personality” as we now conceive of it, an autonomous personality making self-referential decisions. A person was part of something else, not apart from it. There was a profound recognition that to be separated from others and the community was unsettling and inhuman. Short of death, nothing was worse than being shunned or sent into exile. Religious excommunication served the same purpose—people were removed from their religious moorings, being put outside the community and unable to partake in religious necessities. Even today the most severe punishment, short of torture or execution, is solitary confinement.
Humans are born into a community and from that community they are formed. In this sense, society is prior to the individual, both temporally and psychologically. Every human inherits a culture, with all its written and unwritten rules, and lives in a story written by predecessors. This isn’t to deny a common moral heritage by suggesting that humans are nothing more than creatures of socialization and historical circumstances (more about that in subsequent chapters), but it is to say that loneliness, isolation, and alienation are antithetical to happiness.
There have always been individuals, distinct persons, with desires and emotions all their own. Uniqueness isn’t a modern idea. My Kenyan friends are each different from one another. They have personal goals, individual experiences, and private thoughts. This has always been true and has been valued. The Talmud says that even one ear of corn is not exactly like another. But what is different between the world in which I live and the traditional one is the veneration of individual uniqueness, the privileged position of the single person, the sense of the self as fundamentally distinct and apart from others. In the older tradition, uniqueness was recognized, but it was to be experienced within the larger social context.
The contemporary idea of happiness is that it is a subjective and private feeling, an emotional state disengaged from its social moorings. Happiness is understood as a mood state rather than as a state of being. As humans have been redefined from social beings to mainly sentient creatures, happiness has been understood as the avoidance of pain and the increase of pleasure. Since everyone encounters frustration in social relations, you are discouraged from seeking happiness in your social surroundings and instead are encouraged to be self-reliant.
The theory is that each of us is out to fulfill our selfish desires and don’t really care about anyone else. The idea is summed up in the popular saying “you must love yourself before you can love others.” This misses the point that you love yourself because others have loved you and others love you because they have been loved by you. As the Beatles sang, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Love is interdependent and reciprocal. When self-centeredness replaces other-directedness, there is a downward spiral of disappointment.