Having fun, catching happiness

Last week I attended a concert by my eighth-grade son’s “symphonic band,” given in a huge high-school auditorium.  The place was packed, mostly with parents and siblings and well-wishers.  My entire family attended.  Even the 20-year-old came, to honor his younger brother.  We watched the young hero on stage toot his clarinet in harmony with others, becoming part of a community of sound and of will.

I spent two hours of my rapidly diminishing time on earth at that concert, and I can state with confidence a couple of facts about the investment.  One:  it wasn’t fun, not in the way we usually define the word.  Two:  it made me happy.

A thread in the moral traditions of the West, traceable from Socrates to Jefferson, maintained that the only possible path to happiness was that of virtue.  Good fortune, of course, may well trump other factors in determining happiness.  But good behavior determines our capacity to receive happiness; and, being anchored in conviction, it may allow us to rise above the bipolar confusions of unpredictable events.

Americans, largely a virtuous people, don’t really buy this anymore.  We believe that happiness is having fun.  And if we ask ourselves, “What does fun consist of?” the answer will be “Excitement.”  Fun is partying.  Fun is the big game.  Fun is sex.  Fun is buying a Jaguar.  Fun is moving into the big house.  A few times of the year we are expected to have fun, like it or not.  That is why we are so miserable during Christmas.

Overall, Americans tend to do the right thing, but we do it with a bad conscience.  We’re pretty sure we’re missing the party, where the rest of the population is having a blast.

I have made the case against hedonism elsewhere.  It doesn’t work.  In the same place, I made the case against super-intellectual “pleasures of the mind.”  These are too meager.  Here I’d like to turn to the positive side of the equation.  What is the kind of happiness that virtue offers?  And can we still have fun?

Excitement, even in a crowd, is a private condition.  Happiness is a community affair.  It entails understanding that, despite what our senses scream at us, other people are more important than we are.  That was true of my son tooting on his clarinet:  he loomed, at that moment, larger than President Bush, forget about me.

I felt proud of him for his accomplishment, and also proud of being his dad.  I felt a connection to my own dad, now dead, and to the people in the audience, my community in the flesh:  a sense of being a small part of a larger story, in which my son, my family, my dad, and the people in the uncomfortable auditorium seats also played their considerable roles.

Family is more important than we are.  Anyone who rejects this proposition will never be happy.  The community of values we share, which will endure into our children’s and grandchildren’s lives, is therefore more important as well.  All morality is based on this  single understanding, and all true happiness, I’d wager, is impossible without it.

What about fun?  Some – not only religious puritans, but the leftwing securalist type as well – will maintain that virtue and fun should have no truck with each other.  One is about community; the other, about selfishness.  Without question, it is this motley group that has inflicted a bad conscience on the good people of our country.

But consider:  the more people we honestly care about and root for, the larger the circle of pleasure.  Every parent understands this, and every son and daughter as well.  It isn’t just a question of vicarious fun, of partaking in the pleasures of others.  Those who care for us, those who tolerate our foibles and root for us, provide the perfect company for our more unbuttoned moods.  They share in our fun as we do in theirs, and they will recall it in the future, bringing it to life again.

True, the existence of family and community places certain forms of excitement out of bounds forever, and rations or restricts others.  The faithfully married man, for example, has self-limited.  He has given up the chase.  In return, he lives twice over:  and while no human life is ever a calculus of pleasure, only a fool (or possibly an economist) would fail to note the enormous expansion in the faithful man’s potential for both happiness and fun.

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