How to Be Happy, Confucian Style

Cycling

“The one who would be in constant happiness must frequently change.” –Confucius

In China two and half thousand years ago one man, Kong Qiu, and his followers, synthesised the traditions of the Chinese people to create what they believed were the fundamental principles of humanity. Of course what Westerners now call Confucianism has changed over the years, just like the other major philosophies that have flourished in the East: Buddhism and Taoism. But to have survived this long, these systems of thought must have at their cores a useful set of principles that help people live the ‘good life’.

Following on from previous posts on philosophers Epicurus and Schopenhauer, as well as the modern obsession with self-help books, I look at what Ancient Chinese philosophies have to teach us about how to be happy.

In an article in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Zhang and Veenhoven (in press) compare the ancient Chinese versions of Taosim, Buddhism and Confucianism with the modern conditions of happiness. They use findings from the multitude of studies collected in the World Database of Happiness to reach the conclusion that, compared to ancient Buddhism and Taoism, it is Confucius’ philosophical teachings that are most likely to lead to a happy life.

So, here (briefly) is Confucius’ advice on how to live the good life, contrasted with some of the tenets of Taoism and Buddhism.

1. Invest in intimate ties

Confucianism’s view of life is built on the idea of ‘Jen’. This means a feeling of concern for the wellbeing of others. Those following Confucianism should bring Jen into both their social relations and, so far as they are able, into society itself.

Compared with the modern observed conditions of happiness this looks like good advice. Generally speaking marriage makes us happier, more friends make us happier and people are especially happy if they have someone to confide in. Classical Taoism goes along with this point but ancient Buddhism runs counter to the evidence, advising the avoidance of intimate ties.

2. Embrace society

Society is accepted within Confucianism and the philosophy encourages its followers to engage in it. Looking at the research, this is also good advice. People who are members of clubs, churches and other organisations are happier, people who have a job are happier, and so on. The evidence shows that this is also true at a societal level. Countries in which people have the densest networks of friends are also those in which people are the happiest.

In comparison, ancient Taoism says retreat to nature and Buddhism says withdraw completely from society – both these points of view are suspect if happiness is your goal.

3. Be successful

Confucianism recommends a devotion to your occupation. The wealth earned from working is also seen in a positive light within Confucianism. Generally speaking people with more money and higher status are happier (but bear in mind that more money doesn’t always equal more happiness). In contrast both ancient Taoism and Buddhism are sniffy about earnings.

4. Have fun

Confucius thought moderate amounts of fun were acceptable. This is backed up by modern research finding that people who engage in pleasurable activities are happier (I know, surprise surprise!). Follow-up studies show no long-term disadvantages to a bit of short-term fun. So there’s no point rejecting the possibility of happiness, as does ancient Chinese Buddhism, which warns that the pursuit of happiness will only end in disappointment.

5. Live healthily

Still in the land of the blindingly obvious – yes, people who are healthier are happier. Still, just because the advice is obvious doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant, or any more likely for people to actually act on! Despite this the self-evident nature of this advice, ancient Chinese Buddhism actually recommends physical privation. Again, we’ll stick with Confucius on this one.

6. Meet your obligations

One of the most important aspects of ancient Chinese Confucianism is a sense of duty and responsibility. There’s some sparse evidence from the individual level that this might lead to greater happiness. At a societal level, however, people who live in collectivist societies, like the Chinese, tend to be less happier than those who live in individualistic societies. This may be because collectivist societies stifle the individual’s search for self-actualisation.

7. School yourself

You’ve guessed it, the well-educated are also happier. On the other hand education mostly contributes to happiness by enabling you to get a better job, and lots of education doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness. One thing is clear though, it is better to live in a more educated society, even if others are more educated than us.

Education is partly endorsed by Taoism, while classical Buddhism advises avoiding school completely. Again, Confucianism wins on this one.

Ancient wisdom

Perhaps it is no surprise that the man who the West knows as ‘Confucius’ is revered by many as the ‘Ancient Teacher’ and ‘Perfect Sage’. I’m particularly impressed with the prescient quote at the top of the article. This clearly anticipates modern research finding that we quickly get used to new positive experiences so that they no longer continue to increase our happiness.

On the other hand it’s important to note that these comparisons are made on the basis of the ancient Chinese versions of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. There is a considerable variation within each of these schools of thought – so much so that for the present purposes the modern versions might as well be completely different schools of philosophy.

Ancient Buddhism does fare badly in this comparison, but people do vary considerably in what they want from philosophical teachings. Not everyone’s main aim in life may be to achieve happiness, some may place a higher value on different goals.

[Image credit: gwenddydd]

Reference

Zhang, G., & Veenhoven, R. (in press) Ancient Chinese philosophical advice: can it help us find happiness today? Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-19.



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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 24 January 2008

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Images: Creative Commons License