Happiness is . . .

In these oddly pre-Mosaic days of soft drinks, cold-water detergents, and mixed priorities, college students seem to be caught between three apparent goods--their work, their parties, and their families. The combination makes them confused and impatient.

With this problem in mind I asked a group of them the other day if they did not agree that the chief object in life was happiness. No one disagreed. All of them felt that this was the one goal which was pursued purely as an end in itself and not in order to arrive at some other goal. Money, they admitted, was just a means to an end, and so were a good job, security, and the like. Even at parties something was missing.

If pressed, most of us would agree that happiness alone is an end in itself, and if we knew a way to be happy we would probably try it. The difficulty is that we imagine there are as many ways to arrive at happiness as there are people in the world. ''To each his own,'' we say, rather blankly looking around us, imagining that happiness must be a matter of personal taste and private inclination.

But is that really true? Or is there, on the contrary, a surprising consensus among serious persons as to what the basis for happiness is, and among people more generally a clear idea as to how to achieve it most easily?

If we set aside the many self-help books, which seem to operate under a steady horror of abstract principles and deal mostly with the symptoms of unhappiness rather than its cause, we soon arrive at some very basic ideas respecting happiness and how it might be achieved. As the number of these Be Happy books increases steadily (from 220 titles in 1974 to 540 titles in 1982), it comes as a bit of a relief to find that the history of Western civilization emphasizes just two things. I hesitate to name them because they have nothing to do with acting as the spirit moves us, misty self-confidence, being ''natural,'' or spontaneity of feeling. The two main values that were thought to lead to happiness both in ancient and more modern times were quite simply justice and love.

In Hebraic culture the two were combined. The prophet Micah speaks of ''doing justly'' and ''loving mercy.'' In Hellenic culture, where the ''good life'' was argued to derive from action in accordance with clearly understood principles, the emphasis was on justice, the greatest of the Greek virtues. For the Greeks, just action led to both personal happiness and political well-being. In later centuries the novelist Tolstoy captures well the Christian view of the importance of love when he says: ''The only certain happiness in life is to live for others.''

It is reasonably clear that if we combine these three major strands in the development of Western civilization we arrive at the proposition that happiness derives from a life based on love and just dealing. It is difficult to find any serious thinker in the last 3,000 years who argues, as pop-psychologists sometimes do today, that happiness derives from a rapt sensitivity to one's own needs, acting the way you like, ''living life to the fullest,'' or making impulse into dogma. Even Utilitarianism (sometimes wrongly associated just with the pleasure principle) has as its leading tenet ''the greatest good for the greatest number,'' a principle that combines justice and love.

But if the principles on which a happy life can be based are clear, what is not quite so clear is the daily human context in which such a life can be said to flourish. Again the answer is so simple and of so long demonstration historically that one hesitates to mention it. For young people it may seem so unexceptional that for years they overlook it altogether. They continue in their quandaries. At parties they are able to express a kind of love and openness, and at least a passing regard for others, although the demands of justice seem dim. At work the demands of justice are very clear, but how love can operate is sometimes a mystery. The tendency among the young is to alternate, night and day , between the two contexts in a hectic attempt to get them together, using as a kind of contact cement their own volatile psyches. After a while most of them will give up the effort and, with some hesitation, ''settle down'' or ''subside'' into family life, just as men and women have done for thousands of years.

And there it is that they will find a context in which love and just dealing not only can, but must, flourish together, a fact quietly recognized for centuries by the majority of mankind. It is, of course, not the only context, but for most people it is the easiest. Family life persistently--one might almost say inexorably--draws on our capacities for love and justice. In such a context we must continuously give others their due, and we must temper that just due with charity. Meanwhile our love must be modified by justice, so that it does not slip into dotage and do more harm than good. There is no way to escape the combined demands of the two; in fact, they may act with so contracted a force that they may help to clarify the rest of life.

If, young or old, we are carried away by the alternate demands of work and play to the neglect and further erosion of family life, we will be faced with the need of finding new structures in which to learn about justice and love in our endless pursuit of happiness. That is a challenge most of us would rather not have to think about.

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