by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Does anyone not desire to be happy?
Each fall, the priests of the archdiocese gather for a convocation. This year’s presentation on the “Four Levels of Happiness” was given by Mr. James Berlucchi, the executive director of the Spitzer Institute. Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, founder of the institute and former president of Gonzaga University, proposes that happiness is the one thing we desire for itself and all our other choices are based on our concept of happiness.
There are essentially four levels of happiness: 1) pleasure; 2) ego- gratification; 3) contributive, or making a positive difference; and 4) seeking transcendent or ultimate goods, e.g., truth, justice, love, and beauty. Each of these levels of happiness is necessary and good. However, the levels of happiness that we value most will determine the important decisions of our lives.
In our culture, many consider pleasure the same as happiness. Certainly, pleasure is very powerful because it gives an immediate and intensely gratifying experience that requires little effort on our part. Eating, drinking, sexual intimacy and material comforts are pleasurable and serve important purposes.
For example, enjoying eating is good because it motivates us to address a fundamental human need to nourish our bodies. However, if satisfying this pleasure becomes the primary goal of our life, inevitably it will have some harmful consequences, such as becoming overweight and all the health problems associated with obesity.
The problem with pleasure becoming our dominant notion of happiness is it does not last very long. Moreover, the same level of pleasure does not continue to satisfy us. We need more and more experiences of pleasure with greater and greater intensity.
Ego-gratification involves competing with others and, quite frankly, winning or succeeding. This type of happiness also has a very good dimension in that it motivates us to strive for excellence and achievement.
However, the downside of ego-gratification, like pleasure, is that it is not very enduring. Sadly, the memory of yesterday’s victory dims fairly rapidly. In fact, a sense of depression often follows achieving our goal or setting a record. We have realized what we thought would make us happy; however, to sustain our happiness, we have to keep achieving at higher and higher levels.
Ego-gratification also results in a constant comparison with others. If it is always important for us to win, that means it is also necessary for others to lose. Ego- gratification can become a vicious circle, creating a need to always achieve more.
The third level of happiness involves making a positive contribution that in some way benefits others. We can experience this level of happiness by being able to do something for others, making their life better. It can also be experienced by just simply sharing life and love with another.
The fourth level of happiness is striving for the ultimate. Deep within our hearts there is a yearning for complete truth, perfect justice, authentic love and the beautiful. In essence, this is a desire for God, the one who is the source of truth, justice, love and beauty. We have a need for something that is beyond ourselves. This longing for the ultimate can only be satisfied by God.
Why is it important to reflect on these four levels of happiness? In part, because the default position for sin-fractured humanity is to seek pleasure and ego-gratification. While these can bring intense and powerful experiences of happiness, they are not enduring and cannot satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Moreover, if these levels of happiness dominate our choices, the result is actually destructive of our own well-being as well as hurtful to others.
However, if we choose making a positive difference in the lives of others as our dominant notion of happiness, this will require us to make some difficult decisions. Making a difference in the lives of others implies a willingness to sacrifice some things that might be pleasurable as well as a willingness to work for someone else’s success instead of our own.
Seeking the transcendent — God and the things of God — also requires a willingness to relinquish what might give us intense and immediate pleasure or the gratification of worldly success in order to make room for God in our lives. It is only by creating space for God that we are able to drink from the font of the only love capable of quenching our thirst for what is enduring and eternal.
Actually, seeking to make a difference in the lives of others as well as seeking God can also motivate us to excellence and high achievement. The difference is that our motivation to achieve is not our own ego-gratification, but to be better able to help others and to give glory to God.
Often in surveys of the attitudes of various professional groups, priests rank very high in their experience of happiness. This should not be surprising. Priests are given daily opportunities to make a difference in the lives of their people by providing the Eucharist, being ministers of God’s mercy, accompanying individuals and families through difficult times and celebrating moments of great joy. Moreover, the daily activities of the priest are always pointing the attention of his heart toward the transcendent — toward God.
The life of the priest is not easy. Certainly, there are many sacrifices that are required. However, we have the great privilege to spend our lives doing what we consider to be most important. From this perspective, we live a very blessed life.
This week think about what notion of happiness guides and determines the choices you are making in your everyday life. Is it time to make a happiness adjustment? Think about it.