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Our Search for True Happiness

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Robert Spitzer's book on "Finding True Happiness" is my go-to resource when I am discussing with my children and clients about our desire for happiness. He does a superb job of condensing what the philosophers have said about happiness into four general categories of happiness. Knowing what happiness is, helps us better know what it is we seek and thus ultimately aid us in attaining it.

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics noted that happiness is the one thing you choose for itself — everything else is chosen for the sake of happiness. If this is true, then our view of happiness is the source of every choice we make. Our understanding of happiness determines how we give meaning to our lives, our self-worth, and whether or not our life is worth living. It becomes our very identity and purpose in life.

Spitzer writes, "the most general definition of happiness is, 'the fulfillment of desire' (whether that desire be superficial or sublime). It follows from this that unhappiness would be the nonfulfillment of desire. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to discover what our major desires are – what drives us; what we yearn for; what we seek for satisfaction and fulfillment."

Spitzer argues that throughout the centuries, philosophers and now even psychologists have elucidated or narrowed all desire down to four basic kinds of desire and, therefore, four major kinds of happiness.

So what are these four basic desires that give rise to the four kinds of happiness?

1. Desires connected with biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers

2. Ego-comparative desires

3. Contributive-empathetic desires

4. Transcendental-spiritual or ultimate good desires

These desires are measured by how pervasive, enduring, and deep they are; pervasive (the more the effects extend beyond yourself), enduring (how long the effects last), and deep (the more you use your intellectual and psychological powers). The lower levels of desire and happiness are much less pervasive, enduring, and deep. They are also more immediate, intense, and surface apparent. The higher you go up on the levels of desires, the more enduring your happiness will be, the more pervasive your happiness will be, and the more deep and profound your happiness will be. However, the higher levels come with the caveat that they are not immediate or surface apparent.

Level 1: Is our most basic drives and desires such as pleasure, immediate gratification, and excitement. It manifests itself in material and bodily pleasures. The satisfaction from these desires are not inherently bad, but they are short-lived, shallow, and only involves the individual person. When we live solely on this level of happiness we constantly seek to satisfy the next desire and our happiness wanes back and forth depending on how close or how far we are from this satisfaction. When remaining in this sensate level without ordering it to the higher levels of happiness, we fail to rise above the animals and fail to incorporate our whole personhood (psychological/spiritual), and due to this, we will lack a sense of fulfillment and purpose.

Level 2: Is a focus on the ego. You need to be recognized for some egocentric characteristics you value. You compare yourself and compete with others. For instance, you may hold certain achievements in high regard and place your value on whether or not you attain these achievements. You may place value and happiness in your popularity, or status, beauty and or intelligence. It may involve other people but only to serve your ego. Again, these are not bad in and of themselves but when this is our primary understanding of happiness we constantly compare ourselves to these false ideals and our happiness will wane to and fro. We will constantly put people down to build ourselves up and use people as an end, and not an end in and of themselves. Do you know anyone like this? Perhaps yourself? Understanding other people in this light can help us sympathize with them, after all they seek something good though disproportionately, and in turn change how we react, treating them with dignity.

Level 3: Is a contributive empathetic ideal of happiness. Whereas the first two were inward and only involved you individually, this happiness turns outward to the services of others. It aims at making a difference in the world and the common good. Instead of looking at opportunities for material pleasure and ego-comparative advantages, we begin to seek how to make a positive difference for others. We have a greater sense of purpose and this leads to longer-lasting happiness. It involves more of your personhood in that it involves your intellectual and psychological makeup, so you have a greater sense of completeness. This happiness is usually delayed and less apparent but it brings with it more joy.

Level 4: Is happiness that involves our transcendental desires. First articulated by Plato and attested to by philosophers and theologians that have followed him. They involve our desire for perfect truth, perfect love, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. Fulfilling these desires would lead to the happiness we desire. It is often that those with depression or anxiety lose hope and believe this happiness cannot be attained in this life and in this world after all the other levels do not bring about the fulfillment they desire, they lack the ultimate goods. It begs the question, are we left with this empty desire for the ultimate goods which will never be fulfilled in this life? Generally, people fall into two philosophies, that of the Eastern philosophy, in that, we find happiness in leaving off desire, and that of Western and Christian philosophy, in that, we can have what it is we ultimately desire in part in this life and completely in the next. In part in this life, we see how things reflect God's perfect goodness, perfect beauty, perfect truth, perfect love, and it is satisfying in that we see things as they really are and participate in things more completely.

If you want true happiness, I suggest looking at your thoughts and actions and determine what level you primarily operate at. Make a list by providing an example of something you desire. Let us take love for example. It is something we all desire, but what kind of love are you pursuing? Is it love that is self-centered, does it go no deeper than sensual and emotional use and satisfaction? Better yet, in light of this, what level is your significant other operating at, is the truth of the person being masked by your emotional connection? Or is your mutual love based on the good of the other and total surrender of self to this good ends?

On a scale of 1-5 how pervasive, how enduring, and how deep are your desires? Is it intense, how does it make you feel and how long does the feeling last? When do you sense that the feeling is gone? In light of the four levels of happiness, why might it be gone? Write where you are on the scale of happiness and desire. How much emphasis and happiness do you place on this particular desire on a daily bases? How might you find a more pervasive, enduring, deep happiness? These lower levels again are not bad in and of themselves but they are not ends in themselves, do you understand this, and how might you properly order the lower desires and appetites to a more universal ultimate good if you are stuck in seeing these things as ends in themselves? For instance, if you understand love to be emotional satisfaction alone, you need to learn to raise it to the good of the other. The common good should take priority. It is then that you can supplement this good with emotional satisfaction.

Are you stuck in the ego comparative game (level 2 happiness)? Are you ego sensitive, unable to make mistakes, blame others, hold others in contempt? Do you suffer from inferiority, jealousy, depression, and self-pity? The way out of this is to change how we view our self-worth. Find a new category to define your life and yourself. Stop reducing yourself to things or ego-comparative qualities and open yourself to your more noble, loving, lovable, transcendent, and spiritual self. You will always have these lower desires, but in making the higher levels your priority, you will have come to understand that these lower levels are only means to these higher ends. You'll be happier for it!