Four Levels of Happiness

Several of the Beatitudes talk about receiving blessings (happiness) from suffering. To me, this seems like a paradox, or better a mystery. How does all of this suppose to work? I trust in the Lord that it does, but I do not necessarily understand how.

Henri Nouwen and others have described suffering as a cup of sorrow, and from within this time of sorrow and pain, the seeds for happiness, the cup of joy, are sown. Life is drinking from both these cups. This is a poetic way to say that sorrow is temporary and that we can learn from it, and eventually be better off for having had the experience. I can understand this on an intellectual level, but it only goes so far.

The other night, I heard Fr. Robert Spitzer briefly describe four levels of happiness and then much of it all fell into place. The four levels of happiness are:

  1. Material-physical satisfaction (immediate gratification)

  2. Ego satisfaction (personal achievement)

  3. Contribute, or make a difference beyond yourself (good beyond self)

  4. Faith and surrender to God (ultimate good)

Happiness, like most things in life, is not an either/or situation. It is based on a continuum or spectrum, with material happiness on one end and spiritual happiness on the other.

[Spectrum of Happiness]
Spectrum of Happiness

This spectrum analogy is not like a thermometer of happiness. One does not necessarily progress from physical happiness through ego satisfaction to contributory satisfaction and finally to surrender-to-God happiness. Although this is a possible scenario, I doubt that very many people can pull this off. As Jesus said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

The more likely scenario is partial happiness. It easy to conceive of a situation where one is materially happy but not spiritually happy. Conversely, one can conceive of situations, i.e. the Beatitudes, where one is materially unhappy but spiritually happy. It also goes without saying, one can be unhappy on all four levels too.

The spectrum analogy does a good job of describing the length or effectiveness of happiness. Material satisfaction, like anything of this world, is temporary. The happiness received from riding a roller coaster, if that is your thing, lasts only as long as the ride does (and maybe for a few moments afterward). Spiritual happiness lasts a much longer time.

And now for some random thoughts based on the four levels of happiness.

Pride denies spiritual happiness because it works for ego satisfaction and immediate (or delayed) gratification. Humility, on the other hand, foregoes material happiness to put God and others before oneself, and thus contributes to spiritual happiness. Remember Jesus’ two commandments to love God and to love others? They are geared toward building spiritual happiness, not material happiness.

The other major sins like selfishness, greed, avarice, gluttony, etc. all seem to work on the first levels of happiness too. I am tempted to say that all sin arises from pursuing happiness in the first two levels only, but I can imagine situations in which someone makes a choice to help others for the wrong reasons. Intention cannot be separated from action.

The world, our culture, if you have not noticed by now, cultivates, caters to, and demands that happiness be based only on the first two levels. There are some aspects of our culture that promote the third level of happiness, but they are not located in the cultural center.

I do not think that forcing oneself to be unhappy on levels 1 and 2 will necessarily result in happiness on levels 3 and 4. It is more about living in the present moment and putting others and God before yourself. If this incurs some level of unhappiness or suffering or sacrifice on your part, then you can find joy in the fact that you are serving God and others, i.e. levels 3 and 4.

The previous paragraph could imply some sort of ascetic life style which I am not advocating. Some mortifications like fasting and abstinence have their place. As Karl Thienes once wrote, “In fasting, we are free from compulsion and self-centered living.” This has implications for at least level 1 happiness.

The four levels of happiness provide another way to look at the metaphor of the cups of sorrow and joy. Instead of joy coming after sorrow, which can often be the case, joy can coexists with sorrow at the same time. In re-reading Nouwen, this was probably his intent for the metaphor. It is in our brokenness that we are closest to God.

Finally, the fourth level of happiness depends on a little thing called faith. Without faith, why bother?

(More information about the four levels can be found at Life Principles.)

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