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The Four Levels of Happiness

An Essay by Graham Moorhouse

Fundamentals of Happiness | Elements of Happiness GraphicThe consideration of the above question has been enormously complicated by modern man’s abandonment of the very notion of objective moral truth!  One may hear for example people say such gobbledegook as: “Whether an unborn child is a person or not is a matter of opinion.”  As a culture we have learned to talk out of both sides of our mouths at once, because this is certainly not the way we actually live our lives.  No one for example drives with eyes shut on the premise that whether it is safer to drive with one’s eye shut is a matter of personal opinion.  When our own health and well-being are at issue we start to believe very firmly indeed in objective truth.  Our doubts about objective truth are restricted to moral truths and only arise when it is opportune to doubt, so as to remove obstacles from our chosen path.  The modern philosophical claim that objective truth is merely one individual’s perception and therefore: “How dare you impose your perceptions on me,” is a collective hypocrisy which we slip in to and out of at will, as and when it serves our present purpose.

The German philosopher Alice von Hilderbrand, famously responded to a student who told to her not to impose her opinions upon her: “My dear, if it is true, it is not my truth but our truth.  We can only lay claim to personal ownership of our errors.”

If we can agree that there is such a thing as objective truth, the next issue we must explore is: Can one actually arrive at an objective methodology for defining things?  The best place to start such an intellectual journey is with a noble pagan who lived 400 years before Jesus Christ, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.  Aristotle argued that a thing should be defined by its end, purpose, raison d’être.  Thus an acorn is not merely a small greeny brown thing, but is something with the power and purpose of oak tree, or “oak-treeness”.

The purpose and end of man, Aristotle argued, was happiness - for happiness is self-evidently what all men seek and strive for, it is what he directs all his powers towards.  So this universal quest for happiness defines humanness.  “Happiness” Aristotle pointed out is the only thing willed by man for its own sake.  Everything else is willed for the sake of happiness.

But this is where the debate really becomes interesting, for there are according to the noble pagans four levels of happiness.  The truth behind this insight is now confirmed by theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology and indeed many modern disciplines.  These disciplines may use different terminology, but they are all basically talking about the same thing that Aristotle was talking about 2400 years ago.  These four levels are summarised as follows

Happiness Level 1

Happiness level 1 is simply sensual gratification: enjoying a good meal, sexual gratification, owning the latest BMW or gadget, watching a good football match, etc.  The pleasures of happiness level one are intense but short lived.  There is nothing wrong with happiness level 1 unless one puts the little word ONLY in front of it.  When you do this, you will sooner or later hit a crisis where life seems to be pretty shallow and empty.

Happiness Level 2

Happiness level 2 is ego gratification: being the best, the fastest, smartest, funniest, most liked and esteemed, admired, powerful etc.  Again there is absolutely nothing wrong with happiness level 2, it’s what drives progress, makes us build the Sydney Opera House, etc., and it’s what makes the fundamentals of happiness level 1 healthy - we now eat and relax to perform better.

There is nothing wrong with happiness level 2, unless one again puts that little word ONLY in front of it.  When we do this, others become competitors, a challenge, problems.  Men locked into happiness level 2 may have several failed marriages.  Friends and wives are for such people there to stroke their ego and tell them how wonderful they are.  When they cease to do this, they are rejected for a new relationship.  The worlds of politics and entertainment are filled with HL2 types.

Happiness level 3

Happiness level 3 is best summed up by the word “love”.  It is reached when we genuinely move from the self to the other.  That is, when we start to live to serve another, or others, or a cause that will be of benefit to others.  HL3 involves commitment, giving, loyalty, care, concern, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and above all self-sacrifice.  HL3 again makes HL2 healthy: we start to achieve, to serve.  I want to be a good lawyer so that I may give my children a good education and represent the poor well, for example.  Other people are now no longer mere competitors or ego-strokers.  Others become partners with whom I can work in a much more noble enterprise than my own ego-gratification.

But HL3 also has its crisis when we again put ONLY in front of it.  Why?  Because human beings do not just want love, we want ultimate unconditional love.  We do not just want truth, we want ultimate unconditional truth.  We do not just want beauty, we want ultimate unconditional absolute beauty.  We do not merely want being, we want absolute being.

But I cannot be an ultimate unconditional infinite anything for you, nor you for me.  Why not?  Because I’m a creature, finite, limited.  The more deeply we know one another, the more apparent that becomes and the more disillusioned we become.  The crisis in the HL3 person leads to cynicism, the feeling that whatever I commit myself to inevitably disappoints me in the end.  The philosopher John Paul Sartre summed it up when he wrote: “I seek perfection, but perfection does not exist, therefore life is absurd.”

Happiness level 4

The happiness level 4 person simply acknowledges his human desire for the ultimate and consciously seeks a relationship with God, the ultimate truth, love, goodness, beauty and being.  HL4 involves surrender.  The kernel of HL4 is summed up in the prayer: “Thy will be done.”  The true HL4 person enjoys a great inner peace.  HL4 makes HL3 healthy, for you no longer need to be perfect for me and I no longer seek the ultimate in you.  I’m easy and comfortable with the fact that we are deeply flawed and very finite.  This liberates me to love unconditionally.  One of the greatest examples of an HL3/4 personality in our own times would be Mother Teresa.

Where we, or more importantly, our culture, sits on the “staircase” of happiness affects every issue of life.  It affects our view of success, quality of life, suffering, ethics, freedom, human rights, the common good, personhood and love.

“Personhood” is the real biggie.  If the culture is built on happiness level 1 attitudes, then it is focused on things - eating things, consuming things, owning things.  In such a culture we will tend to look upon other people as just things.  And if you are a thing, I’m a thing.  This is hardly likely to do much for our self-esteem and abortion and euthanasia are unlikely to cause us too much loss of sleep.

If we are in an happiness level 2 culture, i.e. ego gratification, where outstripping, performing, achieving, competitive advantage, is the name of the game, once I become weak and dependant then euthanasia makes perfect sense.  “Persons” in such a culture are either winners or losers, and once nature has determined from here on you are going to be a loser in competitive terms, then self murder makes perfect sense.  And if a new baby is getting in the way of you winning a Wimbledon final, why not murder it by abortion.  Winning is what life is all about.  Winning is what makes you happy and all human beings seek happiness don’t they?

For the happiness level 3/4 person and culture all this is just too shallow to contemplate.  To the happiness level 4 person human beings are mystery, with the potential for infinite love, beauty, justice, goodness and being.  Before such a mystery the only appropriate response is to genuflect.  And this is as true for the one cell zygote in a woman’s fallopian tubes as it is for you and me - for all three of us are defined by the same potential thirst and capacity for the infinite, the same potential perfection of our powers. 

Indeed, from the perspective of level 3 & 4, the six months we spend bed-ridden, incontinent and slowly losing our faculties may be the most fruitful six months of our entire lives.  They may be the time that we spend doing the most forgiving, the most intense loving, the most profound passing on of wisdom to the younger generation, the most invoking in others of that care, love, compassion and self-sacrifice that redeems humanity, and ennobles us by lifting us above mere brutes.  Euthanasia, from this perspective would mean rubbing out the most fruitful months and years of people’s lives.

This essay is based on, Healing the Culture, a work of Professor Robert J Spitzer SJ, President of Gonzaga University.  Available from Ignatius Press.

Father Spitzer, President of the Magis Institute and former President of Gonzaga University, has been using the principles in this book to educate people of all backgrounds in the philosophy of the pro-life movement. The tremendous positive response he has received inspired him to start the Life Principles Institute. This book is one of the key resources used for this program.

This work effectively draws out the connections between personal attitudes toward happiness and the meaning of life, and the larger cultural issues such as freedom and human rights. Relying on the wisdom of the ages and respecting the human persons' unique capacity for rational analysis, this work offers definitions of the key cultural terms affecting life issues, including Happiness, Success, Love, Suffering, Quality of Life, Ethics, Freedom, Personhood, Human Rights and the Common Good.

"An excellent resource for examining the life issues in their broadest and most profound context. It is also an encouraging and accessible tool for responding to the Holy Father's challenge to build a 'culture of life'."- Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago


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