baby cry
Every baby begins life devoted exclusively to level-one happiness. Shutterstock

We all want to be happy. Every day, in whatever we do, we seek this goal — one that we share with every other person on the planet. But what exactly is happiness? And how can we find it? What really helps us to become happy and what doesn’t matter much at all? In one way or another, each person answers these questions. 

Regardless of our circumstances, we can become happier if we choose to act in ways that promote true happiness. In his book “Healing the Culture” (Ignatius, $17.95), Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer distinguishes four different kinds of activities that people do in seeking happiness. He calls happiness sought in bodily pleasure obtained by drink, food, drugs or sex level-one (L1) happiness. Level-two (L2) happiness has to do with competitive advantage in terms of money, fame, power, popularity or other material goods. Level-three (L3) happiness involves loving and serving other people. And level-four (L4) happiness is found in loving and serving God. Although people can desire each level of happiness at different times and in different ways, not every level provides equal and lasting contentment.

Fleeting pleasures

The first level of happiness — bodily pleasures — has several advantages. It is easy to get, it arrives fairly quickly and it can be intense. It is easy to drink beer; there is no need to wait a long time to feel the effects of alcohol, and intoxication is, well, intoxicating. Every baby begins life devoted exclusively to level-one happiness — seeking the pleasures brought by milk and avoiding the pain brought by hunger or a dirty diaper. The infant has no understanding of higher levels of happiness but seeks simple bodily comfort. 

Levels of Happiness
Bodily pleasures 

Everyone desires level-one happiness, but few are satisfied with level-one happiness alone. Aside from infants and hard core drug addicts, almost all other human beings seek deeper levels of happiness. We all still desire level-one happiness, but we realize that we want more, in part because of the many inherent difficulties associated with devotion to bodily pleasure. 

One difficulty with level-one happiness is that it leaves almost as quickly as it arrives. When we are hungry, nothing sounds better than a warm, filling meal. But after dinner is done, the pleasures of satiating hunger are likewise over. The pleasures of the body arise quickly, but these pleasures also depart quickly. L1 does not lastingly satisfy. 

A second weakness of bodily pleasures — at least those of drink, drugs and sex — is that we build a tolerance to the things that bring us this level of happiness so that more is needed to achieve the same degree of enjoyment. When people start drinking regularly, they discover that the amount of alcohol that had previously led to a pleasurable buzz, over time no longer provides the same level of enjoyment. The more a person drinks, the greater the tolerance develops, and the more alcohol is needed to achieve the same amount of level-one happiness. 

Addiction, and its devastating consequences, are yet another crisis of level-one happiness. The pleasures of food, drink, drugs and sex can lead to obsession and compulsion. As the addict and those around the addict realize to the great pain of all involved, the addict’s enslavement is the opposite of real happiness. Indeed, for many addicts, the intense cravings for their “high” of whatever kind undermine their integrity, demolishes their future plans, and devastate their relationships. Compulsive level-one behavior leaves the addict alone, depressed, overwhelmed, hopeless and in despair of ever living a clean, sober and free life. Level-one happiness can become level-one misery. 

For reasons such as these, virtually all human beings move beyond exclusive devotion to level-one happiness. Indeed, only babies and hard-core addicts are dominated exclusively by level-one concerns. When level-one and the higher levels of happiness come into conflict, everyone else, more or less regularly, chooses the higher levels of happiness.

The good life

level 1
level 2
level 3
Levels of happiness Shutterstock

The next level of happiness gives greater meaning and significance than level one. Level-two happiness consists of “winning” at some competition. Level-two (L2) involves not just keeping up with the Joneses, but surpassing them — in money, fame, popularity or status. In this level, we seek happiness through victory in whatever game we choose to play. It could be in material possessions: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” It could be in advancement in a chosen field, such as becoming the CEO, the league champion or the prima ballerina. It could be the social victory of dating the football quarterback or the homecoming queen. It could be achieving the highest score on the exam or purchasing a new car or the latest high fashion jeans to impress others. 

However, will level-two success lead to lasting happiness? By way of example, we could focus on L2 in terms of fame, popularity or power, but let’s focus on perhaps the most common way people seek level-two happiness: money. Many people believe and act as if the good life — the happy life — can be found through either having money, spending money, or both. But can we find lasting happiness in large salaries and lavish spending, in producing and consuming? 

Scientists have studied this question extensively. It turns out that more money can make you much happier — if you live in abject poverty. If you do not have clothes to keep you warm, if you have no food for your children, and no roof over your head, money for these basic provisions greatly improves reported happiness. 

However, once you have enough money for food, clothing and shelter, increases in money are unrelated to stable increases in happiness. If you compare a person making $30,000 a year, another making $100,000 and a third making $500,000, there is likely little difference in self-reported happiness or levels of depression. In other words, once a person has the necessities, more money — money spent in shopping as well as money in the bank — does not lead to more happiness. 

The empirical evidence shows that great wealth is not needed for great happiness. But why wouldn’t more money lead to more happiness? David Myers, the author of “The Pursuit of Happiness” (William Morrow, $15.99), notes that the happiness attained by a purchase or achieving a particular level of wealth soon wears off and people adapt to whatever level of wealth they have achieved. Soon after having achieved a certain level of wealth or having purchased the desired product, the happiness recently enjoyed will fade and disappear.  

Think about your last birthday. Do you still have the thrill of opening your gifts? Unless your birthday was recent, my guess is that you hardly remember what you received. The novelty of whatever we received turned into just one more possession rather than lasting happiness.

Can’t buy happiness

Although many people believe that more money means more happiness, years of research prove that there is no such link. In the United States, real disposable income has increased dramatically since 1950. Like the citizens of many countries, Americans have more cash, larger houses, more TVs and more cars than ever before. However, the number of Americans who report being “very happy” has not increased during this time. Despite making and spending much more than ever before, the average U.S. citizen is no more happy. In a chapter titled “Will Money Buy Happiness?” in the book “Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People” (Volume 4), Myers aptly notes: 

level 4
Level Four: Love and service to God. Strong religious ties and virtuous activity bring about the greatest fulfillment. Shutterstock

“We might call this soaring wealth and shrinking spirit, ‘the American paradox.’ More than ever, we have big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, more comfortable cars and more road rage. We excel at making a living but often fail at making a life. We celebrate our prosperity but yearn for purpose. We cherish our freedoms but long for connection. In an age of plenty, we feel spiritual hunger.” 

But, why doesn’t money buy happiness? 

One reason is that (aside from those in dire poverty) no matter how much we earn or spend, we tend to believe that we need to earn or spend still more to achieve happiness. People frequently compare themselves with others, but seldom do they compare themselves to those who are less wealthy. Indeed, at all levels of wealth, from the modestly to tremendously wealthy, people tend to compare themselves to those who are just ahead of them in riches and almost never to those who are less well off. Parents with two children making $40,000 a year tend not to say, “Wow, we are doing so much better than 95 percent of the entire world. We eat three meals a day. We have a TV and a car. We have a computer. We’re doing amazingly well financially.” Rather, they tend to look at those with two cars and three TVs, and these folks in turn compare themselves with those with newer cars, bigger houses and home entertainment systems, and so on. Moreover, media exposure may change people’s reference group entirely so that they are comparing themselves to the super rich people on TV or in magazines, rather than the person next door. In any case, after achieving a new level of wealth, we “up the stakes” and aim for the next higher level.

Celebrity examples

The final and perhaps most evident example of the failure of level two and level one to bring about happiness are the lives of celebrities. Celebrities have all the level one that they can handle — more alcohol than they can drink, more drugs than they can take (and remain alive), and more willing, attractive potential partners than there is time in the day with which to have sex. They can and often do “max out” in terms of level-one happiness. If we turn to level-two happiness, celebrities have money ample enough for palatial residences in Malibu and in Manhattan, power to make or break people’s careers, fame so great that they can walk into any bar and everyone knows their name, and popularity such that millions of people read magazines to learn the minutiae of their lives. 

Michael Jackson
As pop singer Michael Jackson’s life showed, being a celebrity with material success does not ensure happiness. CNS photo

And yet, what does maximum level one and maximum level two bring to celebrities? Many of them are so deliriously happy that they end up committing suicide. Other celebrities teeter on the brink of self-inflicted death through drug and alcohol abuse. How many celebrities in the fast lane of L1 and L2 living end up not with deep happiness, but with divorce, legal action and rehab? The crash and burn examples of countless celebrities make abundantly clear the point made also by Aristotle and Aquinas centuries ago. Happiness cannot be found in bodily pleasure, money, fame, popularity or power. Level one and level two cannot deliver happiness. 

The discussion thus far has focused on the “winners” of level two. But of course, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that we will ever have the recording success of Michael Jackson, the fame of Marilyn Monroe, or money of a Hollywood mogul. If even winning at level two does not satisfy, how much more does losing at level two fail to satisfy? If we think that our happiness, our self-worth and our basic meaning in life is found in level two, then we risk finding ourselves as losers in the level-two competition. As L2 losers, we will be depressed, consider ourselves worthless and believe that life is not worth living. Level-two “winners” really do not win, and level-two “losers” do no better and probably worse in terms of happiness. This is in part because the friendships and intimate relationships of those at level two suffer from a focus on the negative.

Love and service

What does lead to happiness? According to contemporary psychologists, the happiest people have: 1) meaningful activity, 2) good relationships with others and 3) strong religious ties. We can translate these into traditional philosophical and theological terms: 1) virtuous activity, 2) love of neighbor, and 3) love of God. Level-three and level-four happiness consists in loving ourselves and others and serving them in some meaningful way. Level-three and four happiness does not necessarily contradict or undermine success at level two or even enjoyment of level one, but it prioritizes love and service to others over them. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with L2 success or with bodily pleasures. Rather, the trouble comes when we think that L1 or L2 becomes the ultimate goal of life. The trouble comes when we subordinate more important things, like level-three and level-four happiness, to less important things, like level-one and level-two happiness. The trouble comes when we choose the lesser levels of happiness in a way that damages the higher levels of happiness. We cannot be happy without true friendship and true love, and we cannot have true friendship and love without acting in ways that accord with friendship and love. 

One more area of agreement between contemporary positive psychology and the Christian tradition is a critique of hedonism and an emphasis on charitable work. The “good life” according to Christian belief consists in loving neighbor and loving God, rather than hedonistic self indulgence in the goods of the body. Positive psychology provides empirical confirmation that “philanthropic” activities provide more long term satisfaction than “pleasurable” activities. If given the choice between “fun” and philanthropy, many people think that fun will be more satisfying, but when they actually experience both, loving service to others provides greater satisfaction. The rush of bodily pleasures quickly fades; the glow of corporal and spiritual works of mercy abides. 

We all want to be happier, and we all can be. You do not have to wait for that big promotion or for that party on Saturday night. Helping us achieve our true happiness — both here and eternally — is within our reach now. The more L3 and L4 activities that we choose, the more happy we can be, even if our exterior circumstances do not change. A happier life can begin today with choosing philanthropic activities and growing in love of neighbor and of God. 

Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of “The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church” (Ignatius, $17.95), from which this piece was adapted.