We’re in it – the “most happiest time of the year.” As we move through shopping and busy holiday preparations, it can be easy to lose sight of why this might be a time of happiness. Isn’t it all just a bunch of stuff? Last week we talked about how there are different levels of happiness. Much more on that today.
The Four Levels of Happiness
We write in order to clarify our thinking. Everyone thinks about happiness. So thousands have written about happiness. To date, my favorite model for thinking about happiness is given by Rev. Robert Spitzer. He calls it the “Four Levels of Happiness.” It builds on the work of theologians and philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Buber and Frankl, by aligning their writings on happiness into one model.
I love it. It’s simple but deep, and in particular I think it gives a unique lens for faith-driven entrepreneurs. (It also sheds light on the framework that the Cappawork planner uses to help people discern and act on their calling. When you use the planner well, you get to find all four levels.)
Here it is:
Level 1 Happiness - Happiness in a thing. A funfetti cupcake! A new car! It's delightful but fleeting, lasting only as long as the new car smell remains. This is the kind of happiness that money can buy. Even though it’s short-lived, this kind of pleasure is not inherently bad. In fact, you could say it’s quite good. However, if you remain stuck in Level 1, you’ll spend your life in a relentless scurrying from thing to thing. Being stuck in Level 1 is bad.
Level 2 Happiness– Comparison and Achievement. This is happiness in competition, like winning the next race, award, or promotion. Competition and Achievement can be positive when they motivate action, but negative if they're the ONLY form of happiness pursued, because inevitably at some point you will lose. If your happiness is tied to the comparison of yourself against the other, anxiety will build. If I’m not a winner, then what am I? Am I even capable of being happy? If the event goes poorly and you lose, it’s not just one game that you lost - it’s your entire picture of happiness, the whole image of who you are. Depression and nihilism follow soon after. We cannot stay in Level 2.
Level 3 Happiness - Contribution Through Service. We all know stories of wildly successful people who have every earthly possession and achievement, but are unhappy until they learn to “give back.” This is not a coincidence. Happiness that comes through serving others is long-lasting and real. Consider the life of Mother Teresa. If you were to define happiness based on pleasure or achievement, her life is the counterargument. She was happy but lived a lowly life with minimal worldly pleasures and many, many years without any sort of recognition. Her happiness came in the service of others. Level 3 happiness isn't based on pleasure in things or what others think of you (or what you think they think of you). It’s in serving others to make their life better. It’s the work we do as friends and parents. We can spend a lot of good time here.
Level 4 Happiness - Communion with the Ultimate Good. Most of the ancient philosophers identified the ultimates (ultimate truth, justice, beauty) as the idealized form that all lower forms point to. A cathedral is particularly beautiful because it points to the ultimate form of beauty in God. The beauty of a created thing reflects the creator. The highest and eternal form of happiness is communing with the Ultimate Good. Happiness in God. It is transcendent, a relationship with Jesus. It is never-ending, as He is the well that never runs dry. We can spend time in each level, but the call of our lives is toward Level 4.
The planner was designed so that you get a little bit of all 4 levels of happiness. Happiness in how it feels to open the page. Happiness in improving yourself. Happiness in achieving a goal for others. Happiness in the sneaky grace that transcends your prayer.
This weekend I wish you happiness, across all levels. Especially in Level 4.
- Credit to the Spitzer Institute for the 4 Levels framework.