Years ago, back when he was a student at Gonzaga University, Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer decided to start attending daily Mass for Lent. Within a month of attending daily Mass, he began to experience a sensation that he had never experienced before: a higher level of happiness.
Over the course of his career, Father Spitzer has spent time reflecting and studying human happiness, sharing his results in both a book and in numerous seminars that he has given across the United States.
Father Spitzer shares that happiness can be broken down into four levels: “Immediate Gratification,” “Comparative Achievement,” “Contributive Happiness” and “Ultimate Good,” or faith in Christ.
Immediate gratification finds temporary happiness through physically stimulated pleasure, such as indulging in a bowl of linguine or riding in an expensive car.
Comparative achievement derives pleasure from one’s ego and self-consciousness, meaning that people seek happiness through fame and achievement. Often, people settle for this level of happiness, opting to pursue careers, money and fame that they believe will make them appear better than their peers.
Humans achieve the third level, contributive happiness, through making a positive difference in the lives of other people. Both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo recognize this phenomenon, writing that when we do an act of service for somebody or something, we will achieve a greater level of happiness. At the root of this level of happiness is a love for the other person.
The fourth, and final, level of happiness can only be achieved through connecting with that which is ultimate good, ultimate truth, ultimate beauty and ultimate being itself: Jesus Christ. The previous three levels fail to fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart. Father Spitzer, along with many of the great Catholic philosophers and theologians, recognize that only through fostering an intimate relationship with God through the gift of faith can one come to achieve this fourth level of happiness.
Over the last 100 years, the world has embraced secular themes and ideas, and as the world continues to accept this secular identity, fewer and fewer people identify as truly happy. On March 20, 2023, the latest “World Happiness Report” was released, sharing which of the world’s countries are both the most and least happy.
Analyzing six factors — social support, income, health, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption — researchers found that, for the sixth consecutive year, Finland remained the happiest country in the world, with Denmark and Iceland coming in second and third, respectively.
Despite being one of the most developed countries in the nation, the United States again failed to fall in the top 10 happiest countries. To better understand why citizens in the United States struggle with happiness and the Catholic understanding of happiness, the Register spoke with Father Spitzer, president of the Magis Center and the Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership and EWTN TV host. He is also a noted author; his most recent book is titled, The Moral Wisdom of the Catholic Church.
Father Spitzer, how does the Catholic Church understand happiness?
There are four kinds of happiness, and they can be understood through four levels, in terms of the amount of pervasive enduringness and depth that they have (as described above). The highest level of happiness in the Catholic Church is not just the fourth level of happiness, faith, but also level-three happiness in concert with that level four.
This concert of level three and four sees love and charity not only as making a positive difference in a worldly or temporal sense to as many people as one can, but making an ultimate difference on the level of salvation and eternity to the perfect truth, love, goodness, beauty and being to as many people as one can. It’s that level-four happiness in concert with level-three happiness of love, that’s the true view of happiness.
For Catholics, when discussing happiness, one of the common questions that arises concerns the difference between happiness and joy. How does the Catholic Church distinguish between happiness and joy?
“Happiness” is a generic term, and it refers to all four levels of happiness. It’s kind of an umbrella category, and it just means “the fulfillment of a desire.” There are biological desires, which give rise to a pleasure, which we would call laetus in Latin. Then there is also the fulfillment of ego comparative desires, which we call felix in Latin. That’s the kind of happiness that comes from ego gratification. Then there’s the kind of happiness that comes from contributive gratification. In Latin that is called beatus, like from the beatitudes.
When you hear, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” that means happy: Happy are the poor in spirit. Finally, there’s another word for the fourth level of happiness, which is “joy,” the sublime happiness of being in concert with the God of love. In Latin that is called gaudete, like the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, which means “rejoice.” We have these four different kinds of happiness: laetus, felix, beatus and gaudete, so “joy” would be the fourth level in the Catholic Church, where as happiness would be the generic term that refers to all four levels that I described.
In the press release concerning the 2023 “World Happiness Report,” one of the authors is quoted as saying, “the happiness movement shows that well-being is not a ‘soft’ and ‘vague’ idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues and good citizenship. We need to turn this wisdom into practical results to achieve more peace, prosperity, trust, civility — and yes, happiness — in our societies.” As Catholics, how are we to serve and contribute to building a climate of happiness in communities outside of the Church?
As Catholics, we can do all kinds of things; notice that definition, though. It is not a bad one. But it only gets up to level three [of happiness]. They have forgotten level four in that view of happiness. If I wanted to do level-three happiness alone, without God, I would probably volunteer to do good works not only in my workplace but also in my community.
But because I am a Catholic, I cannot just do good things without taking into consideration my faith. At the end of the day, I need to participate in my church. I need to do good things to help kids learn the faith. I want to help the people around me to know how much they are loved by God, and how much hope there is, and that death isn’t the end.
What is it about American culture that makes it so hard for people of all ages to achieve the level three and level four of happiness?
We have, as a society, reduced ourselves to level one and level two [of happiness]. 70% of Americans believe that level two is the end goal. The reason that we have done this is that we have believed the myth of materialism and the myth of what I call success as being the real governor of ultimate happiness in our lives. What we’re looking at today is basically what I would call a deprivation of the possibilities of happiness beyond mere success and mere material acquisition.
How has social media and traditional media impacted our perception of happiness?
Social media and traditional media reinforce the level-one and level-two understanding of happiness. The reason it reinforces these levels is because the superficiality of media doesn’t require any moral obligation. We must break out of the media [culture]. We must break out of the control that the social and traditional media has over our young people especially, but also over adults.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes, “The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and often to live with precious little dignity.” What is the correlation between recognizing the dignity of the human person and human happiness?
True love, or happiness, begins by looking for the good news. If you can’t see the good news and dignity in the other, you’re not going anywhere. You’re never going to empathize with the other because all you will do is default to the bad news. You cannot look for the good news and the bad news in another person. If you look for the bad news first, the bad news will just pervade and condition the good news. It will block it out.
But if you look for the good news first, then the good news will condition and block out the bad news. That is creating the way for empathy. If I can’t feel and recognize the goodness in another, I’m never going to be able to do the good for the other. However, doing good for the other will bring happiness.
As a college student, I see many of my peers chasing that immediate gratification that you talked about. Whether it be through social media, alcohol, partying or the hook-up culture, what is so appealing to the youth, especially, about this idea of immediate gratification?
Simply because level one is low-level gratification. You don’t have to work for it. It’s right there. For example, [one] can google and look at pornography sites all day. It’s the fastest-growing addiction in the United States. Yet we also know that the more time you spend viewing pornography, the more depressed you become. There’s a definite correlation. We also know that the more time you spend on pornography, the less religious you become.
In other words, your religious life suffers; your prayer life suffers; church attendance suffers. They’re just left with self-gratification, which is, of course, not living one’s life to the max. I
think we have to break out of the cycle of self-gratification; we have to be able to educate people and say, “Don’t listen to this culture.” We need something that’s going to shake people out of their belief in this fantastic myth of true happiness created by the social and traditional media, that happiness comes from level one and level two alone. We must help kids break out of the cycle of self-gratification and recognize the love of God. That’s the truth that the Catholic Church must give to the world.
Jack Figge is a student at Benedictine College, where he is part of the Class of 2026.
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