From reviewing Greek and later Christian writers it may be observed that happiness has four levels. These may be described as follows (in ascending order).
This quest for fullness is pursued through the other happinesses but with a clear understanding that in the battle between happiness #3 and #2, happiness #3 must win out if we are to approach the transcendentals of this category:
(transcendental: from the latin words trans = above or over and scendere = to climb over or surmount). The transcendentals have traditionally included; truth, beauty and goodness. Note that all religions have some concept that they place in a position of ultimacy and fullness or completeness as well as some account of what keeps us from this condition of completeness (sin, desire, illusion etc.) and a remedy for it.
Christians believe that God is not only the Creator of the universe but is the One who keeps us all in being moment to moment by His Grace. According to the claims of the Christian faith, creation has a meaning and purpose and so do each one of us as creatures. The central aspect of God is love and this was the reason for the incarnation (literally "enfleshment") of God in His son Jesus Christ. Only God in Jesus is perfect and, according to Christians, our ultimate happiness is found in relationship with God through Jesus (prayer, obedience to his teachings etc.) who overcame sin (separation from God).
Christians believe that the fullness of the beatific vision (seeing God, or perfection, face-to-face) is something that we strive to move towards in life but will only be granted completely, after death. We get glimpses of the sublime nature of beauty, truth and goodness at rare moments in, perhaps, the arts (music, story, film) or nature or when we are loved by or love others. These experiences are deep and largely beyond words. Clearly to develop this category and pursue the depths of each category in this fourth level of happiness, is the work of a lifetime of open-ness, honesty and living/loving well. But the life itself is a gift which we are given. At least, that is what the tradition says.
A wonderful "parable" of the shift from Happiness #2 to Happiness #3 (up the ladder of happiness to a "higher level" of happiness') may be seen in the famous story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge begins in Happiness #2 and, though successful in business, is unhappy as a person. Fear of death and his unhappy state lead him to choose to move to Happiness #3 type actions (helping the Cratchetts and others, reconciliation with his niece etc.). His happiness is a result of a shift from resentment to gratitude. Happiness #4 type questions about purpose and meaning he previously refused to examine.
Such questions as "Why am I here?" "How can I be happy?" "How can I account for human suffering?" have to deal with purpose, meaning and the transcendentals and cannot be measured by scientific measurement or answered scientifically because they transcend them. They are properly the questions for religion in terms of what we are committed to (religio = to be bound), and philosophy which deals with the love of wisdom. Augustine describes this quest as fides quaerens intellectus: "faith in search of understanding."
Spitzer, S.J., Robert. "Four Levels of Happiness." Unpublished lecture (1999).
Reprinted by permission of the author, Fr. Robert Spitzer.
For more on the Four Levels of Happiness visit the Spitzer Center here.
Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. is currently the President of the Magis Center of Faith and Reason and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. The former is dedicated to showing the close connection between faith and reason in contemporary astrophysics, philosophy, and historical study of the New Testament. The latter is dedicated to personal and cultural transformation that supports principle-based ethics and leads to noble and enduring success. Father Spitzer was President of Gonzaga University from 1998-2009. He has published 5 books and numerous scholarly articles, started 6 national institutes, and speaks widely on the philosophy of science, philosophy of God, and ethics. Fr. Spitzer has as spoken to thousands of audiences, and has done ethics consulting for over 300 organizations, including Boeing, Caterpillar, Toyota, Costco, the British Prime Minister's Cabinet, the leadership of Costa Rica, Protestant and Catholic leadership in Northern Ireland, and the Orthodox Church in Russia. Father Spitzer is the author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, as well as videos such as Suffering and the God of Love, and Healing the Culture.
Copyright © 1999 Fr. Robert Spitzer. S.J.