happinessFr Robert Spitzer’s new volume Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts (Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence) is excellent.

I get umpteen books for review and my policy is, “If the book sits there and I have a desire (not a duty) to read it, then it makes the cut and I’ll read and review it) This is one book that did. I hope to write a more complete review when I’m finished, but one of the great insights comes in the opening chapters in which Fr Spitzer discusses the four levels of human need and therefore happiness.

He gives the four levels different names, but I’ll call them 1.) Animal 2.) Egotistical 3.) Altruistic 4.) Transcendent

The first level which I call “Animal” simply refers to our primal physical needs. We need food. We need drink. We need sex. We need shelter. We need power. We need warmth. The thing we need for survival bring us a certain level of satisfaction and happiness, but because we are more than animals we have greater needs and desires.

The second level is very interesting. Fr Spitzer points out how this level of need develops in later childhood and adolescence. He calls it “ego-comparitive”. This is the need to achieve and the need to gain self esteem not only through achieving, but through winning and not only through winning, but by defeating others. We gain self esteem not only through accomplishment on its own, but by being better than someone else. Thus in Middle School and High School the emphasis on sports, academic awards, artistic achievement and other awards becomes important to us. We gain satisfaction by being better.

This is okay in middle school and high school. In fact, it’s relatively healthy. The problem is, a vast number of us never move on from that. We continue to gain whatever self esteem, satisfaction and happiness that we glean from life through competition of some sort. In fact, we spend an enormous amount of our time, money and effort finding new ways of being better than others. This is where this natural desire and natural quest for happiness becomes pitifully inadequate.

We don’t really care about the new house, but we want it because it is in a better neighborhood. We don’t really care about the new job promotion, in fact we don’t actually want more work and responsibility but we seek it for the status and what is status unless I can be better than another person. We hate playing golf, but we join the country club because it makes us feel better than other folks. And so on and so forth…

The third level of desire and happiness I call “altruistic”–in which we grow up a little, move from adolescence and begin to realize that we can be even more happy once we are in a lasting relationship in which we can give to others and enter into a deep level of happiness and contentedness. This should usually take place within marriage and family life in a natural way, but it also happens as we find a vocation and move into a sphere of work which is giving in some way and serving in some way. It can also happen as we get involved in organizations, volunteering and being involved with others for the betterment of someone other than ourself.

The fourth level of desire and happiness is “transcendent”. This is when we really openly find God and give ourselves to him in simple worship, thanks and a relationship of trusting love. This is something that is attained through devotion, discipline and self sacrifice. We achieve this level to the proportion which we are willing to sacrifice the first two levels. We put aside some of the simple animal needs and we put aside the need to be better than others to gain our self esteem. At this point we begin to enter a truly transcendent and eternal experience of happiness.

As a pastor what frustrates me most is that our whole religion is a means to an end. It is designed to give us the tools to reach first the third level and then that ultimate level of happiness.

But too often what we do is exactly the opposite! Continue Reading

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