Articles

Happiness manifests itself in four different ways.


by Tim Ryan
Spitzer Center Director of Client Services
Based on Father Robert Spitzer’s book, Finding True Happiness

Step back for a moment and ask yourself, “What makes me happy?” You’ll probably respond to this in many ways, from a chocolate bar or a good glass of wine, to that job promotion you had been working toward, working with the youth group at church last Summer, or even time in meditation.  So which of these truly represents happiness?  The answer is… they all do, but in different ways.  Fr. Robert Spitzer explores this question in his book, Finding True Happiness.

Perhaps the most general definition of happiness is “the fulfillment of desire” (whether that be superficial or sublime).  It follows from this that unhappiness would be the nonfulfillment of desire.  Therefore, it is important that we discover what our major desires are – what drives us, what we yearn for, and what we seek for satisfaction and fulfillment.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers (and later theologians, psychologists, and anthropologists) have described four major kinds of desire (and therefore four major kinds of happiness).   People like Plato, Aristotle, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Abraham Maslow, and St. Thomas Aquinas have weighed in.

So what are these four kinds of desire that give rise to four kinds of happiness?

Desires connected with biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers. This includes things that appeal to our five senses and respond to our basic need for food and survival, but also things in which we find basic pleasure like food and drink, carnal pleasures, and relief from discomfort.

  1. Ego-comparative desires. We experience this happiness when we win, or get that job promotion, are in control, or earn some award.
  2. Contributive-empathetic desires. This form of happiness arises when we feel a sense of purpose in what we do that is making an optimal positive difference in the world
  3. Transcendental-spiritual desires. This speaks to a transcendent type of happiness that may be equated to spirituality or God.

These are all quite natural and there are potentially health and non-healthy elements of each.  The happiness resulting from the fulfillment of each of these desires manifest itself differently in terms of how deep, how long it lasts, and who it affects.  Furthermore, one of these forms of happiness is going to be dominant in your life and that will set the tone for the choices you make and even your ethics.  We will continue to explore each of these levels of happiness in terms of not only how they affect you individually, but also how they manifest themselves within the organizations you may be associated with.

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