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A Book Review… The Pursuit Of Happiness

September 12, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By MITCHELL KALPAGIAN

Finding True Happiness, by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, Ph.D. (Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2015), 312 pp., $19.95. Available from www.ignatius.com or 1-800-651-1531.

A work of both practical commonsense advice and spiritual wisdom, this book defines four types of human happiness that conform to human nature and mark the human condition, a hierarchy of values that ascend from the first level of happiness provided by the enjoyment of pleasures and the comforts of material possessions to the highest level of transcendence in which man experiences a loving relationship with God and contemplates the meaning of the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
As man graduates from the first to the fourth level, he experiences a sense of completeness in the possession of a happiness that Fr. Spitzer calls “pervasive,” “enduring,” and “deep.”
The pursuit of happiness proceeds through four stages as man not only discovers the delight of the senses and the gratification of bodily appetites on the first level but also relishes the joy of achievements that provide great satisfaction on the second level: the feeling of accomplishment like earning a degree, receiving a promotion, purchasing a home, or receiving an honor. In the first and second types of happiness, however, the pleasure does not extend beyond the self.
Gaining in financial prosperity or improving one’s social status limit a person’s participation in the fullness of joy that awaits him if he does not rise to the higher levels. Honors and achievements alone are not “pervasive” or inclusive enough. Delighting in the gratifications of eating, drinking, traveling, and vacationing is not “enduring.”
The joys of the first two levels do not go beyond bodily satisfaction and social approval, not reaching the depths of the soul or nourishing the mind with the highest knowledge or purest joy. As the quest continues, man learns of nobler sources of happiness and advances to the third stage that the author identifies as “contributive,” the many ways that persons enrich and bless the lives of others with love, friendship, care, and affection.
As man recognizes that the pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment of the first three stages — while natural sources of happiness — do not perfectly fulfill man’s transcendental desires for everlasting joy and union with God, he turns to the fourth level. Here the restless human heart yearning for the perfection of heavenly beatitude and the fullness of happiness without change or loss seeks a greater knowledge and love of God, “a dynamic encounter.”
Spitzer explains all of these levels with clarity, thoroughness, and telling examples: While “every level of happiness is good and has its proper place,” certain temptations accompany them because they can blind or limit a person’s view of higher, ultimate things. For example, to remain on the first or second level and define the source of happiness exclusively in terms of pleasure, comfort, or wealth ignores the riches of the life of the mind and soul. To remain on the second level and always view life as a form of competition to defeat one’s rivals for lucrative prizes and prestigious positions easily leads to egocentricity and narcissism.
Those who stay complacent and make success, status, wealth, or luxury the dominant view of happiness soon identify it solely with “winning “ rather “losing” in the competition of life, and they inevitably disregard the importance of the profoundly human aspects that enrich happiness: “They do not see their personhood, personality, lovability, love of others, and empathy as being important.”
Thus those obsessed only with the first or second kind of happiness “underlive” their lives and fail to experience the abundant life Christ promised which the psalmist expressed: “Taste and see the sweetness of the Lord.”
As Spitzer forcefully argues, lack of financial or social success and even disappointment and failure never define the worth of a human being. Other criteria need to replace worldly standards in order to understand the fullness of happiness that life offers and God gives. Instead of reacting with a sense of inferiority, depression, or self-pity when people fail to win or gain the prize, they must “find new categories to define life and self — categories that are not reducible to things or ego-comparative qualities, but instead open upon our noble, loving, lovable, transcendent, spiritual selves.”
When the pursuit of happiness never aspires beyond the first and second levels but instead seeks reputation, image, popularity, and praise as the essence of life, many gloat over their achievements and belittle others with contempt. Ego-centered and narcissistic, the successful achievers fall into the sins of pride and envy, never grateful for their blessings and always discontented when their highest ambitions fail.
While those who know happiness on the third and fourth levels show gratitude, share their joy and blessings with others, express a love of neighbor and a love of God, the overachievers ruled by secular standards never feel at home in the world or in themselves and compulsively seek more adulation and recognition. In short, comfort, pleasure, and success are not “ends in themselves” but stepping stones to the higher levels of full human happiness.
Spitzer shows that those who remain on the first and second levels and never fulfill the higher transcendental desires for truth, goodness, and beauty inevitably encounter a sense of alienation, loneliness, emptiness, and guilt — all problems that the contributive and transcendental aspects of happiness alleviate. To address these problems and “to escape your personal hell,” the author recommends certain fundamental changes of attitude that transform a person’s whole sense of direction and purpose in life.
First, a person needs to redefine his primary purpose in life from personal pleasure and material accumulation to contributions to family, society, church, and the common good. Instead of seeking admiration and kudos, he needs to earn the love and gratitude of others.
Second, a person must notice the good in others and see them in their “lovability,” as images of God — as mysteries rather than problems — rather than as rivals whom he envies and resents for their success.
Third, persons must adopt a view of themselves beyond marketable skills and professional prestige that deserve “esteem” but do not evoke “love” in the way that personal qualities such as kindness, humility, compassion, and charity form the basis of human relationships that produce fruitful, joy-filled lives.
Fourth, persons must develop a responsible, rational sense of freedom that exercises discipline and constraint — a change that distinguishes between “freedom from” and “freedom for” — freedom from license, addiction, and enslavement and freedom for love of neighbor and God and works of mercy.
This new understanding, then, honors commitments and fulfills duties rather than championing autonomy and radical individualism. These changes in attitude depend on learning from Christ’s example. He enjoyed others, listened to them, spent time with beloved friends, and served them — He was One “who had time to be with sinners, the poor, and the weak; who enjoyed His relationships with the simple and the powerful; who listened to the cry of the poor as well as ‘the wise of the world’.”
In this transition from the first two levels to the higher two levels, man must not stop at the third level lest he find that “something is missing” and that he is wasting his life and not following his vocation and highest responsibility — a state of mind that produces what Spitzer calls “cosmic alienation” and “cosmic loneliness: “When we are not in relation to others, we feel a mere fraction of ourselves, and the deeper our relationship with others, the deeper our experience of ourselves.”
However, even though other people breathe life, energy, and vitality into one’s life, man’s most important relationship binds him to God, and “no human relationship will be able to take the place of this transcendent one,” a relationship in which man participates in the eternal battle of good and evil and realizes he is part of something greater than himself.
This transcendent level attunes a person to an appreciation of God’s divine Providence both in the world and in his own life and sensitizes him to the wonder of the transcendentals like beauty: the beauty of the natural world, of sacred music and art, of holy people:
“Notice that when you allow yourself to be drawn into the life of the sacred, the Lord responds more intensely, with an invitation to even deeper things.”
On the first level man seeks to satisfy the basic needs essential for survival — food, clothing, shelter — called the “External-Pleasure-Material” plane of existence. The author calls the second tier of happiness the realm of “Ego-Comparative desire,” the acquisition of distinctions, prizes, and status that follow from the success of reaching one’s goals.
The third form of happiness Spitzer describes as “Contributive-Empathetic,” explained as “the contributive desire to make a positive difference to someone or something beyond ourselves.” This desire conquers the ego-centricity and narcissism that develop when human happiness remains on the first two levels, and it combats the sense of emptiness and meaninglessness a person confronts in the realization that he made no positive difference in any other person’s life.

Real Sources Of Happiness

However, the ultimate degree of happiness corresponds to man’s innate sense of the holy, sacred, and spiritual that intuits “a mysterious, awe-inspiring power” common to all religions that Spitzer calls the “numinous” experience. This desire for transcendence expresses itself in man’s longing for perfect justice, perfect beauty, and perfect goodness that man’s mortality in the fallen world of the human condition never absolutely satisfies.
All these truths about happiness make excellent sense, validate knowledge from other fields of learning that lead to similar conclusions, and correspond to Christ’s teachings and the spiritual wisdom of the Church.
As Spitzer concludes, man needs more than the offerings of the first three levels of happiness because “we expect more, need more, and want more because we are created for more. We are transcendent beings who recognize and desire the transcendent, spiritual, sacred, and religious.”
To ignore this aspect of happiness inevitably leads to an existence in which “we will surely underlive our lives, undervalue our dignity, and underestimate our destiny — a perfectly avoidable waste and tragedy.” The secular world and the mass of humanity need to know the real sources of happiness that transcend the consumerism of a society manipulated by propaganda and the media’s image of the good life.

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