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At the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle noted that happiness is the one thing you can choose for itself—everything else is selected for the sake of happiness. If Aristotle is correct, then “happiness” is at the root of every decision and action we make. It even determines whether we think our lives have meaning and if life is worth living. 

Since this concept can influence our whole identity and purpose in life, it will probably influence the kinds of friends we make, the person we want to marry, the career we pursue, the groups to which we belong, the associations with which we affiliate—and just about everything else of relevance.




If we can discover a good and comprehensive definition of happiness, we will likely live a more fulfilled life. Such a fulfilled life could do considerable good—for individuals and the common good, for this world and even the next.

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

The Four Kinds of Desires 

Throughout the centuries, philosophers (and later psychologists) decoded four major kinds of desire—and if happiness is the fulfillment of desire, then we can also say four kinds of happiness. At least three of these four kinds of desire/happiness are addressed by a diverse number of thinkers: 

So, what are these four kinds of desire that give rise to four kinds of happiness, and which faculties within us bring them about?

  1. Level one desires are connected with biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers. They come from the brain, nervous system, and sensory faculties.
  2. Level two desires are ego-comparative desires, which arise from self-consciousness.
  3. Level three is contributive-empathetic desires, coming from empathy, conscience, and self-consciousness.
  4. Level four is transcendental-spiritual desires, which come from a transcendental awareness.

A brief explanation of these faculties concerning the four kinds of desire/happiness follows.




  • Level 1 happiness is the fulfillment of desires connected to biological (instinctual) opportunities and dangers. They come from the brain, nervous system, and sensory faculties.
  • Level 2 happiness is the fulfillment of ego-comparative desires, which arise from self-consciousness.
  • Level 3 happiness is the fulfillment of contributive-empathetic desires, coming from empathy, conscience, and self-consciousness.
  • Level 4 happiness is the fulfillment of transcendental-spiritual desires, which come from a transcendental awareness.
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As mentioned, the first Level of Happiness is the fulfillment of basic desires. Think about eating a delicious bowl of linguine or getting the latest iPhone. These types of happiness satisfy external and material desires. Because Level one happiness is connected to instinctual opportunities and danger, level one desires can also be as easy as putting on your coat when you're cold. 

To bring this level of happiness down to basics, the brain and sensory faculties (in both humans and other animals) connect with a set of biological instincts necessary for the survival and propagation of the species. These are the instincts that produce the acquisition of food, water, shelter, herd and pack behaviors, procreation, and (in mammals) affection. They also give rise to warnings about dangers such as predators and poisonous foods. Interestingly, animals seem limited to these biological opportunities and dangers, but humans are not.

Put simply, if a higher vertebra, such as a dog or monkey, is not presented with a biological opportunity or a threat to survival, it will find a comfortable spot and fall asleep.



Human beings do not do this. When we run out of biological opportunities and dangers, our minds become engaged with thoughts about the other three kinds of desire: ego-comparative, contributive, and transcendent.


Can human beings become focused on the first kind of desire-happiness (and push the other three kinds into a subordinate position)? Evidently, we can. We can become fixated on food, drink, cigars, and virtually any physical stimulus. We can also become engrossed in material things, such as clothes, houses, cars, jewelry, and of course, money. Though the latter group may start out as fulfilling needs of material comfort and pleasure, they can also fulfill the second kind of desire-happiness (ego-comparative happiness), as explained below. 

Some people will fixate on the first kind of happiness throughout their lives, but this is unusual. Most will move to the second kind of happiness and then to the third and hopefully fourth kinds.



Level two happiness has to do with ego-comparative desires. Ego-comparative desires are those fulfilled by personal success and achievement in our eyes and the eyes of the world. With ego-comparative desires, we seek advantage in the areas of status, popularity, achievement, intelligence, athletics, beauty, control, power, and every other domain of comparison. 

Self-Consciousness and the Inner and Outer Worlds

To understand ego-comparative desires better, it helps first to understand self-consciousness. In brief, self-consciousness refers to the human ability to be aware of awareness. We are not only aware of, say, this screen in front of us, but we are simultaneously aware of being aware of it. If we want, we can actually be aware of being aware of our awareness! It seems as if we can double back on ourselves like a dog attempting to catch its tail, except the analogy goes further—like a dog swallowing its entire self—and even swallowing itself swallowing itself. This is exceedingly difficult to explain in the categories of macroscopic physics (and may even be inexplicable in terms of quantum physics). 


Our remarkable capacity for self-awareness allows us to create our own private inner world (the ego world), which has a natural tendency toward self-centeredness. Our sense of our inner world begins as small children. 

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget indicates that children’s sense of the inner world is so dominant at first that they actually believe that it is at the center of reality and that everything in the outer world is subject to it. The child soon learns that the outer world is really a shared world that is not subject to them but rather maintains itself over against their and their parents’ ego worlds. 


Once children reach adolescence, they become hyper-aware of other children, and they compete with those children on many different levels. Their worlds become blanketed with a myriad of ego comparisons—who’s achieving more or less? Who’s smarter or not so smart? Who’s beautiful, and who’s ugly? Who is better at sports, and who is not? Who’s more popular and less popular?

As we shall see below, older children (and adults), who mistakenly think that ego-comparative happiness is the only kind of happiness, will encounter grave challenges and problems (which I term “the comparison game” disaster. Read more about it in the section “Escaping Your Personal Hell” within the Resource Book, chapter “Four Levels of Happiness.”


Contributive-empathetic desires arise in part out of our self-consciousness; just as I may desire to bring things under the influence of my inner world, I can also invest my inner world in the outer world to help and enhance it—even to the point of great self-sacrifice.


In addition to self-consciousness, human beings have a powerful empathy capacity. (Think of how children can talk to complete strangers and trust them.) Empathy begins with a deep awareness of and connection to the other as uniquely good. Allowing this awareness of and connection to the other to affect us produces an acceptance and consequent unity of feeling with the other. This opens upon an identification with the other tantamount to a sympathetic vibration. 

Though this unity does not cause a loss of one’s self or self-consciousness, it does cause a break in the radical autonomy arising out of focusing on oneself. Were it not for the capacity to be radically open to the unique goodness of others, human beings might be inexorably caught up in egocentricity and radical autonomy. However, empathy presents the possibility of relational personhood and creates the condition for generous and even self-sacrificial love.

This powerful drive and capacity form the basis for the third kind of desire, but it is not the only capacity involved in this desire.


Philosophers have long recognized that conscience is one of the most important human faculties. It is generally viewed as an inner attraction to and love of goodness/justice and an inner shunning and fear of evil/injustice. Our love of the good leads to feelings of nobility and fulfillment, while our shunning and fear of evil leads to feelings of guilt and alienation. 

Philosophers have also recognized that conscience has intellectual content (generally called the “practical intellect”), which enables us to judge actions as good/just or evil/unjust. There is disagreement among philosophers about how much of this content is part of our natural awareness and how much is learned. 

For example, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle believed that some human beings could naturally know a considerable amount of ethical content. In The Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas held that the vast majority of people know general precepts by nature but must be taught more specific precepts: do good, avoid evil, do not kill an innocent, do not unnecessarily injure another, steal from another, or otherwise unnecessarily harm another, give a person their just deserts, be truthful to yourself and others.


Conscience and the Silver Rule

Most of the above precepts come under the rubric of the silver rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” This is the minimal standard of justice upon which all other ethical precepts are based. This belief is so powerful and convincing that it leads most people to accede to the law and be law-abiding citizens. Those who do not feel obligated by this principle are deemed to be criminals or sociopaths.

Most children are naturally aware of and believe in this minimal sense of justice (fairness). Many philosophers do not think that this basic sense of and attraction to justice can be taught. In a famous passage in The Meno (sections 90-96), Plato argues that if virtue can be taught, why can’t truly virtuous men teach their children virtue? He cites five examples of outstanding men in Athens whose children turned out to be “less than virtuous.”

Similarly, Immanuel Kant believed that human beings have a natural awareness of the highest good as an absolute duty (categorical imperative)—he even uses this as a basis for our innate knowledge of God.

Given this, it should not be surprising that virtually every culture and religion around the world adhere to the silver rule. It is reasonable to hold that people by nature have a conscience that attracts them to the good, repulses them from evil, and informs them about general precepts derived from the most basic form of justice expressed in the silver rule.

The Contributive-Empathetic Desire

As shown above, empathy and conscience can work in two ways: they can prevent us from doing something negative and inspire us to move toward great heights of positivity. There does not seem to be any intrinsic limit to the altruistic feeling inspired by empathy or the feelings of nobility inspired by conscience. For this reason, people who follow these inspirations tend to be heroically generous and idealistic.

We might think for a moment that such generosity and idealism are beyond the ordinary person, but it really is not because all of us want our lives to be significant in some way. Nobody wants to get to 70 years old and ask, “What was the difference between the value of my life and the value of a rock?” and have to say, “Not much.” 

We not only seek to have some positive meaning in our lives, but our capacity for empathy and conscience inspires us to make as much positive difference as we can before we leave this earth. Making the world better for our having lived can become addictive because it produces its own kind of happiness. This kind of happiness does not feel the same as a good bowl of pasta (the first kind of happiness) or getting a standing ovation or a promotion (the second kind of happiness), but it does bring a sense of purpose which is both inspiring and enjoyable. 

When we accentuate the third kind of desire-happiness, our outlook and viewpoint begin to shift. Instead of looking for opportunities to gain material wealth, pleasure, or ego-comparative advantage, we begin to naturally seek opportunities to make a positive difference to the people around us—either through doing or “being with.” At this juncture, we become very efficient in our use of time—and learning how we can still take care of the first and second kinds of happiness (which have their proper place)—while seeking optimal opportunities for the third kind of happiness.




Level Four happiness is the fulfillment of the five transcendental desires: perfect love, beauty, truth, justice/goodness, and home. We achieve the fulfillment of the these desires in having a relationship with perfect love, truth, beauty, truth, goodness/justice, and home Itself, namely God.


Proof of Our Transcendence

There are many indications of our transcendent nature, which I have explained extensively in several books and articles. The most obvious sign of our transcendent nature is our natural religious disposition. There is a preponderance of religious belief throughout the world (84% of the world population). Most of us seem to be naturally religious—naturally reverent, inherently spiritual, naturally fascinated by the transcendent, and naturally moved to a profound sense of awe and glory. This provokes the question of whether this high propensity for religious affiliation arises out of what Freud would call “wishful thinking” or something more fundamental and independent of fear or wish fulfillment.

Freud’s contention about the origin of religion has been seriously challenged by many psychoanalysts, philosophers, and scholars of religion throughout the last century. (A detailed account is given in The Soul’s Upward Yearning, Chapters One and Two).

In short, Freud left out the following four major dimensions of human religious intuition and experience from his assessment of it (from Future of an Illusion):

  1. The numinous experience. In his book, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto argued that regardless of culture and formal religion, humans have a fundamental and irreducible sense of the holy—what he termed “the numinous experience.” In his words, the numinous “is a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” Learn more in our article, Rudolf Otto's 'Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans' In Our Experience Of The Numen.
  2. The expression of the sacred across all cultures. Philosopher and historian of religion Mircea Eliade found an irreducible and transcultural aspect of religious expression derived from interior religious experience. This transcultural expression is why religious people of all cultures are inspired to sacred duties, self-sacrifice for a transcendent good, the desire to order society according to sacred principles, and the urge to develop religious symbols, art, architecture, music, and ritual. Learn more in What Draws Us To The Sacred? Mircea Eliade On Hierophany, Myths, And Homo Religiosus
  3. The unconscious archetypes of a spiritual struggle between good and evil. A former student of Freud’s, Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who believed that Freud had omitted a dimension of the unconscious. He called this dimension collective and archetypal, asserting that several archetypal images and symbols are present in virtually every human being. These archetypal symbols find expression in our dreams and our conscious minds through daydreams or being evoked by religious or mythic art, literature, and symbols. Many of these archetypes concern God, the devil, the hero, and a cosmic struggle between good and evil. For more, see section 8 of Proof of a Soul from The Transcendentals and Our Interior Sense of God.
  4. The five transcendental desires. The five transcendental desires are perfect truth, love, justice/goodness, beauty, and home/being. They each point to a transmaterial dimension of human consciousness (articulated by Plato, Platonists, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomists). Learn more about the desires in The 5 Transcendentals (and How They Provide Evidence for the Soul)



Happiness in the Fulfillment of Our Deepest Desires

From the above, we conclude that there is considerable evidence for our transcendental nature. And if we are transcendental beings, then it follows that we would have transcendental desires, and the fulfillment of these desires would lead to happiness. Conversely, their non-fulfillment will lead to unhappiness. (This is explained in another free article, “Escaping Your Personal Hell.”) 

It is important to note that we would not be able to have these transcendental desires if their source—perfect truth itself, perfect love itself, perfect justice (goodness) itself, and perfect beauty itself—were not present to us. This should give us a clue to the fact that our happiness does not lie in this world alone—but very probably in an absolute transcendent reality—Who alone can satisfy our desires for perfect truth, love, justice (goodness), beauty, and home.

Note: There is far more evidence for our transcendental nature not discussed here – for example, near-death experiences, Gödel’s Proof, heuristic notions, and David Chalmers’ “hard problem of consciousness.”


Up to this point, we have talked about four kinds of desire-happiness, but, as Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers noticed, they may be organized into four levels on the basis of their pervasiveness, endurance, and depth. Here is a brief explanation of these criteria.

Pervasiveness: How Far it Extends Beyond Self

Pervasiveness refers to “the degree to which the effects of activities associated with each kind of desire-happiness extend beyond the self.” So, for example, the effects of activities associated with the first kind of desire-happiness (say eating a good steak or buying some nice clothes) do not extend very far beyond the self. Similarly, the effects of the second kind of desire-happiness (winning a chess game, receiving an award, being acknowledged as intelligent) are also mostly confined to the self. Activities associated with the third kind of happiness (making a difference to someone or something beyond the self) are decidedly different. Instead of bringing the locus of control and the focus of attention to ourselves, we invest ourselves in the people and community beyond us. 

Thus, by definition, the third kind of happiness must be more pervasive than the first two. Finally, the fourth kind of happiness (concerned with transcendence) is concerned not only with the people and community around us but with the whole transcendent domain—God and the totality of all that is. When we invest ourselves in this transcendent domain (and/or the totality of all that is), we have an even more pervasive effect than with the third kind of happiness.

Endurance: How Long the Effects Last

The second criterion, endurance, refers to how long the effects of activities associated with a particular kind of happiness will last. So, for example, the effects of the activities associated with the first kind of happiness do not last very long (i.e., I eat a fine steak, but within an hour), I might be looking around for something else to eat. The effects of activities associated with the second kind of happiness can last longer than those of the first—the afterglow of receiving an award, winning a sports game, or achieving a milestone. 

The effects of activities associated with the third kind of happiness can last longer than the second—when we do something to improve the lives of others, these improvements can build relationships, networks, and social bonds, which can last much longer than the afterglow of accolades. Finally, the effects of activities associated with the fourth kind of happiness can last forever. So, for example, if we help someone to see their transcendental and eternal dignity (and help them to orient their lives toward this more pervasive and enduring end), it could have an eternal effect.


Depth: The Use of Intellectual, Creative, and Psychological Powers

The third criterion, depth, refers to the degree to which we use our intellectual, creative, and psychological powers. The first kind of happiness does not engage my higher creative intellectual and psychological powers to any meaningful degree. It is basically restricted to biological stimuli, kinesthetic stimuli, and material security and comfort. Activities associated with the second kind of happiness frequently engage both creative and intellectual powers to get ahead in the world, receive a promotion, and be admired. It generally requires an education.

Activities associated with the third kind of happiness not only require the engagement of our creative and intellectual powers but also entail the use of empathy and conscience, as well as our ability to form and carry out ideals. Finally, activities associated with the fourth kind of happiness engage all of our previous internal powers, as well as the five transcendental desires and our sense of the spiritual sacred.


From the information above, we can conclude that, in general, Level Two is more pervasive, enduring, and deep than Level One and Level Three more than Level Two, and Level Four even more than Level Three. For this reason, implicitly or explicitly, many of the thinkers cited above rank the levels of desire-happiness according to these criteria. This is particularly true with Plato in his tripartite soul (in The Republic), Aristotle in his ranking of the goods in the Nicomachean Ethics, St. Augustine in his Confessions, St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, Soren Kierkegaard in his ranking of the aesthetic, ethical, and transcendent levels (in Either Or), Martin Buber in his hierarchy of the I-it, I-thou, I-Thou relationships (in I and Thou), as well as most other religious existentialists (such as Gabriel Marcel, Karl Jaspers, and Max Scheler).

All the above-mentioned philosophers agree on two points—if we want to make the most of our lives (to live the fullest life possible), we will want to live for the most pervasive, enduring, and great effects of our internal powers. This would undoubtedly mean living for Levels Three and Four. Yet all of these philosophers would hasten to add that none of the levels should be neglected and that, to a certain extent, Maslow’s need hierarchy applies. 

For example, if we do not have some material security and comfort, we cannot pursue ego-comparative advantage, contributive-empathetic activities, and transcendent activities. Similarly, suppose we do not have some sense of our societal value (from acknowledgment, status, achievement, education, and even winning—the fruits of Level Two). In that case, we may not have the confidence and credibility to pursue a contributive, empathetic, and transcendent end. Levels Three and Four complement each other, enabling love to give an authentic ground to faith and faith to bring love to its perfect transcendent end. 

Note: For tips on how to move from level 2 to level 3, check out our article, “Getting Out of the Comparison Game—the Move to Level 3.” For tips on how to move from level 3 to level 4, see “Overcoming Cosmic Emptiness, Loneliness, and Alienation—the Move to Level 4.”

So there you have it. You need all four levels of happiness in your own life to be truly happy. And as previously mentioned, it is incumbent upon you to discover what your major desires are. However, you must first be aware of your complex self that desires truth, fairness, love, beauty, home, creativity, and transcendence. Only then can you truly define what drives you, what you yearn for, and what you seek for satisfaction and fulfillment. 

If you’re looking for a place to start, we would like to recommend taking our free Essential Modules course. The course not only includes a module on happiness but also probes into clues of our transcendence and, through science and reason, gives evidence of a Creator who loves you deeply.



Read Fr. Spitzer's book on satisfying our restless hearts!