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A woman happy and looking in a mirror.
Tim RyanMay 3, 20245 min read

Happiness and Technology: Level Two and Being Better than Others

Closely related to our Level 1 desire for survival (food, drink, shelter, procreation), both individually and as a species, is our Level 2 desire for dominance. Regardless of which theory of evolution you subscribe to, the observable evidence—even just by watching the countless National Geographic and Disney+ specials on the animal kingdom—shows that the strongest tend to dominate both within and outside the species, and this was likely the case with humans thousands of years ago. 

If so, something built into us continues to prompt us to want to be better than others—even today. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. God put it in our collective heart to be fruitful and multiply. And, as we alluded to in the previous post, the best hunters and fishers would typically flourish in early human history. But has this drive to be the best—or at least better—gotten out of control a bit?

Maslow, Modern Technology, and Rising to be Better than Others

Our consciousness raises us humans above the “lower” animals. As psychologist Abraham Maslow posited in the mid-20th century, humans have a hierarchy of needs. Maslow states that our most fundamental need/desire is for survival, which requires food, drink, and safety (Level 1 desire). Part of that need to survive required being the best/strongest (Level 2 desire). However, Maslow then says that once we satisfy that desire for survival and safety, our motive shifts to something more profound (i.e., the need for belonging and love and relationship (Level 3), and ultimately self-actualization, and some have even included transcendence (Level 4) in this structure).

How has technology helped us or stalled us along this path? Early on, with the advent of better tools, we could master agriculture, hunting, and fishing, which allowed us to produce more food. This productivity then required us to create new technology/knowledge to enable us to preserve that food for future use. With the advances in materials and building tools, we could create more substantial shelters, and our weapons allowed us to defend ourselves. So, with our survival and safety needs of the day largely fulfilled, we can focus more on the future, which will prompt even deeper desires within us.

Being Better Than Others Through the The Image of Self

The challenge today is that we can also see that, in some cases, technology has caused a regression that holds us back from seeking the satisfaction of our deeper desires. Case in point: our “smart” phones and social media! We’ve all heard the reports, particularly regarding our youth

This obsession with “likes” and selfies has enabled us to pay more strict attention to ourselves; how many of us have almost run somebody over in the parking lot because their face was buried in their phone, and they just kept walking? This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, though. 

Ponder this for a moment: before the invention of the high reflective mirror in about the fifteenth or sixteenth century, I would not even have known what I really looked like! Before that, I could have used a piece of highly polished metal or seen a reflection in the water, but both were imperfect representations. If I were wealthy enough, I could commission someone to paint my portrait, but how would I really know for sure whether they captured my essence? Even after the invention of the mirror, you had to be wealthy for a while to afford one. Sociologists suggest that before this ability to focus on ourselves, our identity was primarily rooted in that of the community. 

Contrast that with today when you can’t go a few feet without passing a window or a mirror where you can catch a glimpse of yourself to check your hair or clothes. We can spend hours going through pictures either in boxes or on our phones and fretting about how I looked in that photo. Our technology draws our identity right back to within our own ego and lights up those synapses that make us want to be the strongest, smartest, and best-looking. Initially, that was because we wanted to attract a mate; now, it is primarily just because.

How to Overcome the Need to Be Better Than Others

Here, humility is the key. We all want and need Level 2 satisfaction. We need some degree of control, credibility, and self-confidence, or we likely wouldn’t be able to make the optimal positive difference we’re called to make in the world at Level 3. So, we don’t want to get rid of our Level 2 drivers; we just don’t want them to dominate our lives for our gratification. While he was president of Gonzaga University, Fr. Spitzer said,

“Every student ought to be able to have sufficient status to have credibility, sufficient admiration, and admirability to have credibility, sufficient esteem to have self-esteem, and sufficient power and control to do good things with their lives. Of course, I want these things for my students. I want them to have them optimally, but I don’t want them to live for these things as an end in and of themselves because it will destroy their work lives. I will destroy their relationships, and it will destroy them.” 

In the Four Levels of Happiness, Spitzer says we need to reorient our Level 2 drivers and concretize them in Level 3 to avoid this destructive Level 2 dominance. We must contemplate our view of meaning: How can I make an optimal positive difference in the lives of my family and friends, my organizations, my Church, and the broader society? We must also be intentional and diligent about building and maintaining our Level 3 habits. 

Again, this is where contemplation and the Examen prayer play a pivotal role in our daily lives to help us to seek a more pervasive, enduring, and deep form of happiness. Although not to be too hard on ourselves for creating new technology, the mere fact that you can read this on a website and click on a link to see the Examen prayer is proof of how technology can also be a great contributor to our discovery of more profound and more satisfying forms of happiness.



Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan has worked for over thirty years in the secular workplace as an information technology professional in both consultative and executive roles. Throughout his career, he recognized the importance of relationships and a sense of purpose in the effective performance of organizations. This recognition evolved into a set of skills related to strategic planning and organizational development. He soon recognized how these principles coalesced with theological values that extol the need for a shared vision, values, and meaning. His recognition led him to an academic pursuit, resulting in a Master of Pastoral Studies degree from Loyola University New Orleans, emphasizing spirituality in the workplace and marketplace ministry. Tim has been trained in Fr. Spitzer's content for 15 years and started working for the Spitzer Center in 2017.