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Tim RyanMay 23, 20245 min read

Happiness and Technology: Level Three and Overcoming Ego

When our default orientation regarding happiness is at Level 1 or 2, our perception is that the world exists to serve us and to satisfy our desires; we refer to this as “ego in.” As many philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and scientists have discovered, though, what sets us humans apart from the lower animals is a deeper and more profound desire to make, as Fr. Spitzer puts it, an optimal positive difference (OPD) in the world. 

At that point, our perception shifts to the attitude that we exist to serve the world; we refer to this as “ego out.” I know instinctively that serving others and making the world a better place for me, having lived in it, is a much more satisfying form of happiness that is more pervasive, enduring, and deep. But it is not as easy to satisfy as our Levels 1 and 2 wants, and, as we’ve seen already, technology makes it even easier to indulge our Levels 1 and 2 desires. 

Thus, to experience this more satisfying happiness at Level 3, we must become more self-aware, intentional, and disciplined to habituate Level 3 practices, particularly in response to the technology that surrounds us today.

Technology Stressing the Ego

As we explored in the introduction to this series, humanity since the end of the 19th Century has experienced the most profound societal and technological change worldwide than the human race has ever known. As a society, we were caught a bit off guard as to how to deal with all of this change. 

Alvin Toffler coined a “new” phrase with his 1970 book, Future Shock, in which he reflects on the stress that a fast rate of social and technological change puts on individuals and on society as a whole. In such cases, I believe that our reflex reaction is to use technology to indulge our Level 1 and 2 desires for immediate gratification and prestige because those are the easiest to satisfy. We need to be more aware and deliberate in the face of rapid change. Pope St. John XXIII, I believe, was inspired in responding to this dilemma. His pontificate was right smack in the heart of this boom in the mid-20th Century on the heels of World War II, the nuclear bomb, and the rise of Socialism. In his encyclical letter Mater Et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) leading up to the Second Vatican Council, he reflects on the challenges of the changes in the worldwide economy, Socialism, nuclear weapons, and the role of advancing science and technology. 

This, I suggest, framed much of the impetus for the work of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s as evidenced in the council’s pastoral letter Gaudium et Spes, The Church in the Modern World, which speaks to the challenge of advancing technology both in terms of its value and its threat. Technology has great potential in helping us to achieve our Level 3 motives:

When man develops the earth by the work of his hands or with the aid of technology, in order that it might bear fruit and become a dwelling worthy of the whole human family, and when he consciously takes part in the life of social groups, he carries out the design of God manifested at the beginning of time, that he should subdue the earth, perfect creation, and develop himself. At the same time he obeys the commandment of Christ that he places himself at the service of his brethren.

However, we need to be vigilant not to allow these advances to cause us to fall into what Spitzer calls the Category Error in which we seek perfect and unconditional truth in human knowledge and systems, and the council goes on to say in Gaudium et Spes:

Indeed, today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data and an agnosticism about everything else. The methods of investigation that these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth. By virtue of their methods, these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things. Indeed, the danger is present that man, confiding too much in the discoveries of today, may think that he is sufficient unto himself and no longer seek the higher things.

Can Technology Help Us Overcome Ego?

Does our modern knowledge and technology lead us outward (ego out)? Do we use it to place ourselves at the service of our brothers and sisters? Or does it tempt us to turn inward (ego in), thinking that we are sufficient unto ourselves? 

Technology can offer some notable advantages in helping us achieve our Level 3 desires. For example:

  • In our churches, the addition of audio/visual capabilities, parish websites, and, as we saw during Covid, the ability to live stream masses offers a tremendous ability to spread the Gospel.
  • In a Four Levels of Happiness seminar I facilitated a few years ago, one of the participants shared that he liked working out at the gym; it was his Level 1 and 2 indulgence. When he was older, his son also wanted to start working out. During some father/son time at the gym, the dad instructs the son on the equipment and technique and ultimately presents an opportunity for a next-level relationship.
  • Many people enjoy golf and like to buy the latest equipment and compete. They find some pleasure in simply going out to play but notice how many charitable golf events you run across these days. People find deeper satisfaction in applying their Level 1 and 2 activities to something that benefits others, i.e., Level 3 (many say that golf is a great source of humility as well). The same dynamic applies to those who like their motorcycles. How many “charity rides” do you see these days?

Thus, as Fr. Spitzer says, we don’t want to eliminate our Level 1 and 2 desires, but we do need to re-orient them to Level 3 (and 4). So, again, we come back to the need for self-awareness, contemplation of our motives, and a sense of meaning in life. Spitzer recommends an exercise where I specifically contemplate my view of meaning (ego out) and ask myself the following question:

How can I, with my talents, my time, and my energy, make an optimal positive difference, starting with the most intimate: my family and friends, my colleagues at work, my church, my community, and the culture and society around me? 

When I answer this question, I can say, “For this I came!” This becomes my identity statement. This is what I can contemplate in my daily Examen prayer.


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.