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A table scattered with technology.
Tim RyanApril 5, 20245 min read

Happiness and Technology: A Series

We in modern society have come to accept the speed at which technology evolves. Consider for a moment that for thousands of years leading up to around the year 1900, we relied largely on human and animal power for work and transportation. Then, suddenly, within the span of a couple of decades a major portion of civilized society was relying on automobiles, electricity, and telephones. Very shortly after the invention of the “horseless carriage,” Orville and Wilbur Wright mastered powered flight in 1903. Within a lifespan of that, we were putting human beings in rockets and sending them to the moon

Since the invention of the telephone, we’ve gone from wired party lines that supported a neighborhood to each of us having our own individual wireless device that also takes pictures, plays music, and provides access to pretty much any piece of information we desire. We’ve all heard the remark that each of us holds in our hands, in the form of our smartphones, much more computing power than what took us to the moon over 50 years ago.

Correlation of Growth in Happiness and Technology

Over the last two or three generations, we have come to rely on technology for labor-saving devices, transportation, communication, entertainment, and, maybe most notably, medicine to improve the quality of our lives and overall well-being—at least as we perceive it. That said, it is also important to note the decline in religious affiliation over the course of those generations, particularly most recently. Gallup polls show church membership has gone down sharply over the past two decades.

Is there a correlation between the growth in technology and the decline in church membership? Hard to say, but I think it’s incumbent upon us to explore that possibility. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to embark on that exploration using happiness as our guide. Why happiness, you might ask? We are subscribing to Aristotle’s premise that happiness is the one thing we all seek in and for itself, and everything we do is for the sake of happiness. In other words, our fundamental motivation for everything we do is rooted in our desire for happiness. Our Catholic tradition confirms that premise through the wisdom of St. Augustine:

"We all want to live happily, in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated."
—Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, para. 1718)

Has this growth in technology enhanced the quality of our happiness, or has it distorted our perception of happiness? Have we turned to technology to replace God and our spiritual life? Where is this rate of technological change taking us? We’ve all heard the debates regarding the value versus the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. Some have predicted what is referred to as the human/machine singularity, that is the merging of humans and machines potentially within the next 30 years or so to enable immortality. What does that mean in terms of our relationship with God and the state of our soul

First, a Look at the Four Levels of Happiness

If we can discover an excellent 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). Unhappiness would be the nonfulfillment of desire. Therefore, it is our responsibility to discover our significant desires—what drives us, what we yearn for, and what we seek for satisfaction and fulfillment.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers (and later psychologists) decoded four significant kinds of desire—and if happiness is the fulfillment of desire, then we can also say four kinds of happiness. 

The fulfillment of these four kinds of desires gives rise to four kinds of happiness, and which faculties within us bring them about are as follows:

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

Each one of them is active in us at all times, but one of them is going to dominate and thus determine the quality (i.e., depth and endurance) of our happiness and ultimately drive our sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Happiness and Technology: A Look Forward

Over the course of this series, we’ll explore whether our search for true happiness is being aided or hampered by the advancement of technology in our world today. The fundamental question is whether we are using technology to lead us to God or away from God, believing that we don’t need God, and whether we can better “do it” ourselves. Hmmm, the latter kind of sounds like the sin of Adam and Eve, doesn’t it? For example:

  • Am I using technology to indulge my most basic Level 1 desire, such as binge-watching, pornography, or gambling, or do I maybe have a diet and exercise or prayer app on my phone to help temper those desires? 
  • Am I allowing social media to dictate my self-image at Level 2? How many “likes” am I getting!?
  • Or do I use social media to stay in contact with distant friends and relatives or as a tool to support a social service or church ministry at Level 3?
  • Probably the most insidious challenge we face comes at Level 4—regarding our desire for transcendence. How are we being tempted by the promises of medicine, artificial intelligence, and the human/machine singularity when it comes to enhancing our lives and even offering the possibility of immortality?

We will explore how the Four Levels of Happiness help us discern where to find the most pervasive, enduring, and deep form of happiness/joy.



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.