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Cover of Four Levels of Happiness Book.
Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.June 26, 20246 min read

Four Levels of Happiness to the Rescue

“People are made for happiness. Rightly, then, you thirst for happiness. Christ has the answer to this desire of yours. But he asks you to trust him.”
—St. John Paul II

Multiple psychological studies have linked a person’s sense of happiness and well-being to one’s health and relationships. Your sense of happiness can even make you a better person! And yet, recent studies appear to show that “unhappiness is the norm in our world.”

Maybe you are wondering why we should care about happiness.

Many people might dismiss the idea of “happiness'' as a fantasy or simply a preoccupation of “first world” Western culture. Some might even view the notion with distrust: we are not meant to be happy in this world but in the next, right? But the empirical evidence is in. The ability to be happy or “content with life” leads to better physical and mental health, to better marriages, to better family and community relationships. —Living with Happiness and Purpos

Happiness quizzes abound from Oprah to Oxford, but after reading Fr. Robert Spitzer’s new book The Four Levels of Happiness: Your Path to Personal Flourishing, you will not only understand your longing for happiness, you will have a roadmap to help you get there. 

Cover of Four Levels of Happiness: your Path to Personal Flourishing.Click to purchase Fr. Spitzer's new book

Fr. Spitzer intends to convince you that these four levels of happiness exist. Using experts in philosophy, science, and psychology, he takes you on a revealing journey, in which you can take stock of your goals and the decisions you make to get there.

What Are the Four Levels of Human Happiness?

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, happiness is the one thing that everyone seeks. So if we want to be happy, Fr. Spitzer insists we ought to know what we are seeking.

Fr. Spitzer distinguishes four desires or levels of happiness.

Our first desire is for material comforts (pleasures of the senses). This desire, at its basic level, includes the desire for food, shelter, clothing, affection, and procreation–things necessary for our survival. One can indulge this desire in excesses of all kinds, but the satisfaction they bring only lasts as long as our senses are engaged.

The second desire is to succeed (ego-comparative happiness). It’s more complex since it springs from our self-consciousness—our awareness of our awareness—and it requires using our higher faculties (like mastering a skill or developing a talent), but it also can create an unhealthy sense of competition or comparison (Who is prettier? More talented? Smarter? Better at sports?). 

The third desire is for other people to be happy (contributive happiness). It is rooted in empathy and our conscience, both of which help us to recognize the dignity and value of the “other.” It enables us to give up our own needs and desires so that others can fulfill theirs. This may not happen often enough, but when it does it engages our hearts and minds in the effort to make a difference. In other words, to live with a sense of purpose.

The highest desire is for “something beyond this present life.” Often labeled by materialists as “wishful thinking” this fourth level, transcendent happiness, flows from our desire for the sacred, as well as our desires for ever greater truth, love, justice-goodness, and beauty.

The first two levels have a “trap” that can prevent progress on the road to happiness. But even reaching Level 3 is not enough to attain lasting happiness. Fr. Spitzer compares the levels to a set of steps:

"And to reach real happiness, we have to climb that stairway. We can’t ignore the lowest step completely–material things are necessary to keep us going. But we can’t stop at that step, or the second, or even the third. We have to go all the way up to that fourth step, or there will always be something missing, some unfulfilled desire that keeps us from being really happy."
The Four Levels of Happiness: Your Path to Personal Flourishing (p. 18)

To help you see where you are on the path to happiness or where you might be “stuck,” Fr. Spitzer suggests asking yourself four questions. By pondering your answers over time and answering them honestly, you will understand the motivating factors behind many of your choices and behaviors. This process can help you recognize the sources of frustration and unhappiness in your life, opening up a roadmap for change.

Should Agnostics or Materialists Care About Transcendent Happiness?

Since Fr. Spitzer’s intention is to convince his readers that these four desires are important for everyone, it should be no surprise that the fourth level of happiness covers several chapters. Today, there are many people who do not believe in a God who transcends time and space or in an existence beyond the present life. For this group, being interested in pursuing transcendent happiness is going to be a challenge. Is there any evidence pointing to a transcendent God's existence and continued existence beyond natural death?

Fr. Spitzer makes his case for an intelligent Transcendent Being using scientific evidence from contemporary physics and cosmology. This evidence not only points to a beginning of the universe but reveals that it is actually “fine-tuned” for the creation of life. As for the possibility that we survive bodily death, Fr. Spitzer reviews the medical evidence for existence beyond death through multiple accounts of near-death experiences

What other evidence is there for the existence of a transcendent dimension to reality? Fr. Spitzer points out four desires and five feelings within the human person that tell us quite a bit about the possibility of what might be “out there” beyond material reality

The Four Levels of Happiness: Your Path to Personal Flourishing is a Guide

“It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you the shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improve yourselves and society making the world more human and fraternal.”
St. John Paul II's address on World Youth Day August 19, 2000

This book does more than provide evidence for the importance of happiness to human thriving. It is a guide. With thoughtful questions to ponder at each level, the reader can contemplate the direction of his life with fresh eyes.

Cover of Four Levels of Happiness: your Path to Personal Flourishing.Click to purchase Fr. Spitzer's new book

Consider it a life “examen.” What are your priorities? How do you see others around you? How important is your relationship with God? Not only will you better understand happiness, but you will also acquire life-changing insights into your deepest longings and desires–and how to flourish along the way.


Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.

Maggie Ciskanik, MS, MSc, has been a neurological nurse, an educator, and a writer. Her interests, life experience, and education have put her at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and the science of human flourishing. With a B.A. in Philosophy, an MS in Nursing, and an MSc in Applied Neuroscience, she thrives on sharing scientific information from a faith perspective. She has written short biographies of many scientists, keeps up with astronomy news, and explores topics such as purpose, intelligence, free will, and consciousness. She is a regular contributor to the Magis Center for Faith and Reason, Purposeful Universe and has guest posts on Aleteia, the Vatican Observatory, and the Templeton Foundation.