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A man being happy while fishing.
Tim RyanApril 16, 20245 min read

Happiness and Technology: Level 1 and the Growth of Technology

The fulfillment of a Level 1 desire produces the most intense immediate gratification and is the easiest to satisfy. Thus, the temptations at Level 1 are most intense. If Level 1 happiness is dominant in my life, the result will often be some form of addiction. This addiction may not necessarily be as insidious as alcohol, drugs, pills, or gambling, but it can be as seemingly innocent as television, the internet, social media, shopping, or even work. The broad selection of apps on our “smart” phones these days can really exacerbate such addictions. 

We measure the quality of a desire fulfilled by how pervasive, enduring, and deep the resulting happiness is felt. Even though the happiness at Level 1 is more intense, it doesn’t last very long, so we are always looking for ways to get our next “hit” as soon as possible (thus the addiction). Modern technologies enable us to shorten the cycle between “hits.” 

Technology: Then and Now

Quick anecdote: My father had a substantial collection of hunting and fishing equipment. Although, upon reflection, in all my years growing up, when we’d go hunting or fishing, I never once saw my dad pick up a gun or fishing pole. I used to puzzle about that. Then, one day, it occurred to me:  growing up on a family farm in a small town during the Depression, hunting and fishing, particularly in the Winter, may not have been an option. It wasn’t considered recreation; it was a means of survival—another chore required to put food on the table for the family. Contrast that with today, when you can hop on your phone and order a front-door delivery of your favorite food within a ½ hour.

I’m not suggesting one form of satisfaction is better than the other. But this is a good illustration of what we’re talking about here. Fundamentally, there is no difference in motivation (i.e., if I’m hungry, I need/want to eat); the difference is in how that desire is fulfilled. In my dad’s situation, this desire was not satisfied as easily as it is today. There was a distinct element of discipline and delayed gratification. 

For many years, hunting and fishing were not an optional recreational activity—they were a necessary means of survival. In that case, certain technologies provided an opportunity to improve or ease our ability to survive, whether it be in the form of firearms, ammunition, knives, clothing, etc. Today, there are still some who rely on hunting and fishing for regular sustenance, and technology can assist in that task.

For the majority of people, however, in our society today, the cycle between need/desire and fulfillment is much shorter and doesn’t require nearly as much mental or physical energy. We are able to satisfy our Level 1 desires for food much more readily, so hunting and fishing have become more of a means for satisfying a different kind of Level 1 desire in the form of recreation. This drive also addresses some of our Level 2 status desires in the form of competition (i.e., who is most successful in their endeavors, putting trophies on the wall). This drive then becomes a justification for collecting more “toys,” for which technology is more than able to oblige, for example, that new bass boat, GPS, fish finders, latest in firearms, hunting property, etc. These days, a considerable amount of vacation time is used up during hunting season. As a result, much of our excess mental and physical energy now goes into more satisfaction of Level 1 and Level 2 desires. 

How Technology Went from Beneficial to Distracting

Rather than simply an ability to indulge more deeply in Level 1 and Level 2, one of the advantages of technology was touted to be that we can focus more time and energy on the “higher” things of life (i.e., intellectual and/or spiritual pursuits). This notion was reflected in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), drafted at the Second Vatican Council in referring to technology and knowledge:

“ . . . the human spirit, being less subjected to material things, can be more easily drawn to the worship and contemplation of the Creator.”

Given the data we shared previously regarding the drop in Church membership over the past couple of decades, I think we can assume that we are not spending our spare time on spiritual pursuits. While we may see a few technologies out there to help temper our Level 1 desires, it’s easier and more profitable to encourage and indulge Level 1 and Level 2 desires. We have come to trust more in how technology and science can make us happy rather than God. 

Pitfalls of the Growth of Technology

We don’t like to be uncomfortable, and we don’t like to wait to alleviate our discomfort. Humanity's ability to advance technology has given us the means to minimize or even eliminate our discomfort more quickly in many situations. At first blush, this seems to be a very noble and sensible objective; however, some spiritual writers suggest that when we try to get out of uncomfortable or even painful situations too quickly, we fail to learn what that experience has to teach us in the greater scheme of things.

One of Fr. Spitzer’s core lessons in understanding the Four Levels of Happiness is something that Plato saw over 2000 years ago: to experience deeper and more enduring happiness, we often need to forgo the immediate gratification of Level 1 comfort/”happiness.” We need to contemplate the potential implications of the immediate gratification that technology [of our own making] offers at the expense of deeper and more enduring happiness. Jeremiah in the Old Testament warns of such temptation:

"Thus says the LORD: Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD."
–Jeremiah 17:5

How do we avoid the pitfalls of technology? 

Temperance is the key. We all want and, yes, even need Level 1 satisfaction, but it can not dominate our lives, and thus, we shouldn’t allow technology to encourage a Level 1 dominant life. If we only seek happiness at Level 1, we will never get to experience the more profound and more enduring forms of happiness that are found in Level 3 contribution and Level 4 transcendence (i.e., relationship with God). Thus, we need to become more attuned to what is motivating our actions and thus framing our sense of purpose in life. We need to consider the ramifications of focusing on our short-term desires vs the value of more profound and more enduring happiness. An essential tool Fr. Spitzer promotes in this endeavor is the contemplation of those higher things in life; thus, we turn again to the Examen prayer for that awareness.


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.