What does it meant to be happy, and is our culture getting that all wrong? Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, thinks that may be the case.
A prolific author and speaker, Spitzer explores what happiness means in his latest book, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts. First, we seek happiness in external material possessions. This can range from acquiring that sought-after gadget or enjoying a fabulous meal. There’s nothing wrong with this type of happiness, but it’s fleeting.
The second level of happiness relies on self-awareness.
We can actually be aware of being aware of our awareness, because of that we create our own inner world, inner universe. You juxtapose it to the outer universe,” he said. “You want the locus of control to be in you, not outside, so you want to be better … we’d like to be smarter or we’d like to be more athletic.”
It’s at this phase — one that involves the ego — that people begin to compare themselves to others, competing and finding worth in trumping their peers. It’s something that Spitzer said can “become an end of itself” — and he believes that it’s rampant in the current culture.
Imagine being 17 years old and graduating in the middle of your high school class. You’re bound for community college … and you think you’re a failure. You compare yourself to the valedictorian and the girl with the athletic scholarship. Your whole world – high school – has deemed that you are mediocre at best. And happiness shall never be yours. Spitzer says far too many of us get stuck here, and even worse, we begin to think that God looks at us as a failure as well.
Unless we move into the next two levels (what Spitzer terms “contributive” and “transcendence”) we our stuck in this adolescent vision of failure. In the “contributive” phase, we learn empathy and conscience, which moves us away from a selfish viewpoint.
The fourth and final level of happiness is what Spitzer calls “transcendence,” which involves a belief in God — and, in particular, Jesus Christ. The priest said that it is essential to help people get to the third or fourth level of happiness, or else there are personal consequences.
“We better help people get to level three and level four, because if we don’t, they’ll never find true happiness,” he said. “Second, we’re going to let them wallow in inferiority, self-alienation, ego rage, ego blame. … let’s not leave the culture in misery.”
Spitzer says that by remaining in the first two levels, our culture is seeing the destruction of not just individuals, but families. We will be a culture of perpetual childishness (“I want this! I want that!”) and adolescence (“No one understands me. No one is like me. I don’t measure up.”). And that type of culture just won’t work.