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The art (and science) of true happiness



Maggie Ciskanik - published on 02/22/19

Everyone wants to be happy, but it helps to know what that really means.

Did you know that eating chocolate, strawberries, and even spinach, can make you feel happy? Similarly, the simple act of smiling can elevate your mood.

From Oprah to Oxford, you can take a happiness quiz or fill out a questionnaire to find out exactly how happy you are.

Everyone wants to be happy. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said that happiness is the only thing we choose for its own sake. But do we even know what it really is?

What science says about happiness

According to research, there are circuits in the brain that process our emotions (in the amygdala, hippocampus, and brainstem). Research also indicates that exercise, sleep, and good nutrition can affect the release of endorphins, stimulating the feeling of happiness. (Watch this short,

below explaining all this.)

Science can tell us what is happening in our bodies when we feel happy and even what foods and supplements can “elevate our mood.” But is feeling good or happy the same as being happy? What about suffering? What kind of living will produce lasting happiness? Have you ever thought about it clearly? And the ultimate question: is there a road map to follow on our quest for happiness?

Our search for happiness

Fr. Robert Spitzer wrote an entire book on happiness, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts. Furthermore, his recently launched Credible Catholic website contains an essential module on Happiness. In both of these resources, Fr. Spitzer shows that authentic happiness is far richer, and more satisfying, than the modern usage of the term seems to imply. He also provides a practical roadmap for a happier life and points the sure way to eternal happiness.

The 4 levels of happiness in a nutshell

Fr. Spitzer’s roadmap is based on his Four Levels of Happiness. His four levels are actually a synthesis of teachings on happiness from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others. For more on this, watch this

and read the brief descriptions of each level below.

The first level of happiness is pleasure and is based on external, material causes that come to us through our senses (eating a delicious meal, driving a nice car, etc).

The second level of happiness is ego-comparative happiness, and it’s more complex since it springs from our self-consciousness—our awareness of our awareness—and may engage our higher faculties (like mastering a skill), but it can also create a sense of competition or comparison (Who is prettier? More talented? Smarter? Better at sports?).

The third level of happiness, contributive happiness, has its source in empathy and our conscience, both of which help us to recognize the dignity and value of the “other,” and often requires the full engagement of our hearts, minds, and ingenuity to make a difference.

The highest or fourth level, transcendent happiness, flows from our desire for the sacred, as well as our desires for unconditional truth, love, justice-goodness, beauty, and being (home).

4 Questions to ask to jumpstart your journey to happiness

Once you learn to recognize the four kinds of happiness, you can take a look at yourself and, after some quiet reflection, answer the following questions. Remember, there are no “right” answers, and it may take some time to get the clarity needed before moving forward. Also, remember, all four levels are important: it is a matter of keeping them in balance and in the right priority.

What kind of purpose am I looking for?

Are you focused on success? On being admired? On a list of accomplishments? Do you frequently ask, “Who is doing better than me? Are my weaknesses obvious?” Or do you ask, “How can I make a positive difference in the lives of others?”

What am I looking for in others?

Do you look for the good news or the bad news in others? To look for the good news, focus an any positive characteristic (small acts of kindness, the good things they are trying to accomplish, etc), no matter how small. This can help you to grow in empathy and appreciation for others.

What am I looking for in myself?

The way we judge others is often the way we judge ourselves. Do you value friendship, empathy, honesty, humility, and compassion? Look for the good news in yourself, then reinforce the person you want to be using visualization: picture yourself being virtuous, generous, determined, and so on. You can adopt one of the saints—or Jesus Himself—as your role model.

What kind of freedom am I seeking?

Our view of freedom shapes the choices we make, so it is important to understand the difference between “freedom from” (freedom from constraints) and “freedom for” (freedom to pursue one’s potential). “Freedom for” opens the space to sacrifice the lower levels of happiness for something greater (for help with this process, check out page 19 of this guide).

Let the journey begin

With new wisdom and insight, you can be motivated by a new sense of identity, purpose, and spirit. You can make a difference in the lives of your family, communities, the workplace, and the world.

Through our Christian faith, we know and recognize the path to the kind of happiness that is most enduring, satisfying, and deep ”life everlasting”—the only kind that can satisfy our restless hearts.

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


Read more:
Is the way we seek happiness today self-defeating?


Read more:
How an obsessive focus on personal happiness actually has the opposite effect

Personal GrowthPsychology
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