At the Magis Center, we are particularly interested in the human search for happiness. Magis Center President Fr. Robert Spitzer has even created a roadmap for happiness called the Four Levels of Happiness. A synthesis of teachings from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others, the Four Levels of Happiness show that each level grows in pervasiveness, endurance, and depth.
A closer look at the Four Levels of Happiness reveals that there’s more to this roadmap than meets the eye: as our view of happiness goes, so also goes our view of love.
In his book, The Light Shines On in the Darkness, Fr. Spitzer explains that each of the four levels of happiness gives rise to one of the four correlating levels of relationship.
The Four Levels of Happiness
Let’s back up for a second. What are the Four Levels of Happiness? See this article for a detailed look, or the chart below for a brief explanation:
In addition to four levels of happiness, the Church has long recognized four levels of relationship in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2:
- Non-personal things
- Other created persons
These are sometimes called the four harmonies or the four justices, but regardless of their name they are grounded in relationship, i.e., how do I perceive and act towards myself, other things, other people, and ultimately God?
Now, if we were to look at the four levels in terms of their correlating levels of relationship, it would look something like this:
Level 1: Pleasure: Focus is on relationship with other things
Level 2: Comparative: Focus is on relationship with self (ego based)
Level 3: Contributive: Focus is on relationship with others
Level 4: Transcendent: Focus is on relationship with God
Because mapping out level 1 relationality is sort of a dead-end (it’s hard to have a real relationship with Funfetti cake and other impersonal objects), we’ll focus on levels 2, 3, and 4. This post is about relationship level 2 and the problem with making level 2 an end in itself. Further posts will consider levels 3 and 4.
The Comparison Game
Level 2 happiness is ego-based. That means it thinks of the self in light of how it stands up to the rest of the world. If we have a dominant level 2 view of happiness, we derive pleasure from being respected for our good looks, wealth, fame, business and/or academic and/or athletic achievements, etc.
Happiness from such talents and achievements is not bad in and of itself, and sometimes a little healthy competition is even a good thing. However, when being or having “the best” is our end goal, we make the relationship with our self the most important relationship in our lives (these people are called self-absorbed and/or narcissists). This leads to a “me against the world” attitude, or as Fr. Spitzer calls , “the comparison game.” In this game there are 3 types of self-classifications:
- Losers—those who believe everyone is against them and that no matter how hard they try, everyone else will always be richer, more popular, better looking, and smarter. Whether it’s awards, accolades, or Instagram followers, losers can never get as many as their peers, and this causes them to be lonely, fearful, and resentful.
- Winners—those who have things like Nobels, Heismans, Emmys, and dresses that cost more than most people’s first car. Though winning is always fun, staying a winner is tough to keep up. Someone else will always come along to take your place. If winners really did “have it all,” then so manycelebrities andathletes wouldn’t have to admit to being unhappy. Being a winner can still leave you lonely, fearful, and resentful—the very same characteristics of those who self-classify as losers.
- In-betweeners—If you’re like most people, you are an in-betweener. One moment you feel that things are going your way, but then something bad happens (e.g., flunk a test, get reprimanded by the boss, bad dermatology day), and you’re totally bummed about it. When you put so much stake in the opinion of others, it leaves you feel lonely, fearful, and resentful.
Do you see a theme here with the “lonely, fearful, and resentful” emotions? They show up in all three classifications of the comparison game. Why is that? Because in the comparison game, the relationship with ego overshadows all other relationships. Furthermore, the comparison game puts all the emphasis on the “thingafied” and esteemable self and completely ignores the loving, lovable, and transcendent self.
What’s your personal comparison game?
Most winners and in-betweeners don’t aspire to win the 28 gold medals of Michael Phelps orJohn Bardeen‘s not one, but TWO Nobel Prizes in Physics. However, all of us are inescapablyhard-wired to compare. In big dreams, it might look like being the president of our company or becoming a social media influencer. In our daily lives, it might look more like wearing a more expensive watch than your friend’s or having a more HGTV-like kitchen than the neighbors. Whatever shape it takes, the comparison game is always nudging us to join in.
Teddy Roosevelt famously asserted that “comparison is the thief of joy.” Fr. Spitzer would add that “the comparison game is the thief of happiness levels 3 and 4″—and that it can rob us of our most precious relationships.
When it comes to lasting happiness and fulfilling relationships, the only winning move in the comparison game is not to play.
Stay tuned for future posts mapping out levels 3 and 4 in terms of our relationships with others and God.
Prayer to St. Jude for healing relationships