ROTTMAN: A perspective on happiness

Thinking critically on what 'happy' really means

It is quite reasonable to view life through happiness since ultimately all humans want is to be happy. Yes, I understand that humans are also endowed with absolute freedom, and therefore you might out of general principle say “well I don’t want to be happy”; I would argue in response that you would not make such a claim in the first place if you didn’t derive some satisfaction from defying me — but to each their own.

Although I don’t have the space or time to write about my entire theory on life and reality, I will offer the lens through which I view life and reality, and advocate that you also use this lens — the lens of happiness — to the same extent that I do.

Happiness is much more nuanced than we immediately realize. Happiness arises from taking my first sip of the day’s coffee; however, happiness also arises from caring for my family or lending a sympathetic ear to a troubled friend — but while I derive happiness from both actions, I feel a deeper sense of fulfillment from the latter. To account for this, and to clarify what I mean by the lens of happiness, I present the four levels of happiness, taught to me some years ago, and originally conceived by one Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, a man of the cloth whose ideas apply just as well to the most secular of lifestyles.

Happiness level one is happiness derived from material objects: food, money, clothes, the latest iPhone, physical stuff and physical pleasure. By no means are these things inherently “bad” in any way — it is good and healthy to fulfill the needs of our bodies and normal to gain some satisfaction from material possessions. It is unhealthy, however, to focus on happiness one as a chief end; greed and gluttony are examples of abuse at this level.

Happiness level two is happiness derived from personal, individual accomplishment, things which gratify our ego: grades, athletic performance, a promotion or raise at a job, anything that arises from personal merits and talents. In the same way that it is important to listen to the needs of our physical body, it is also important that we posses a certain level of self-esteem and confidence in our person and our abilities, and that we have a healthy drive to accomplish our personal goals. However, a worldview focused on happiness two can lead to arrogance, anxiety, frustration and self-centeredness.

Happiness level three is happiness derived from giving ourselves and our talents to others: acts of service, caring for our sick friends and family, listening to or aiding our loved ones throughout any obstacles they might face, even simply being with someone can constitute level three. While such acts are of great concern towards the development and progress of culture and society, even viewing happiness three as the be-all end-all for human existence leads to frustration with the world and society and a cynical worldview as a result of natural human fallibility — in service of others, we can be taken advantage of, and in turn our friends and family can let us down. Believe me, I am often the biggest culprit of falling into such a negative worldview, and moving past it is sometimes one of the most difficult struggles we can face.

Finally, happiness level four is happiness that comes from the ultimate, perfect and highest truth, justice, beauty, love, goodness, etc. Does that sound incredibly abstract and somewhat ridiculous? It is indeed a hard concept to grapple with. Think of it this way: If all the lower levels are an imperfect happiness, then it would stand to reason that the highest level of happiness is a perfect happiness — even if such happiness is more theoretical than tangible. Indeed, there are rational arguments that such a happiness may not exist at all. Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia, human flourishing and the goal of practical and ethical philosophy, is also helpful for understanding happiness level four, as both refer to the highest human good.

The four levels of happiness are collectively one of the most powerful tools for coming to terms with oneself and the reality that surrounds us all.

Though living for the highest human good is certainly a popular goal, there was, is and likely will forever be much philosophical and religious debate on what exactly the highest human good or happiness is or how to attain it, if that is even possible during earthly existence. For Spitzer, a Roman Catholic, happiness four is achieved through submission to God so that He might perfect us in love, goodness and truth. In Christianity, eternal life — and happiness four — is promised only by following Jesus Christ, but even within and between Christian sects there is debate on if ultimate happiness is something that can be achieved now or something promised in the afterlife. Happiness four is certainly not only a dialogue held only within Christianity either; in Buddhism the concept of Nirvana is very much a happiness four in its own right. Aristotle as well as his Stoic contemporaries place virtue at the center of their discussion of eudaimonia, which I previously linked to happiness four. Since antiquity the debate surrounding happiness four has been ongoing, producing few and unsatisfying answers.

Despite these heavy philosophical questions surrounding the highest good, living by the four levels of happiness can orient your worldview and lifestyle in a healthy way. Whatever you might believe about the highest good and happiness, by focusing on it, the rest of your life falls healthily into place. You can recognize things for what they truly are, and realize what you will gain or lose from pursuing certain ends over others, and what in your life is truly important to you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

I cannot force any worldview upon you, but the four levels of happiness are collectively one of the most powerful tools for coming to terms with oneself and the reality that surrounds us all. Happiness is, after all, one of the most important ideas we can think about, and the way in which we think about it affects not only our own lives but the lives of those who live among us. Therefore, being able to think about happiness as critically and as clearly as possible drastically affects ourselves and society, hopefully for the better. In the busyness of our everyday lives, it is easy to forget what actually matters. Living a truly happy and fulfilling life is no easy calling, but we have tools that illuminate the path towards living it — and hopefully, I have provided you with another one.

Dominic Rottman is a first-year in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at dominic.t.rottman@vanderbilt.edu.

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Dominic Rottman

Dominic Rottman (’20) writes for the Opinion section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is majoring in Political Science and Communications in the College of Arts and Science. He enjoys drinking (and then complaining about) coffee, reading (and then complaining about) political and philosophical literature, and finally writing (and then complaining about) his own points of view.

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