How to Find Happiness
We all want to be happy. Every day, in whatever we do, we seek this goal — one that we share with every other person on the planet. But what exactly is happiness? And how can we find it?
To discover the answer to these questions, Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, 2007), examines hundreds of empirical studies. She writes, “Studies show that 50 percent of individual differences in happiness are determined by genes, 10 percent by life circumstances and 40 percent by our intentional activities.”
Some people, it turns out, are naturally more optimistic, joyful and upbeat. Therefore, we should not feel bad if we find ourselves with a less cheerful temperament than others. At the same time, circumstances of life — great wealth, good weather, a promotion at work — have a relatively minor effect on our long-term level of happiness. Changing our circumstances will only slightly affect our outlook, as we quickly adapt to our new circumstances. Yet, while we cannot alter our genetic background, and altering our circumstances will not make much of a lasting difference to our happiness, we can dramatically change our intentional activities — that is, our goals in life. Engaging in work toward meaningful goals that strengthen our relationships with others can make us much happier. And regardless of our circumstances, we can become happier if we choose our priorities wisely.
Distinguishing Levels of Happiness
Drawing on the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer distinguishes four levels of happiness in his book Healing the Culture (Ignatius, 2000). Level one happiness is bodily pleasure obtained by drink, food, drugs or sex. Level two happiness has to do with competitive advantage in terms of money, fame, power, popularity or other material goods. Level three happiness involves loving and serving other people. And level four happiness is found in loving and serving God. Although we may desire each level of happiness, not every level provides equal and lasting contentment.
In life, we are often faced with a choice between one level of happiness or another. For example, the Olympic athlete chooses success in athletics over pleasures of the body, which might be found in abusing drugs or alcohol.
I can have more level one happiness if I sleep late on Monday morning, but I would sacrifice level two happiness because I wouldn’t be able to earn money at work. Or, I could gain more of a certain kind of happiness by cheating others out of their money, but I would be sacrificing a higher level of happiness, because being unfair to others is the opposite of helping them. Since we often have to choose one activity over another, it makes sense to think through what kind of activities will truly lead to lasting happiness.
The first level of happiness — pleasures of the senses — has several advantages. It is easy to get; it arrives fairly quickly; and it can be intense. Level one happiness, though, leaves almost as quickly as it arrives. In addition, we build a tolerance to certain things that bring us this level of happiness so that more is needed to achieve the same degree of enjoyment. Unfortunately, many of these pleasures can lead to addictions, and the addict’s enslavement is the opposite of real happiness. Finally, this lowest level of happiness is somewhat superficial. We all want it, but we also want to achieve something more meaningful and important in life.
The next level of happiness gives greater meaning and significance than the first. It involves not just keeping up with the Joneses, but also surpassing them — in money, fame, popularity or status. We celebrate such achievements as a culture — the valedictorian, the star athlete, the millionaire. But will such success lead to lasting happiness?
Let’s take money as an example of a level two goal. More money can make you significantly happier if you are in poverty. If you don’t eat three meals a day and you sleep under a bridge, then additional money can make a great difference. Yet, in his book The Pursuit of Happiness (Harper, 1993), psychologist David Myers shows that once a person escapes from dire poverty, additional amounts of money do not significantly increase happiness. In other words, if you compare a person making $30,000 a year, another making $100,000 and a third making $500,000, there is likely little difference in self-reported happiness or levels of depression.
Why don’t additional amounts of money make us happier in a lasting way? Research indicates that we eventually get used to whatever level of financial success we achieve and then begin to seek higher levels of affluence. We tend to compare ourselves with those who are richer than we are, rather than the vast numbers that live in poverty. The average middle-class person today enjoys luxury and comfort unknown even to medieval kings.
But maybe having not just more money, but lots more money, would lead to higher levels of happiness. Again, empirical research does not support this view. Lottery winners — after the shock wears off — report being no happier than they were before winning. Fortune 500 executives on the whole have average levels of happiness, and 37 percent of rich business leaders are less happy than the average person. As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out more than seven centuries ago, we want many things that no amount of money can buy. And we cannot find true happiness in more fame, power or “winning” of any kind.
Discovering Love and Gratitude
There is nothing inherently wrong with worldly success or with bodily pleasures, such as eating. Rather, the trouble comes when we think that these are the ultimate goals of life. Even if we had all the money in the world, all the bodily pleasure we could handle and all the worldly success possible, we cannot be happy without true friendship and true love. Happiness, Aristotle taught, is activity in accordance with virtue. In order for us to be objectively happy, we need to engage in activities that accord with virtue, especially the virtue of charity. Without choosing higher levels of happiness, even if we subjectively feel good (for a while), we are missing out on objectively being happy.
The higher levels of happiness — love for neighbor and love for God — go together. The two great commandments given by Jesus make this clear: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:37,39). If we truly love God, we will also love people, for they are made in his image and likeness. We cannot truly love God without also loving our neighbor. Indeed, the teachings of Jesus point us toward higher levels of happiness by guiding us towards this love: “A new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
Commenting on Aristotle, who argued that human happiness necessarily involves friendship, St. Thomas Aquinas added that we can be friends not only with other human beings, but also with God. Psychological research confirms this ancient wisdom. The happiest people have meaningful work that serves others (activity in accordance with virtue), and they have strong, loving relationships with their family, friends and God. On average, people who practice their faith report greater happiness than those who do not. Common religious teachings such as practicing thanksgiving, forgiving those who trespass against us and obeying the Ten Commandments bolster well-being and strengthen relationships — leading to greater happiness.
What, then, can we do to become happier? Here are several concrete suggestions: First, at the end of each day, write down three positive things, large or small, that you experienced. They could relate to any of the four levels of happiness. (I had a really good cheeseburger; I finally got that promotion; I helped my son with his math homework; I felt close to God in prayer.) Psychologists have studied this practice, called the “Three Good Things” exercise, and found that it significantly increases happiness by making us more aware of what gives us joy. St. Ignatius Loyola discovered this secret centuries ago in his daily Jesuit “examen,” which begins by recognizing the blessings God has given us each day.
Second, write someone in your life a letter of gratitude. Detail what they have done for you and what it means to you. It could be your mother or father, an old teacher or coach, a priest or spiritual director. If possible, get together with that person and read the letter to them personally. Studies have shown that a letter of gratitude powerfully increases happiness in both the letter writer and the recipient.
A final suggestion is to deepen our highest level of happiness by growing in intimacy with God. Try reading a Gospel passage each day, praying the rosary or making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament for a heart-to-heart conversation with the Lord. Prayer is a bit like exercise: It does not matter so much what kind you do, only that you consistently do something.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the importance of expressing gratitude to God in his Summa Theologica. The Mass, or Eucharist — which literally means “thanksgiving” — is a standing invitation to thank God for the blessings of our lives.
We all want to be happier, and we all can be. You do not have to wait for that big promotion or for that party on Saturday night. Helping us achieve our true happiness — both here and eternally — is the very mission of Jesus: “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). A happier life can begin today with choosing to grow in love of neighbor and of God.
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