It’s no secret that I love to dance salsa. As a result, many people ask me if I have a regular salsa partner. The answer is “no.” I simply show up at the salsa venues and hope (and pray!) that the good dancers will ask me to dance. My favorite salsa partner in San Diego is tall, blond, and of Norwegian descent while my favorite Phoenix salsa partner is short, dark haired, and of Peruvian descent. Mr. Peru and I recently exchanged a few words that left me speechless.
I’d arrived at my regular, Sunday night salsa venue only to discover that the dancing had been moved from the upstairs, outdoor patio to an inside location. As we were waiting for the beginning salsa lesson to finish, Mr. Peru mentioned there was a wedding reception upstairs and that’s why we were indoors. I jokingly said, “Well, let’s go join the wedding party and dance with them.” To which he replied, “I hate weddings.”
I was caught more than a bit off-guard. My reflexive come-back was, “I love weddings” to which Mr. Peru said something disparagingly about commitment. Lamely I said, “Commitment has many benefits to it,” to which he replied with a triumphant smile and upraised arms, “Why should I give up my freedom?” End of conversation.
I was completely caught off balance, but I shouldn’t have been. Just a week before, our chancery office (where I work) had gathered for an Easter retreat on the “Four Levels of Happiness” by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ. If I had been using the four levels to guide our conversation, I would have immediately recognized Mr. Peru’s comment as a classic Level 1 Happiness statement, but I was too entrenched in Happiness Levels 3 and 4, so my brain froze.
Now that my brain has thawed, perhaps together we can apply the 4 Levels of Happiness to my conversation with Mr. Peru, which, I think, represents many conversations Catholics find themselves in these days. So, let’s start with a sketch of the Four Levels of Happiness.
Level 1 Happiness is connected with our physicality. This kind of happiness arises from bodily desires and input from our five senses. When our bodily desires are nicely satisfied or we experience delectable sensory stimulation, these register as sensory pleasure and sometimes even euphoria. Salsa dancing hits the Level 1 Happiness bull’s eye for me – and for Mr. Peru.
For many of us, our lives are filled with Level 1 Happiness: a restful night’s sleep; a delicious cup of coffee; jamming to our preferred music in the car; a successful round of golf on a beautiful 72-degree day; an intense workout at the gym; opening day of deer hunting; the sight of a neat and tidy house with all the dishes washed and laundry put away; a perfectly cooked steak complemented by a glass of robust, red wine; a walk at the beach; a guided bus-tour of Paris or London, etc.
As embodied persons, we’re created with an amazing capacity for feeling pleasure through our five senses as we take care of both the basic needs of the body as well as the desires of the body. Meeting these needs and desires brings a sense of contentment, satisfaction, and even intense pleasure and natural highs.
Level 2 Happiness moves beyond our bodily needs and sensory pleasures to ego reinforcement. Ego happiness comes to us through winning and achieving. This sense of personal accomplishment in
comparison to others bulks up our sense of status, respect, popularity, power, and prestige. With the advent of the Internet and social media, avenues for ego happiness are perhaps at an all-time high. We can experience an ego boost not only through a promotion at work, winning a contract, or from our children’s successes and trophies, but also through the number of followers, likes, or hits we have on social media or YouTube. Being recognized as a “social influencer” or achieving YouTube stardom feeds ego happiness in an intoxicating way.
If you’re thinking Levels 1 and 2 are rather self-centered, then you are…a winner! Congratulations, you have demonstrated keen insight into human nature far beyond your peers! A round of applause for you!
Does that round of applause provide a little burst of affirmation and approval for you? If so, then your Self has just tasted a bit of Level 2 happiness since in both Levels 1 and 2 the Self is the reference point for our experience of happiness.
Level 3 Happiness, however, represents a transition from the Self being the sole reference point for happiness to others being included as well. Of course, I’m not saying it’s valid to use other people for your happiness. That would be a Level 1 or 2 Happiness since use of others is directed at satisfying or stimulating sensory or ego happiness. In contrast, Level 3 Happiness derives from using one’s gifts and talents to make a difference in the lives of others, the world, and society. It is motivated by the desire to make the world a better place and to leave a legacy that benefits others rather than merely one’s self. Level 3 Happiness emerges from responding to the good beyond one’s self.
From St. John Paul II’s perspective, Level 3 Happiness would be the daily living out of GS 24 – “Man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Rather than seeking primarily sensory pleasure (Level 1) or ego strokes through personal accomplishments and achievements (Level 2), Level 3 Happiness flows from meaning, most especially the spousal meaning of the body. Just in case you haven’t memorized JP2’s description of the spousal meaning of the body, here it is from TOB Audience 15:1: “…the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.”
At our staff workshop, Pat Tillman was presented as an inspiring example of Level 3 Happiness. A gifted athlete, Pat was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 NFL Draft. Pat became the team’s starting safety and broke the franchise record for tackles in 2000 with 224. In 2002, Pat walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. On the evening of April 22, 2004, Pat’s unit was ambushed as it traveled through eastern Afghanistan, leading to his death (see www.pattillmanfoundation.org).
Pat visibly lived the spousal meaning of the body; he passionately expressed his power to love through the gift of himself on behalf of others and his country. Pat forfeited Level 1 and 2 Happiness so he could serve others and leave an enduring legacy.
Pat’s legacy launches us directly into the heart of Level 3 Happiness: love. Love engages the will and human freedom on behalf of friendship, belonging, and enduring contributions to the lives of others and society. It involves deferring immediate gratification, both of bodily and ego pleasures, in service of the good beyond one’s self. Level 3 Happiness is the fruit of the personal habit (or virtue) of sacrifice and commitment.
In retrospect, I realize why my brain froze when Mr. Peru casually stated he hated weddings. In my Level 3 Happiness brain, which had been formed by love and commitment to Christ since age 16 and by gift of self and spousal meaning of the body since age 35, his statement had no meaning. It was non-sense. But for his Level 1 and 2 worldviews, where freedom means no commitment in order to pursue a cornucopia of sensory pleasures and ego strokes, it was perfectly logical.
In contrast, Fr. Spitzer describes Level 3 Happiness as “hard-wired to love.” St. John Paul II expresses this same truth in his first encyclical, “Redeemer of Man,” when he writes, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it” (no. 10).
Our humanity does not live by bread alone, nor by salsa (dancing) alone, but by meaningful bonds of love that assure us, even when we feel ugly, ashamed, useless, or a raging failure, that we are loved as unique and unrepeatable, as someone of intrinsic value and worth. St. John Paul II’s repeated emphasis on communion of persons as a reciprocal giving and receiving of each person for his or her own sake is directed toward securing Level 3 Happiness in each of our lives – and moving us toward Level 4.
Last week’s blog (Blog 24) delved into the difference between soul and spirit, with spirit being our capacity to transcend ourselves and enter into a communion of persons. However, as we saw last week, we are not the only kinds of persons that exist. God is also a Communion of Persons, and so our spirit capacitates us to enter into relationship with God and to experience Level 4 Happiness. In The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the [Catholic] Church, published by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace in 2004, the section on “Openness to Transcendence and Uniqueness of the Person” begins with these words: “Openness to transcendence belongs to the human person: man is open to the infinite and to all created beings… He comes out of himself, from the self-centered preservation of his own life, to enter into a relationship of dialogue and communion with others” (no. 130).
Through our capacity of soul and spirit, we are open to what Plato called the five transcendentals: Truth, Justice, Love, Beauty, and Being. We are ordered toward and participate in not just temporal goods, but Ultimate Goods. Our orientation toward the good of others and the spousal meaning of the body, expressed in an initial way in Level 3, finds its full flourishing and expression in Level 4: we reach a new level of happiness through union and communion with the Trinity and thus a new understanding of the Trinitarian-spousal meaning of the body as male and female.
And that leads us to Level 5 Happiness. Wait a minute, you might think, Fr. Spitzer only speaks about four levels of happiness. That’s true, and I think St. John Paul II would add a fifth level of happiness: Sacramental Happiness.
Level 5 Sacramental Happiness catches up all four levels of happiness and brings them to an integrated synthesis: the sensory pleasures of Level 1, the ego strengthening (JPII’s term might be “self-possession”) of Level 2, the human wiring for love of Level 3, and the self-transcendence of Level 4 find their ultimate expression and full guarantee for embodied persons within an Eternal Reality that comprises both materiality and spirit, both visible and invisible. Our ultimate happiness can only be a Sacramental Happiness, a deep and abiding joy flowing from the perfect union and communion of our body, soul, and spirit with the Glorified Body of Christ.
The temptation in our age is to slip into a kind of Gnosticism and Platonic Idealism that admires the purely immaterial forms of truth, goodness, justice, beauty, being, and relationality. Ultimate realities and ultimate happiness can mistakenly be interpreted as a transcendence that sheds physicality and transitions into pure, disembodied spirit.
However, if we add Level 5 Happiness as a Sacramental Happiness, then we constantly remind ourselves that everything from bread and wine to professional achievements to sacrificial friendship to the beauty of the Swiss Alps to marital love and the conjugal embrace are opportunities to encounter the Living God here and now, and to mature in our sacramental embodiment, which endures in eternity.
Perhaps someday, as I’m experiencing Level 1 and 2 Happiness by dancing with Mr. Peru on this earth, his dislike of weddings will surface again. But this time, I’ll be prepared to bring Happiness Levels 3 – 5 into the conversation. In the meantime, this week I encourage you to make a list of 10 things that make you happy, to identify which level of happiness each one represents, and to consider what this list reveals about you and your embodied journey. And remember…you are a Level-5 Happiness gift!
© Katrina J. Zeno, MTS