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The Four Levels of Happiness


From reviewing Greek and later Christian writers it may be observed that happiness has four levels. An understanding of these “Four Levels” might well be considered an essential and foundational understanding for Christian formation of the young.


Why happiness?: The Greek Philosopher Aristotle (394-322 B.C.) observed that no person deliberately chooses to be unhappy. So, if this is the case, then human beings wish to be happy and the search for happiness leads us to look at what kinds of happiness there might be and whether these types might be logically rank-ordered.

From reviewing Greek and later Christian writers it may be observed that happiness has four levels. These may be described as follows (in ascending order).

  1. laetus: Happiness in a thing. Thus, “I see the linguini, I eat the linguini, it makes me feel good, I am happy.” This kind of happiness is based on something external to the self, is short-lived and, on reflection, we do not consider that it is all there is to human happiness.

  2. felix: The happiness of comparative advantage. “I have more of this than X.” “I am better at this than X.” This kind of happiness results from competition with another person. The self is seen in terms of how we measure up to others. It has been called “the comparison game.” Such happiness is rather unstable and, if one fails, can lead to unhappiness and sense of worthlessness. Exclusive pursuit tends to oppress others. Most people would not imagine a world as satisfactory if it was composed of only happiness #2 type people.

  3. Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action. Happiness #3 is, in some sense, at war with happiness #2. One cannot be at the same time in competition with someone else and doing the good for and seeing the good in them. Most people would prefer a world (community, family, relationships) structured around the pursuit of happiness #3 than entirely based in happiness #2. Happiness #3 is higher than happiness #2. The problem with #3 is that it is necessarily limited. We cannot be someone else's everything. For example, we or they, will die and if our happiness is contingent upon them, it dies with them. “There must be more than this.”

  4. Sublime Beatitudo: (sublime = “to lift up or elevate”). This category, the most difficult to describe, encompasses a reach for fullness and perfection of happiness. The fullness, therefore, of goodness, beauty, truth and love. So we recognize in this category, those things that are, in a sense, beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own.

This quest for fullness is pursued through the other happinesses but with a clear understanding that in the battle between happiness #3 and #2, happiness #3 must win out if we are to approach the transcendentals of this category:

(transcendental: from the latin words trans = above or over and scendere = to climb over or surmount). The transcendentals have traditionally included; truth, beauty and goodness. Note that all religions have some concept that they place in a position of ultimacy and fullness or completeness as well as some account of what keeps us from this condition of completeness (sin, desire, illusion etc.) and a remedy for it.

Christians believe that God is not only the Creator of the universe but is the One who keeps us all in being moment to moment by His Grace. According to the claims of the Christian faith, creation has a meaning and purpose and so do each one of us as creatures. The central aspect of God is love and this was the reason for the incarnation (literally “enfleshment”) of God in His son Jesus Christ. Only God in Jesus is perfect and, according to Christians, our ultimate happiness is found in relationship with God through Jesus (prayer, obedience to his teachings etc.) who overcame sin (separation from God).

Christians believe that the fullness of the beatific vision (seeing God, or perfection, face-to-face) is something that we strive to move towards in life but will only be granted completely, after death. We get glimpses of the sublime nature of beauty, truth and goodness at rare moments in, perhaps, the arts (music, story, film) or nature or when we are loved by or love others. These experiences are deep and largely beyond words. Clearly to develop this category and pursue the depths of each category in this fourth level of happiness, is the work of a lifetime of open-ness, honesty and living/loving well. But the life itself is a gift which we are given. At least, that is what the tradition says.

A wonderful “parable” of the shift from Happiness #2 to Happiness #3 (up the ladder of happiness to a “higher level” of happiness') may be seen in the famous story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Scrooge begins in Happiness #2 and, though successful in business, is unhappy as a person. Fear of death and his unhappy state lead him to choose to move to Happiness #3 type actions (helping the Cratchetts and others, reconciliation with his niece etc.). His happiness is a result of a shift from resentment to gratitude. Happiness #4 type questions about purpose and meaning he previously refused to examine.

Such questions as “Why am I here?” “How can I be happy?” “How can I account for human suffering?” have to deal with purpose, meaning and the transcendentals and cannot be measured by scientific measurement or answered scientifically because they transcend them. They are properly the questions for religion in terms of what we are committed to (religio = to be bound), and philosophy which deals with the love of wisdom. Augustine describes this quest as fides quaerens intellectus: “faith in search of understanding.”


Spitzer, S.J., Robert. “Four Levels of Happiness.” Unpublished lecture (1999).

Reprinted by permission of the author, Fr. Robert Spitzer.


Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., is the President of Gonzaga University, and cofounder of University Faculty for Life and the Center for Life Principles. He is the author of Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues and The Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations as well as many articles on leadership, culture and the common good.

Copyright © 1999 Fr. Robert Spitzer. S.J.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved