Overcoming the Unhappiness Syndrome

According to a recent longitudinal Gallup poll (from 2006 to 2021), unhappiness has increased significantly and continuously on a global level—well before and after the Covid crisis. In Gallup’s words, “People feel more anger, sadness, pain, worry and stress than ever before” (Gallup 2022). Perhaps more disturbing is the doubling in the rates of major depressive disorder in young people over a ten year period—from 8.1% (2009) to 15.8% (2019), according to the Journal of Adolescent Health (March 2022). How can we interpret this data? 

I would submit that the answer to this question lies in philosophical analysis going back to Aristotle, theological analysis going back to St. Augustine, and psychological analysis initiated by Abraham Maslow. In my book, The Four Levels of Happiness, I build on Aristotle’s two insights:

  1. That happiness is the one thing you can choose for itself; everything else is chosen for the sake of happiness. Therefore, the way we define happiness will affect just about every decision we make in life. Nothing could be more important.
  2. That there are levels of happiness in which the higher levels are pervasive, enduring, and deep, while the lower levels are ego-centered, short-lived, and superficial. The higher levels of happiness bring about greater and more enduring happiness than the lower ones. And if we live solely for the lower ones, we will likely find ourselves feeling empty, alienated, unfulfilled, depressed, anxious, and sometimes despairing. 

So, what are these four levels of happiness? The lowest one (Level 1) is the fulfilment of material-pleasure desires, such as a good wine, a nice home, material abundance, and sensual fulfilment. Though it is immediately gratifying, superficially appealing, and pleasure-producing, it does not go far beyond the self, last long, or make a quality contribution.

The second level—ego-comparative happiness—seeks ego-gratification and comparative advantage. It engenders the questions: Who’s achieving more, and who, less? Who’s more intelligent or less intelligent? Who’s got more power, and who, less? Who’s more popular, and who, less? Who’s more beautiful and who, less…The more one enjoys comparative advantage in these areas, the greater one’s ego-satisfaction (Level 2 happiness). Though ego-satisfaction can be quite intense, when it becomes an end in itself—the only thing that will satisfy us—it leads to a host of negative emotional and relational states, bringing with it high levels of depression and anxiety.

Though Level 1 and Level 2 can produce intense satisfaction, an exaggerated emphasis on them can produce profound unhappiness. This exaggerated emphasis lies at the heart of the significant increase in global unhappiness described above—particularly, that of young people.

Since the publication of Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, many studies show conclusively that narcissistic individuals not only cause misery in the lives of others around them, but also in their own lives (e.g., the NIH study in 2022). As my book shows, the choice to live for ego-comparative advantage, admiration, dominion over others, and feelings of superiority, lead to marked increases in jealousy, inferiority, fear of loss of esteem, fear of failure, self-pity, ego-rage, ego-blame, contempt, loneliness, emptiness, and the depression and anxiety coming from these negative emotional states. Level 2 as an end in itself is an almost total net negative. The problem is that the culture, social media, and traditional media are almost exclusively focused on this view of happiness and purpose in life. Today, 70% of our culture—particularly the young—embrace this view (both implicitly and explicitly). No wonder the rates of depression, anxiety, homicides, and suicides among the young are more than doubling.

So, how can this profound unhappiness be overcome? In brief, putting much more emphasis on Level 3 (contributive) and Level 4 (transcendent/religious) happiness. Let’s start with Level 3. We not only have a desire to enhance our own ego-world (Level 2), but also to make a positive difference to the world around us. Most people have a desire and need to make a positive difference to family, friends, community, workplace, church, culture, society, and even the kingdom of God. When we follow through on these desires, we not only draw closer to those to whom we contribute, but also receive a boost in our self-worth and purpose in life. If we have faith, we also draw closer to God. This may explain why studies show that contributive, service-oriented people are happier, more fulfilled, and secure in their identity and lives (NIH 2013).

Is Level 3 enough? Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, much of the philosophical, theological, and psychological community has answered “No.” A recent study published by the American Psychiatric Association and many other studies, show that non-religiously affiliated people, when compared to religiously affiliated people, experience much higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, familial tensions, anti-social aggressivity, suicidal contemplation, and suicides (e.g., Dervic et al 2004, Koenig 2009 and 2015, Bonelli et al 2012, Lassi and Mugnaini 2015, and Ronenberg et al 2016). If these psychological and psychiatric studies are correct, as well as the philosophical and theological studies of human transcendent nature, then our happiness, fulfillment, and identity—not to mention our eternal salvation—are dependent on religious-spiritual practice. It appears that St. Augustine was correct when he prayed, “For Thou hast made us for Thy self, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” (Confessions Bk 1).

Many of us can’t leap to faith simply because it will make us happier. We want some evidence that a sacred-transcendent reality (i.e., God) really exists and is interested in us and our choices. In my book (chapters 11–12) I show the considerable scientific and rational evidence for God (a Creator/higher transcendent power) and life after death from peer-reviewed medical studies of near-death experiences, terminal lucidity, and intelligence in hydrocephalic patients as well as the evidence from contemporary science (particularly cosmology) for a beginning (and implied creation) of physical reality (whether it be just our universe, a multiverse, a bouncing universe, or a universe in the higher dimensional space of string theory). I also explore the evidence for transcendent intelligence from the exceedingly improbable fine-tuning for life in our universe’s initial conditions and constants as well as our transcendental desires for perfect truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being. 

Interestingly, most scientists are in agreement with the existence of God and life after death. According to the last Pew survey, 51% of scientists overall and 66% of young scientists believe in God or a higher transcendent power. Additionally, according to the last survey of the Journal of Religion and Health, 76% of physicians believe in God or a higher transcendent power—and according to HCD Research and the Finkelstein Institute, 73% of physicians believe in the reality of miracles (naturalistically and scientifically inexplicable phenomena). It seems that the above evidence has allowed the majority of scientists and physicians to achieve reasonable and responsible belief in God and Providence.

Will simple belief in God bring happiness, fulfillment, and high purpose in life? Though it does get us on our way, it is not enough. The above studies indicate that religious affiliation and practice are what really bring our happiness to its highest, most fulfilling level. As I show, believers who participate in religious community and prayer and try to grow closer to God spiritually and morally, not only find themselves happy and fulfilled, but also caught up in the loving power of Providence drawing them upward toward their true eternal purpose and dignity.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Ignitum Today.

Author’s Note: This article is based on a new book by Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. entitled The Four Levels of Happiness: Your Path to Personal Flourishing (Sophia Press, April 2024).

Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

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Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D. is President of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and also the Napa Institute. He was President of Gonzaga University from 1998 to 2009, where he increased the student body by 75%, oversaw the construction of 20 new facilities, and raised $200+ million for scholarships and buildings. He is the author of eighteen books, including the award-winning New Proofs for the Existence of God, and most recently, Science at the Doorstep to God and Science, Reason, and Faith: Discovering the Bible. He has also authored many scholarly articles on faith and science, metaphysics, and happiness and ethics. Father Spitzer has his own weekly EWTN television show called Father Spitzer’s Universe. He has appeared on the Larry King Show (in discussion with Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra), the History Channel, the Today Show, and a PBS series. He started seven institutes dedicated to faith and reason and happiness/purpose in life. He was a professor at Georgetown University, Seattle University, and Gonzaga University and was awarded the teaching medal at both Georgetown University and Seattle University. He has held two major academic chairs—the Frank Shrontz Endowed Chair in Professional Ethics (Seattle University) and the John L. Aram Chair of Business Ethics (Gonzaga University) and has won multiple academic and professional awards, including honorary doctorates, the De Smet Medal (Gonzaga University’s highest award) and the Aquinas Medal (for Catholic philosophical scholarship).

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