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happinessAmericans are guaranteed happiness, right?

It’s in the Declaration of Independence, right?

Well, not quite. We’re guaranteed “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Given that we all would like to be happy, and happiness is something to be pursued, how do we give chase?

In a recent book, Finding True Happiness, Robert Spitzer outlines four levels of happiness. I’ll call them “Animal,” “Egotistical,” “Altruistic,” and “Transcendental.”

The first level has to do with our basic physical needs. Like animals, we need food, water, shelter, and protection. We also have a primal urge to procreate. These basic needs are constant. We get hungry and thirsty every day. We need regular shelter, protection, and we want (even if we don’t get) regular sex. These needs are the lowest level needs, and the happiness we derive from having these needs met is also the lowest and most transitory. The satisfaction of a full stomach is minimal and doesn’t last long.

The second level of happiness is egotistical. Spitzer calls it “ego comparative.” Put simply, we find happiness at this level by comparing ourselves to others. We feel good not only because we won the prize but also because we beat someone else to get it. This level of happiness kicks in during adolescence. This is why from middle school, things become competitive. We want to excel at sports, the arts, academics, popularity, looks, possessions…you name it, we want to be the best at it, because being best feels good.

This level of happiness, like the first level, doesn’t last. It’s not long before we’re in the next level of competition and we have to work harder to win and get the buzz of happiness for being the best. Furthermore, this level of happiness can start to bring out unpleasant elements of competition: envy, ambition, and a ruthless drive to win at all costs. This level of happiness soon fades, and if we’re not careful, it will draw us into a deep unhappiness and poor self-esteem. When this behavior continues after adolescence, it leads to a downward spiral of unhappiness rather than happiness.

The third level of happiness is when we realize that doing things for others makes us happy. Altruism is the desire to give something back. We discover that we get a longer lasting buzz from helping others than we do from putting ourselves on top. Those who serve their country, their family, their school, or their neighborhood all report far higher levels of happiness than those who are only self-seeking.

Helping-HandThe ultimate stage of happiness is “transcendental.” This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.

Being conservative helps us attain all four levels of happiness. A basic conservative principle is self-reliance. At the animal level, happiness is enhanced if the person earns his basic needs himself. Conservatives distrust handouts because they know that real happiness at the basic level is achieved as we work for our basic needs. The meal, the apartment, the drink, and the protection I earned is far sweeter than that which is just handed to me.

On the second level, conservative principles both encourage competition and control it. Competition in the economic and social aspects of life helps us achieve happiness, but too much ambition is destructive. Healthy competition is a cornerstone of conservative philosophy, but proper restraints, checks, and balances are also part of conservative philosophy. Conservatives do not apologize for making money and achieving success, but true conservatives realize that this level of happiness should lead to compassionate and active generosity.

The right use of wealth and privilege leads a conservative to the third level of happiness: altruism. Conservatism is not simply about financial success. Conservative principles are rooted in what is best for society as a whole. The successful conservative is not successful if he does not use his success and wealth for the common good. The happy conservative is just as entrepreneurial and proactive in using his wealth, skills, and success to help the poor, and to provide health care for the sick, education for the ignorant, and opportunities for the disadvantaged.

Finally, conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.

Today’s society offers a multitude of fleeting experiences that promise happiness but leave emptiness. True happiness is found through hard work, service to others, and the stability and strength that comes from a truly conservative and compassionate philosophy.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Intercollegiate Review (June 2015). 

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3 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for the tip on the book. Worth looking into.

    Arthur Brooks of AEI has also done some excellent work on happiness. If I recall correctly, he identifies the most fertile ground for lasting happiness in faith, family, community and work.

  2. Very true. I’ve had the hardest time with some of my fellow conservatives. They can’t get beyond egotistical part of happiness. Even the altruism is more lip service and a secondary thought. They are not really conservatives actually. They are Libertarians.

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