Purpose in Life

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Can Faith Enhance Purpose in Life?

© Robert J. Spitzer, S.J. Ph.D./Magis Institute July 2011


Happiness and Purpose in Life

In two of my books (Healing the Culture and The Spirit of Leadership), I describe the four levels of happiness in detail. “Happiness” may be defined as the fulfillment of a desire (and “unhappiness” as the non-fulfillment of desire). Thus, if there are four kinds of desire, there will also be four kinds of happiness. Normally, one of these desires (and its satisfaction – “happiness”) becomes dominant and the others become either recessive or ignored. The dominant desire becomes our identity, while recessive ones serve the dominant one. Ignored desires generally frustrate or debilitate us. Even though all four desires are functional, the dominant desire (or identity) tends to control the way we view happiness and success, our goals in life, the way we conduct relationships and view love, our principles and ethics, the ideals we seek, and the way we judge our self-worth, our progress in life, and our very selves. Needless to say, the kind of desire we choose or allow to become dominant is one of the most important decisions in our lives. Therefore, a more systematic explanation of these desires might be helpful to better understand the fourth level (the transcendent, faith, and/or spiritual life).

Moving from Shallow to Deep

Level 1 (laetus) is the desire for externally stimulated or physical pleasures and possessions (e.g., a bowl of linguini or a new Mercedes e-Class with leather upholstery).

Level 2 (felix) is an ego-gratification arising out of the displacement of the outer world toward my inner world (my ego – “I”). Such ego-gratifications might take the form of increases in status, admiration, achievement, power, control, winning, etc., and generally entail a comparative advantage, which can lead to fixation and extremely negative emotive conditions (see below).

Level 3 (beatus) moves in the opposite direction of Level 2. Instead of displacing the outer world toward my inner world (Level 2), it invests my inner world in the outer world, that is, it tries to make an optimal positive difference to the world (e.g., to family, friends, organization, community, church, culture, and kingdom of God) with my time, talents, energy, indeed, my life. It can occur through both action and “being with,” and occurs most powerfully through agape (love without expectation of return – love for the sake of the beloved alone).

Level 4 (sublimis) is the desire for the ultimate, unconditional, or perfect in truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being. Faith identifies perfect and unconditional truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being with God; and so Level 4, for people of faith, is the desire for God. Its fullest expression has been elucidated throughout this book.

The Four Levels

The above four levels of desire (or happiness) may be summarized in the foregoing diagram:

A Diagram of the Four Levels of Happiness

As one moves up the four levels of desire, one attains more pervasive, enduring, and deep purpose in life. For example, Level 3 or 4 purpose has a much greater effect in the world (more pervasive) than a Level 1 or 2 purpose (which is restricted to self-benefit). Similarly, Level 3 and 4 purpose endures much longer than Level 1 or 2 purpose. Level 4 purpose even endures unto eternity. Finally, Level 3 or 4 purpose is deeper (utilizes our higher powers of creativity, intellection, moral reasoning, love, and spiritual awareness) than Level 1 or 2 purpose. If efficacy in life is determined by the pervasiveness, endurance, and depth of one’s actions, then the higher one moves up the levels of desire, the greater the effectiveness of one’s life.

The only “down side” to this ascendancy of effectiveness and purpose in life is that one has to delay gratification, look beneath and beyond the surface of life, and give up some degree of intensity. It is clear that Level 1 is immediately gratifying, surface apparent, and intense; while Level 4 frequently requires nuance, education, subtlety, delay in gratification, and detachment from intensity. Thus, the spiritual life is marked by a trade-off – in order to attain to universal and eternal effects arising out of our self-transcendent powers of truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being, we frequently have to give up some degree of immediate gratification, intensity, and surface apparentness.

This “trade-off” marks one of the most difficult challenges of the spiritual life, for it is not easy to let go of what is so easily and intensely satisfying. Yet, it is worth it, for the move to Levels 3 and 4 fills us with higher purpose, more enduring (even eternal) effects, and awakens the highest, most sophisticated powers within us; and far more than this, Level 4 introduces us to a deep relationship with the unconditionally loving God. Level 4 simultaneously actualizes our humanity and spiritual life. Saint Augustine phrased it well when he prayed to God, “For Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

As noted above, each level of desire can become dominant, and when it does, it becomes our purpose in life and our identity. As shown throughout the book, human beings can only be ultimately satisfied by a Level 4 identity, because our desire for the unconditional and perfect in truth, love, goodness, beauty, and being can never be satiated by what is conditioned or imperfect. Inasmuch as God is the one and only unconditional and perfect Truth-Love-Goodness-Beauty-Being, then Saint Augustine was correct in his prayer.

The Comparison Game

Most of us do not come to this conclusion through an intuitive grasp of the truth of Saint Augustine’s prayer. We normally do it through the school of hard knocks. We obsess upon the material/physical world (Level 1) and the ego/comparative world (Level 2) because they are so immediately gratifying, intense, and surface-apparent. It is hard to loosen our grip on them – even in order to pursue what is more pervasive, enduring, and deep; even to pursue what is eternal, perfect, and unconditional; even to pursue the ultimate fulfillment of our being. Thus, most of us move through a series of trials and tribulations which manifest the pain of over-investing in what is beneath our ultimate dignity and nature. The most popular over-investment in our culture is the one directed at Level 2, and so I will illustrate it here. I have written extensively about other over-investments in both Healing the Culture and The Spirit of Leadership (see References).

Level 2 (ego-gratification) is almost always linked to comparisons. In order to shift the locus of control from the outer world to the inner world, I must constantly ask myself, “Who’s achieving more? Who’s achieving less? Who’s making more progress? Whose making less? Who’s winning? Who’s losing? Who’s got more status? Who’s got less status? Who’s more popular? Who’s less popular? Who’s got more control? Who’s got less control? Who is more admired? Who is less admired?” Notice that these questions are not linked to a pursuit of the truth or to a contributive mentality, or even to an ultimate meaning. One is using these comparative questions to obtain identity. Thus, one is literally living for a Level 2 answer to these questions, and is therefore treating these comparative characteristics as ends in themselves. Hence, one is not achieving in order to contribute to family, colleagues, or the culture; one is achieving as an end in itself, as if achievement gave life meaning. Similarly, one is not seeking status in order to have the credibility to do good for others or even the kingdom of God. One is simply seeking status as an end in itself. The same holds for winning, power, control, and so forth.

Notice further that Level 2 is not bad. Indeed, quite the opposite. The desire for achievement leads to progress in civilization. The desire for respect leads to credibility, confidence, and self-respect. The desire to win leads to competitiveness and the seeking of excellence. Even the desire for power can be used for good purposes. So what’s the problem? The problem is not Level 2, but living for Level 2 as an end in itself. When one does this, then achievement leads to compulsive “getting ahead,” instead of “a good beyond the achievement.” Seeking respect leads to pandering after admiration. Power sought as an end in itself corrupts – and absolute power sought in itself corrupts absolutely.

Ending the Game

A variety of consequences follows from this narrow purpose in life: one may feel emptiness arising out of “underliving life.” The desire to make a positive difference (or even an optimal positive difference) to family, friends, community, organization, colleagues, church, culture, and society (Level 3) goes unfulfilled. One begins to think that one’s life doesn’t really make any difference to the world or to history – “the world is not better off for my having lived.” To make matters worse, one’s desire for the ultimate (in Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being – indeed, God) is also unfulfilled. Though one longs for the ultimate with all one’s heart, one’s obsession with Level 2 precludes the pursuit of Level 4. Again, one’s spirit reacts with a profound sense of emptiness, a sense of underliving life, a more and more poignant awareness that “I am wasting the little precious time I have in this world.”

Furthermore, a large array of negative emotions begins to accompany this emptiness. Most of these emotions arise out of a fixation on comparative advantage. Since a dominant Level 2 identity treats status, admiration, power, control, winning, etc. as ends in themselves, it is compelled to seek comparative advantage as its fulfillment. This fixation requires not only that I progress more and more (in status, power, winning, etc.), but also that I have more of it than Joe, Sue, Frank, and Mary. When I do not have more, when I am not better than others, I profoundly believe that my life is either stagnant or slipping away. I feel a profound diminishment in self-worth and success. And so I begin to feel jealousy, a malaise about life, inferiority, loneliness, frustration, and even a terrible sense of self-pity and resentment.

One might respond that these negative emotions do not befall the dominant Level 2 winner, for to the victor go the spoils. While it is true that winners do receive significant ego-gratification, it is worth noting that the above-mentioned emptiness still follows in its wake. Furthermore, such winners are obliged to increase in their Level 2 successes, because they cannot attain any sense of progress without doing so. If they do not continually increase in their successes, they experience the same kinds of malaise, inferiority, jealousy, frustration, and self-pity as non-winners.

Moreover, these winners contract a peculiar disease – namely, the desire to be overtly admired. When perceived inferiors do not acknowledge the winner’s superiority (and their own inferiority by comparison), the winner feels tremendous resentment. “You have not given me the accolades I deserve. And furthermore, you are actually treating yourself as my equal – who do you think you are? It’s outrageous.” This peculiar disease has another aspect which Saint Augustine well recognized, namely, contempt. Dominant Level 2 winners can’t help it. They really do feel that their lives are worth more than other people’s lives, and so they either project contempt or (if they are more enlightened) they are patronizingly condescending (“That’s a nice little project you did there”). In the end, such winners cannot afford to fail; if they do, those whom they have treated with contempt will ravage them.

Furthermore, a winner’s self-image cannot tolerate being embarrassed in front of inferiors (“Spitzer, you pronounced the word ‘spectroscopy’ improperly three times. I cannot believe that a person of your caliber would make such a mistake.” I go to my room, close the door, and play that excruciating tape over and over again in my mind until I want to do myself physical harm, for the physical pain would be so much better than… “I can’t believe I made that mistake in public. Aaarrgghh!”). Dominant Level 2 winners also feel the need to blame others for all their failures (because, in principle, they cannot fail).

In sum, winners better be perfect; but then again, they can’t be altogether perfect. So winners must construct a huge façade and then protect it; but then again, they cannot construct a façade impenetrable enough to keep observant inferiors at bay. So, dominant Level 2 winners better be prepared for contempt, resentment, blame, anger, debilitating ego-sensitivities, and above all, loneliness – for no one (except Mother Theresa, and maybe their own mothers) will want to be around them for any other reason than sheer necessity. The reason I know all these things is because I have struggled and continue to struggle with these negative emotions (from both winning and losing). Nevertheless, I can attest that Level 3 (the contributive/love) and Level 4 (the transcendent/spiritual life) help immeasurably to diminish the pain, emptiness, and obsession of a dominant Level 2 identity. Indeed, as will be seen, the spiritual life can break the grip of a dominant Level 2 identity, and usher in a life of sublimity in God.


In Catholic/Christian religious faith, “living on Level 4” means desiring the unconditionally loving, good, truth-filled, and salvific will of the unconditionally loving God. The proof and explanation of this unconditionally loving, good, truth-filled, and salvific will occurs through the revelation of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

An intellectual choice of Level 4 as one’s fulfillment, purification, and joy, does not necessarily translate into an affective (emotional) choice of Level 4. Thus, we might say that Level 4 is the identity to which we want to move, but find ourselves unable to give up attachments to Levels 1 and 2 (which interfere with the move to Level 4). We can therefore find ourselves in conflicts of desire, failures of resolve, and feelings of inadequacy and guilt. You should not find this daunting because it is part of everyone’s journey toward Level 4. I am not aware of a single person (or a single saint) who found detachment from Levels 1 and 2 easy. However, patience, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and above all, prayer pave the way for progress. Slowly but surely Levels 3 and 4 begin to replace the deep attachment to Levels 1 and 2, bringing with them a decrease in jealousy, fear, anger, egocentricity, self-pity, contempt, inferiority, superiority, ego-sensitivity, and so many other debilitating emotive states. In their place, Level 4 (arising out of a deep relationship with the unconditionally loving God) brings peace, inspiration, zeal, hope, a remarkable efficacy in life, and above all, love (even progress towards unconditional Love). In short, the long journey of detachment from Levels 1 and 2 toward attachment to Levels 3 and 4 brings sanity, peace, and eternal Love.

Maintaining Transcendence

As will by now be clear, the most effective way of moving from Levels 1 and 2 to Levels 3 and 4 is through God’s grace, and the most effective way of allowing God’s grace to affect us is through prayer and the contemplative life.

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