Finding True Happiness

Right now I am reading a book by Fr. Robert Spitzer, Jesuit priest and retired president of Gonzaga University, entitled Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active PeopleWhy discuss a book on spirituality, you may ask, and why here on TechIntersect?

I first became interested in the writings of Fr. Spitzer when I learned about his book, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and PhilosophyThis is, after all, the TechIntersect blog, and I am fascinated with seeing the interconnectedness of knowledge, particularly how scientific knowledge relates to other ways of knowing. When someone claims to see a connection between physics and philosophy, particularly when using scientific knowledge in this way, I am going to be interested. As an undergraduate at Kansas Wesleyan University, I became familiar with the classic proofs for the existence of God, including Aristotle’s concept of the unmoved mover, that is someone or something that exists outside of the known universe setting everything into motion. In New Proofs, Fr. Spitzer explains how new scientific discoveries strengthen classic philosophical ideas through new evidence that pinpoints the age and precise fine-tuning of the beginning of our universe. It is heady stuff. I am neither an expert scientist or philosopher, so I struggled to understand all of it, but you might find it interesting.

Anyhow, in the Five Pillars book, I encountered a new bent (at least new to me) on an old idea; our quest for happiness. According to Spitzer there are four levels of our desires and how we view happiness.

Level 1) physical comfort or pleasure. It is the most basic of desires giving immediate gratification, and the one with the least longevity. When we fulfill these desires, our happiness is rather fleeting.

Level 2) personal achievement. It can come through status, admiration, achievement, power, control, winning, etc. and often comes with a happiness of comparison to others. The flip side to this level is that the success of others can be detriment to our own happiness.

Level 3) Helping others. Our happiness is oriented to serving others with our time and talents. It is most powerful when we love others without expecting anything (including love) in return.

Level 4) Desire for the ultimate, unconditional or perfect in Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty and Being. Some strive to achieve this level through art or intellect, others through knowing God.

Our desire for happiness is innate. We all have it and it motivates us into doing the things that we do. But when I look at it from the perspective of these four levels, I realize most of the time, most of us are stuck in levels one and two, when true and lasting happiness is found in levels three and four.

Let me give you some examples from my own teaching. On the door to my office is a quote from Jim Fay:

Self image is built through struggle and achievement, not through being made comfortable.

I put that quote up as a reminder to myself, and to my students. I have a tendency to want to make my students comfortable, and I think this may be because I want to be comfortable myself. Asking people to stretch and to grow, is asking for push-back; it is asking for hassles and resistance. I, myself have a proclivity towards comfort and I think I avoid conflict with students because of this. People don’t like to be uncomfortable. However, if they always stay comfortable, they will always stay in level one.

When I look around my own classroom, I see specific examples of allowing students to be comfortable. I have one class with seven enrolled students in a computer classroom that seats eighteen students. They seat themselves like they are attending church. No one sits directly next to anyone else, and everyone but two eager students seat themselves as far from me as possible. All three corners of the room are occupied.

This seating arrangement does not lend itself well to facilitating class discussions. In a small class like this, we should be having many valuable discussions with each student feeling as though they are an important contributor, but I feel like we really don’t.

Some of this is due to the physical arrangement of the classroom. It is a computer lab, and the desks cannot be moved, however I still think we can do better in this regard.

I struggle with helping students reach level two. I think often I am too flexible, letting their need for comfort get in the way of their need for personal achievement. I sometimes give deadline extensions, rather than insisting upon meeting the original deadlines put forth. I think I’ve gotten much better on this, but I still let things slide on occasion, probably trying to keep the peace and levels of comfort.

I want my students to achieve. I want them to be successful. I think all teachers do. Indeed, everyone who has anything to do with education have this desire for our students. This desire fits squarely within level three. Just llook at the orientation and mindset of the Common Core standards. It’s all about personal achievement. If our students don’t achieve, they won’t be successful and they won’t be happy. If we help our students achieve, as teachers we get to function at level three. But the Common Core, indeed most of the traditional educational experience has a pretty narrow definition of achievement. And if we believe what Fr. Spitzer tells us, we fall far short of true fulfillment and happiness if our goal for our students remains at the level of personal achievement.

I’ve only begun to consider ways to help students reach level three, and have hardly been aware myself that level four even exists, let alone help students to get there. I’ve been teaching my own kids that the path to happiness lies in helping others, but I don’t know how often this theme arises in my classroom discussions with students.

This semester, I had my class read How To Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age, which is an updated edition of the Dale Carnegie classic. This might sound like a book on level 2 personal achievement, and in many ways it is, however the recommended techniques often relate to level three thinking. It is certainly not a self-centered approach, recommending an orientation towards others. The only trouble is, we got so busy with projects and immediate demands of the course that we only had a couple of opportunities to discuss the book and its implications.

It seems to me that most of society, including our educational systems are fixated upon reaching level two happiness. It’s all about achievement. Don’t get me wrong. Personal achievement can be a good thing, but when happiness depends on being better than others, defeating others, or holding others down, it is no path to enduring happiness.

As a student and teacher of computers and technology, for a long time I was stuck at level two. I wanted to learn as much as I could about how the technology works. The first time I really considered how the technology affects and can help others was when I took Michael Wesch’s digital ethnography course. I guess I have long been more about the people than the technology, but before that class I never quite knew how to approach it. Now I am still learning how to pass this mindset along to my students. I want to continue to refine how the educational experience in my classroom strives for level three and four thinking. Since I’m just beginning the Spitzer book, and still wrapping my head around these concepts, I will just have to let you know how this all turns out.

How about you? Where are you in these four levels? If you teach, coach, or lead others, where do you focus most of your efforts?

8 thoughts on “Finding True Happiness

  1. A lot of what you describe has direct parallels in Buddhism. Interesting that it came from Jesuit (or not, those Jesuits are wicked smart)

    I see the struggle between what you term levels 2 and 3 as well (level 4 sounds a lot like enlightenment, which is pretty hard to achieve when you really consider it) especially in people involved in technology.

    There is a desire in IT and CS people to see the world as a problem to solve. One, problem after another. Helping people recognize that there is a different way of approaching things seems to be the key.

    The thing is to see how what you are doing is going to help the people that you are developing a solution for. How is what you are doing helping someone else? If you can see the problem from their point of view, and understand how what you do helps them in that problem, that’s a significant step in achieving level 3 in my opinion.

    There’s a whole different line of discussion on how true happiness comes from accepting who you are, and being comfortable with that. Learning to be happy in the absence of achievement is a whole other line of reasoning that may not be in the realm of the young.

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  3. I loved this. First I’ve heard of Spritzer….to think I went to a Jesuit university (granted, it was in the Philippines)! We had to do Theology there and that’s where I first heard of Aristotle’s unmoved Mover and more besides. My Theology and Philosophy courses there have served me far more than I would ever have thought they would.

    I could go on and on about that but I’d like to try answering your question.

    It’s weird to use this paradigm but I do aim for levels 3 and 4 because they are aligned with good learning. In level 3, helping others (i.e. teaching) is a great way to learn so I strive to give my students opportunities to teach and help others. I back away if a student is willing to teach. In level 4, we hope that students learn for the love of learning, not to get A’s or anyone’s approval. This is much trickier to enable ….just as it is in terms of happiness. I think it’s important to first realize that this ‘ideal’ is worth pursuing, some (many?) don’t …does that make sense?

  4. Malyn,

    Yes it does make sense. To me, getting students to love learning is the number one goal. But this is a goal that rarely, if ever gets measured and reported on a teacher’s evaluation. This may have to do with the fact that it is a growth process we are striving for, not a quantifiable, current event. It may be years before our students recognize and value what we are trying to instill in them, long after any current judgements about our quality of teaching are made.

    I was just reading the beginning of Douglas Rushkoff’s “Present Shock” in which he describes our current state of always striving to be in the present moment; a mindset that ignores the future (not to mention the past as well). It seems that our current fascination with the present is just one more feeble attempt at happiness in levels 1 and 2.

  5. Check out the video that inspired this blog post. It mentions that difficulty (improbability) of measuring performance gain – the growth process. Maybe it’ll make better sense to you than me….quite dense in content.

    By the way, I think the ‘trend’ towards authentic collaboration is edu’s attempt at hitting levels 2 and 3….maybe even 4. There is hope.

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