The secret to happiness

In life, there is no total happiness, although many have done research and others have theories on how to better achieve it. I have spent a great amount of time reading about happiness as it relates to leadership and success. At the end of this life, what makes us happy is not wealth, power or material things. Success alone or accumulating possessions won’t ultimately make us happy. So, what really makes us happy?

We have the innate desire to achieve happiness. The problem is, we often feed ourselves with temporary fixes like food, drink, physical gratification and actions that produce quick praise. As leaders, we need to dive deeper to focus on giving, which results in what Aristotle describes as sublime beatitude. This highest category of happiness is defined as fullness of beauty, truth and love, happiness we cannot achieve solely on our own but by helping others.

Father Robert Spitzer — a long-time good friend, Jesuit priest, former president of Gonzaga University and founder, president and CEO of The Spitzer Center for Visionary Leadership and current president of Magis Center of Reason and Faith — identifies four levels of happiness. The first, external-pleasure-material, is happiness from material objects and the pleasure from those things. We’re stressed, so we eat chocolate. We’re hot, so we turn up the air conditioner. The pleasure is immediate, but short-lived. This shallow form of happiness does not require self-refection but is an instinct of acquisition. Some people will fixate on this first level their whole lives.

The second level, ego-comparative, is when our happiness is based solely on outside praise. This self-conscious form of happiness feeds our ego because we feel happy for being smarter, more attractive, more physically fit, etc. It gives people the ability to form their own internal world, where they are the center. But, when others also receive compliments, or the compliments stop coming, happiness is quickly defeated. This happiness is superficial and temporary, and subject to others’ successes. By working toward this type of happiness, one can become self-absorbed, jealous, cynical and contemptuous.

When we do good for others to improve the world around us, we reach the third level of happiness, contributive-empathetic. This means going from success to significance by putting others’ needs first and making a connection by simply recognizing their value in and for themselves. Allowing this inner connection produces an acceptance of the other person. This care produces a feeling of unity, giving us a purpose greater than ourselves — this could be family, country and God. This happiness is about pursuing the common good, which is what strong and effective leaders should aspire to do.

The fourth level, transcendental happiness, is the highest level of happiness. This level is the desire for love, truth, goodness and unity in their ultimate form. Psychologists call this a desire for transcendence. We may find this through spirituality and religion, or through philosophy, art, or other sciences.

One significant way to move toward happiness is by leading to serve others. By focusing on making a difference in others’ lives, we build meaningful relationships and can assist even more people. We build a network of caring that short-term happiness ultimately will not provide. As Warren Buffet said, “When you’re nearing your end of life, your only measure of success should be the number of ‘people you want to have love you actually do love you.’”

Many people are looking for a fast-track to happiness, which doesn’t exist. But with self-reflection and selflessness, we can lend our talents to help others by being a servant leader. Those accomplishments can make a positive impact — and that is something we will be happier for in the end.

Umberto P. Fedeli is CEO of The Fedeli Group