What Makes Us Happy?

In our last post, Do You Want to be Happy?, we talked about the human desire for happiness and said that pleasure gives us happiness. But how do we understand how to obtain pleasure? It often seems like once we get used to the pleasures in our lives, they stop bringing us happiness. How can we hold on to happiness?

What the Angel Taught You teaches that there are five levels of pleasures. Think of it like traveling – there might be one plane to your destination but you can fly first class, business (second) class, economy (third) class, in the baggage compartment (fourth class), or by hanging on to the plane with a rope (fifth class). In each case, you’ll get there but the journey will be vastly different.

Our gravestones might all say the same thing – the year we were born and the year we died. But what happened between those years? We’ll talk about accomplishments and legacies another time; did you enjoy those years? What class did you fly?

There is (at least) one difference between our metaphor and reality. When you fly, you can sit in economy but if the seat next to you is empty and you can stretch your legs across the row, you might feel like you’ve stepped up a class. In life, however, the five levels of pleasure are nonexchangeable currencies. You can’t trade a boatload of fifth class pleasures for a square of third class pleasures. Someone who’s dying from cancer would not trade a life-saving drug for a million bucks, and most people wouldn’t exchange their spouses for a plaque on a wall – and when we explain the five levels further, you’ll understand why they just don’t level out.

Before you raise your eyebrow in doubt, wondering how all the pleasures in the world could be contained to just five distinct levels, let’s go through those levels and see what they’re about. After all, you wouldn’t want to spend all your life in the baggage compartment if you could hang out in first class, would you?

We’ll start at the bottom.

Fifth Class: Hanging by a Rope

Fifth class pleasures are the most easily attainable pleasures that are generally simple, readily available, and buyable. Most of us know how to attain fifth level pleasures. If money can buy it, it’s probably fifth class. If you can touch it, see it, smell it, hear it, taste it – it’s probably fifth class. All materialistic pleasures such as a sizzling steak, Hawaiian vacation, a nice house, music, fur coats, a view from a cliff, and other experiences that involve the five senses, are fifth level pleasures.

Fifth level pleasures are here for us to enjoy but we need to be careful. If we don’t exercise basic moderation, these pleasures will not only lose their appeal but are likely to make us sick. Drink too much of that robust wine and you’ll be vomiting. Relax too much under the blue sky and you’ll probably fall asleep, missing the whole vacation. Stare too long at a sunrise and you’ll see stars. Yes, enjoy the gifts God has invested in the world for our pleasure but beware of your consumption to ovoid overstuffing yourself and losing the pleasure they provide. Stay in control of your desires and how you fulfill them and you’ll enjoy fifth class pleasures the way they were meant to be enjoyed.

And we all know that when we experience a fifth level pleasure for too long, it loses its appeal. You can’t compare the pleasure of a visitor to the Alps to the pleasure of a Swiss who lives there. With fifth class pleasures, we’re constantly moving on, trying new things, finding more pleasure.

Fourth class pleasures: The Baggage Compartment

After talking about all the pleasures in the fifth class, it may be hard to imagine what’s more pleasurable. What would we not want to exchange for the dream house or a million bucks? Is there a pleasure that actually lasts, that doesn’t wear off with time? Here’s one:


Ah, yes, of course. We all know that money cannot buy love. Love does not involve the five senses. Love is love – an entity unto its own.
Love is often characterized by Maimonides’ definition: the pleasure we get when focusing on the virtues of another person.

Think about it; it sounds right, doesn’t it? Sometimes we may know we love someone but if we can’t focus enough on their positive qualities, we might find ourselves acting in unloving ways simply because we don’t feel the pleasure of love. When we do focus on that person’s good qualities, we can overlook all wrongdoing and enjoy our relationship.

It’s a process to understand the other person so that we can really love them. It takes commitment to get to know someone enough to love them even through hard times. That’s why the more we get to know someone, the stronger the love can become. That’s also why it’s harder to maintain a relationship we feel less naturally committed to – such as a friend or romantic relationship – than one in which we are naturally committed, such as siblings and children.

That’s why infatuation can’t keep a relationship going for too long. Infatuation is a feeling that is so overwhelming, it doesn’t need commitment. But if we don’t commit to continuously focusing on the other person’s virtues, we will soon meet their human flaws and the relationship will splinter. For a relationship to last, you need more than infatuation; you need a commitment to love, a commitment to focusing on each others’ virtues.

(You can read more about Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, where he says that true love includes intimacy, passion, and commitment, here.)

Oh – and loving yourself will bring you at least as much pleasure as loving someone else, and the process is just as simple. We’ll have future posts about how to love yourself more – and why it matters so much.


In my introduction to the Joy Blog,

I promised that each post would be within the millennial attention span.

At over 800 words, this post breaks that promise so I’m sorry cropped-site-icon.jpg.

We’ll follow-up with the Third Class of Pleasure in another post, coming up soon.

For know, if you’ve got something to add, comment below! We read everything.

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