Levels of Joy (Fulfillment)


I’ve become something of a David Brooks fan. It’s happened in a slow, plodding way.


First it was liking a few of his columns in the New York Times, and then I stumbled on a book that must have been The Road to Character in a book store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

It opened with the distinction between résumé values and eulogy values, and I was quite taken with that idea. I still am.

I’m currently reading the book that came after that, evidently, which is The Second Mountain, that basically says there are two mountains in life: 1) focusing on yourself, and 2) focusing on others. He makes the argument that true happiness only comes from climbing the second mountain, and not just the first.


Are you focused on your résumé goals or your eulogy goals?

I recommend reading both books. Strongly. But this post is about one small section of the latest one, about levels of joy. Brooks characterizes joy as a deeper happiness, or, what many might think of as true happiness.

I’ve come to refer to this as fulfillment, or what the Greeks referred to as Eudaimonia. That is to say, it’s not just about physical pleasure, or career success, or financial freedom, or even fame.

It’s a deeper kind of happiness that only comes when you’re both thriving at an individual level and at the level of the soul, which is a strange sentence for an atheist to write. It basically combines personal happiness with a life of moral action.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that comes close as well.

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So, call it joy, or fulfillment, or eudaimonia—Brooks breaks it down into a number of levels:

  1. Physical Joy: Levin from Anna Karenina cutting grass and losing himself. Also called Flow.

  2. Collective Effervescence: Celebratory dance.

  3. Emotional Joy: The burst of love for a newborn child.

  4. Spiritual Joy: The feeling that the world is imbued by a mystical force.

  5. Transcendent Joy: Feeling united with nature, the universe, or God.

  6. Moral Joy: Taking deep, long-term pleasure in doing good in the world.

List all the things.

I love these levels for lots of reasons. First, they represent a model of the world that makes it understandable. Second, it’s ordinal so I feel like the path to progress is clear. And third, oh crap I just made another list.

But seriously, I love when people can model important aspects of life in this way.

I’m not sure I have a path to 4 and 5 without becoming more religious, or more in touch with psychedelics.

I have experienced a good amount of level 1. I think I may have had some of level 2 through raves with friends, actually. Although I think there may be higher planes within that. I’m not sure if I’ve experienced the third at the level of a newborn child. Nor the spiritual level. Nor the transcendent. But I do think I’ve had a small taste of trying to do good in the world, or drawing fulfillment from helping others.

So where does that leave me?


How about you? How many of these have you experienced? And what’s your plan for adding more?

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