LANCE ARMSTRONG AND LESSONS ON HAPPINESS
By Jim Berlucchi
Twenty eight million viewers from 130 nations recently watched Lance Armstrong go to confession to Oprah Winfrey. He spoke about his moral failures – chronic cheating and lying in the process of winning seven consecutive Tour de France titles.
But why? What pursuit of happiness caused this phenomenal athlete to dope his body for years and lie with impunity?
The Four Levels of Happiness explains a lot. The following formula seems to apply:
Happiness Level 2 Gone Wild + Happiness Level 4 Gone Mild = Inevitable Misery and Moral Failure
You’re probably familiar with our teaching on happiness. It’s simple but enlightening. The desire for happiness drives all our behavior but there are four types in a distinct hierarch. From the lowest to the highest they are: Level 1-Pleasure, Level 2-Ego Gratification, Level 3-Contribution, Level 4-Transcendence or union with God.
Each of us has all four levels. But here’s the rub. One of these four will be dominant. And when push comes to shove, that dominant happiness level will push and shove the others aside, and take the lead.
HAPPINESS LEVEL 2 GONE WILD
In the case of Mr. Armstrong, Level Two short-term ego gratification – winning, status, power and control – really seemed to take the lead. Coupled with extraordinary talent (a blessing can be a curse), it went wild. He admits as much:
For most of my life I had operated under a simple schematic of winning and losing…My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance.
His words are telling: level, desire, flaw. That ‘level’ and ‘desire’ isn’t exclusive to him. We all have it. Actually, we go instinctively toward Happiness Level 2. We all want to succeed. The desire to win is perfectly natural and good in itself.
The flaw is another matter. Our notion of happiness can easily get distorted, becoming an end in itself, rather than a means to a higher end. When that instinct takes over, it automatically translates into my meaning and purpose in life. Unchecked and unexamined, it becomes my undoing.
When my whole identity, my dominant definition of happiness, hinges on winning, losing is not just losing. It’s being a loser. And with loads of status, fame, money and power, being a loser is terrifying and absolutely unacceptable. Seizing total control is the most logical option.
I controlled every outcome in my life…I was a bully…I tried to control the narrative and if I didn't like what someone said I turned on them.
HAPPINESS LEVEL 4 GONE MILD
Level Four happiness is the best regulator for healthy Level Two fulfillment. When the almighty ego defers to Almighty God, we have a fighting chance to be truly happy – to keep our lower happiness levels in balance.
Sadly Mr. Armstrong didn’t see it that way. After mixed success in his earlier battle with testicular cancer he pronounced: If there was a god, I'd still have both nuts.
As for religious faith his analysis is revealing, written much before the recent expose:
I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, wished hard, but I didn't pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs.
Clearly Armstrong recognizes a Level 4 capacity for spirituality. But how did he translate it?
Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn't a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.
It should be enough. But it isn’t. Not enough for Lance and not enough for a human race in a fallen state. It’s precisely because we all tend toward lying, cheating and stealing that we need to be redeemed by one who was like us in all things but sin.
At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I'd been baptized.
These noble sounding sentiments not only smack of self-sufficiency. They also posit a false dilemma. Living a true life is not incompatible with believing God’s Word. Nor will baptism make one untrue. Just the opposite. God’s gifts and powers enable us to become right and true. We can’t be true without Truth itself.
What’s the point? We are custom built for happiness but when we take it into our own hands we tend to implode. We can only achieve real integrity and goodness with God’s help. That’s the good news.
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for. Catholic Catechism, 27.
No one is happy about Lance Armstrong’s self inflicted troubles. In his public humiliation Mr. Armstrong has been skewered and reviled by many. One awful headline proclaimed: “Armstrong is Beyond Redemption.”
I don’t think so. He may be closer than ever to becoming the ultimate winner.
Jim Berlucchi is the Executive Director of the Spitzer Center