Programs for Happiness

“Programs for happiness” is a core idea found in the teachings of Thomas Keating on the human condition, which he uses to refer to various psycho-spiritual processes rooted in developmentally appropriate needs for survival/security, affection/esteem and power/control. These “programs” originate in infancy, internalized throughout childhood and engaged, often unconsciously, throughout one’s lifetime. Programs for happiness can become a point of reference for “likes” and “dislikes,” appetites, drives, interests, and a host of other ordinary human endeavors and expressions. Programs for happiness help shape the formation of one’s acquired conscience and personality

 

“According to the evidence of developmental psychology, each human being recapitulates the pre-rational stages of development toward full reflective self-consciousness that the human family as a whole has undergone in its evolutionary ascent. In the first six months of life, the infant is immersed in nature and has no awareness of a separate identity. As the infant begins to differentiate a body-self, its emotional life clusters around its instinctual drives for survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control. Image patterns, emotional reactions and behavior gravitate around these instinctual needs and create elaborate and well-defined programs for happiness (or programs to avoid unhappiness) that might be called ‘energy centers.’  With the gift of language, the child begins to internalize the values of parents, peers and the prevailing culture, drawing its self-image, self-worth and value system from the values and expectations of the group. This process of socialization compounds the complex networking of the energy centers.

 

“The greater the extent to which the child feels deprived of instinctual needs, the more its energies are invested in emotional programs designed to satisfy one or all of these needs. When these programs for happiness are frustrated, upsetting emotions such as grief, apathy, greed, lust, pride or anger instantly arise. If these emotions are painful enough one is prepared to trample on the rights and needs of others, as well as on our own true good, in order to escape the pain. … The gradual building up of the emotional programs for happiness initiated in early childhood expand into energy centers around which one’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, mindsets, motivation and behavior gravitate. As each new stage of developing human consciousness unfolds, an increasing sense of separation emerges, along with the corresponding feelings of fear and guilt. We come to full reflective self-consciousness with the pervasive sense of alienation from ourselves, other people, and God. We feel more or less alone in a potentially hostile universe. …

 

“[Upon reaching adulthood] instead of evaluating our emotional programs for happiness, our rational faculties justify, rationalize and even glorify them, [though, by this time, much of their original justification may lie buried in the unconscious]. …

 

“Genuine human growth incorporates all that is good on the more primitive levels of consciousness as one ascends to higher levels. Only the limitations of the earlier levels are left behind. For example, the need for security and survival, a biological necessity for the infant, has to be integrated with other values as the organism experiences the unfolding of its human potentialities. …

 

“[The human condition under the influence of one’s programs for happiness] manifests its radical self-centeredness in various expressions of human activity: in material pursuits such as wealth and power; in emotional satisfactions such as relationships; in intellectual goals … in social goals such as status and prestige; in religious aspirations .. and even in spiritual commitments…

 

 

“The Gospel calls us forth to full responsibility for our emotional life. We tend to blame other people or situations for the turmoil we experience. In actual fact, upsetting emotions prove beyond any doubt that the problem is in us. If we do not assume responsibility for our emotional programs on the unconscious level and take measures to change them, we will be influenced by them to the end of our lives. As long as these programs are in place, we cannot hear other people and their cries for help; their problems must first be filtered through our own emotional needs, reactions and prepackaged values. No amount of theological, scriptural or liturgical study can heal the [separate-self] system, because as long as our emotional programs for happiness are firmly in place, such studies are easily co-opted by them.

 

“The heart of the Christian ascesis … is to face the unconscious values that underlie the emotional programs for happiness and to change them.”

– Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ