On Einstein’s Theory of Happiness
A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest. — Albert Einstein
Back in 1922, Albert Einstein was giving a series of lectures in Japan. He had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in November, 1921. While staying at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a courier delivered a message to Einstein. As is the custom, the courier refused a tip, but Einstein wanted to thank the man. He wrote two notes and signed them, saying something to the effect that I hope if you are lucky these will be worth much more than a tip. One note was the quote above and has been called Einstein’s Theory of Happiness. In 2017, the note sold for around $1.5 million. Although that amount is astounding, the advice is priceless.
In a word, Einstein’s Theory of Happiness boils down to a single word — contentment. There are many variations on the them of “happiness”. There are momentary satisfactions such as hearing a birdsong or enjoying a favorite food. If your life is marked by moments of momentary happiness you might experience a profound sense of emptiness as you mature. Chasing after dreams or doing the “right thing” can certainly make one happy. Feeling as if you have enjoyed a rich life, however you define it, can bring about great satisfaction. As you can see, happiness is not one size fits all. And, as Einstein said, it is the pursuit of so-called success and constant unrest which inhibit the true the joy of living.
Leading up to my agonizing divorce, at this time of year thirty years ago, I was forced to make a series of heart-wrenching decisions. The prologue to that tragic opera are far too personal to share. In the end, I told my ex-wife she could take everything except the refrigerator and our kids, ages three, five and seven at the time. She left us to pursue, as she said — her “happiness”. The day after the divorce I woke to find all three kids had climbed into bed with me. They did this often over the following months. For years, in order to be a successful single parent, I tried to live, as Einstein said a quiet and modest life. I slept on a busted living room couch for over fifteen years, so my kids could each have the privacy they needed. In the darkness of our quiet home, I would puzzle over the twists and turns of the journey we were on, knowing one day our paths would have to diverge. And those days were both the most painful and joyful of all. As the poet Rilke once wrote — “The only journey is the one within”.
True success cannot be defined by others since the scale of success is unique to each individual. Yes there are those who have obvious financial success such as Elon Musk. And millions are dedicated to following the minutia of celebrities’ lives. But does their fame grant them access to some higher level of happiness? No. Don’t measure your happiness against their perceived success. Stop and think for a moment about the times you have said, “If only I had…”. But you didn’t. That path was erased after the next step. Take time this weekend to take stock of your life and the things you can change for the better and those you cannot. Change gives you the sense of what is known as “agency” in psychology. Life is change and how a person deals with change greatly influences their contentment.
To bring this back to Einstein, he once said, When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. And that essentially is one of the keys to unlocking happiness. One’s viewpoint, positive or negative, directly impacts their potential for happiness. Life is ever-changing and happiness ever-present if you can change the way you look at things. Peace and Happiness.