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Einstein's other theory
The theory of happiness. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Today would have been Albert Einstein’s 144th birthday. I didn’t know what to get him, so I thought I’d ask my friend and colleague Jessica Stillman if I could share something interesting she wrote about Einstein and his theory of happiness. It turns out he was ahead of his time in more than one field. Here’s Jess.
17 Words About Happiness
In 1922, Albert Einstein traveled to Japan for a lecture series, and he found himself continually surrounded by curious admirers. One day when a bellhop came to make a delivery to his hotel room, Einstein handed him a pair of signed notes rather than a tip.
One of them read (in German):
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
Was Einstein sending a note to posterity, or was he simply caught without pocket change? Whatever his motivations, his gesture turned out to be incredibly generous.
In 2017 the note, now owned by one of the bellhop's descendants, sold for $1.56 million at auction.
Einstein is known for the theory of relativity, among other world-changing insights, but the great physicist didn't just concern himself with the rules governing space and time. He was also interested in the rules of our internal states of mind.
"It's happiness we're after," he told a 1931 interviewer who asked him what humans desired most.
"Will any student of history agree that the inhabitants of an American city are, on the whole, happier than those of a Greek or a Babylonian city of the past?" he mused at a symposium that same year.
So, how was his advice? Unsurprisingly, the last century's best mind actually understood a few things about happiness, way before modern psychological research confirmed them.
First, the concept of happiness isn't self-defining. As another Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, has pointed out, sometimes when people talk about happiness, they mean momentary pleasures like eating a slice of chocolate cake or cuddling a puppy.
Other times they mean something more like life satisfaction or the sense of contentment you get from feeling you've achieved important things or lived in line with your values.
Yet, these two types of happiness are often in conflict. Chasing big dreams and facing down tough ethical dilemmas often feels terrible in the moment. Petting puppies (or buying pretty things) feels nice but could leave you feeling empty.
Other psychologists add another wrinkle. There's a concept called psychological richness, which is another form of happiness that comes from having rich and varied experiences. It's the joy of feeling that you've seen and experienced a fair slice of what the wide, amazing planet has to offer.
So, if we can agree that Einstein spotted the choice we all have to make correctly, the next question is whether he recommend the right decision.
That probably depends on individual character. It's hard to imagine someone wired like Elon Musk finding much happiness whiling away his time with "a calm and modest life."
But with that caveat aside, Einstein's secret of happiness actually aligns pretty closely with the modern psychological concept of the “hedonic treadmill.”
"We work very hard to reach a goal, anticipating the happiness it will bring. Unfortunately, after a brief fix we quickly slide back to our baseline, ordinary way-of-being and start chasing the next thing we believe will almost certainly—and finally—make us happy."
Einstein clearly saw this when he linked the "pursuit of success" with "constant restlessness" in his note.
If you're aiming for external markers of achievement, both Einstein and modern psychology agree you're never going to reach your destination no matter how frantically you run.
Worth noting: This whole exchange with the bellhop took place one year after Einstein won the Nobel Prize, the pinnacle of outward success in his field. So he would have been in a good position to be thinking deeply about this to begin with.
Happiness is a balancing act. Too much striving will likely leave you lonely and miserable; not enough will leave you regretful.
Each of us needs to define it individually for ourselves (and those definitions may shift over time), but whatever definition you choose, be very wary of endless striving. All too often, chasing external success leaves us running miserably in place, getting no closer to contentment.
Einstein figured it out 101 years ago. It's equally true for all of us 21st century non-geniuses, today.
7 other things worth knowing today
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