In 1922, one of the most brilliant scientists to have lived offered a simple message on happiness and contentment that was as profound as any of his ground-breaking theories on the universe.
Embarking on a lecture tour in Asia, Albert Einstein was greeted by thousands of people in Tokyo where 2,500 admirers paid to attend his first lecture, which lasted for four hours.
Within the science community, Einstein was a star attraction, but he was uncomfortable with the attention, reportedly commenting to his wife that “no living person deserves this sort of reception”.
During his stay at the Imperial Hotel, a courier arrived with a delivery for Einstein. The courier didn’t receive a tip, reportedly because Einstein had no small change and the courier wouldn’t accept a larger sum.
However, Einstein wanted the delivery man to go away with something, and so he wrote his theory on happiness on some hotel stationery and handed it to the messenger.
The note read, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” On another piece of paper, the scientist wrote, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
When he offered the notes, Einstein told the courier, “Maybe if you’re lucky those notes will become much more valuable than just a regular tip”. Like many of his predictions, the scientist’s words turned out to be true. On Oct 24, 2017, the notes – expected to fetch around US$8,000 (RM31,000) – sold for over US$1.5mil (RM5.8mil) at an auction house in Jerusalem.
Coming across the story, it fascinated me that an eminent thinker such as Albert Einstein would offer such simple advice on what it means to be happy. Then again, he once said that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
While his contributions to science, such as the quantum theory of light, the general theory of relativity, and his famous e=mc² equation aren’t the easiest ideas to digest, his view on happiness is something we can all understand – which is why it’s so profound.
As we chase our tails in the pursuit of success in its various forms, these efforts are ultimately geared towards achieving happiness and satisfaction. However, it appears that the more we actively strive for happiness, the less happy we become – an idea that’s backed up by several psychological studies.
The Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman suggests that when we truly experience happiness, we don’t know it. In what he describes as a “lovely paradox”, happiness is something that takes place precisely when we’re not in a state of evaluating, desiring and wishing for more.
When we do engage in the state of desiring and striving for more than we have, that’s when dissatisfaction and discontent set in, and we continue our push for more. Thus we become caught up in a hamster wheel of constant restlessness, and happiness never gets a chance to settle.
Einstein’s advice reminded me of a man I met when I was a child. He was in his 80s at the time and was someone I’d meet regularly on my visits to the local shops. We often had interesting conversations and I once asked him how much of the world he had seen.
As it turned out, he’d never been out of his home town in Scotland more than twice in his lifetime, and these were only brief visits to nearby cities. His revelation was astounding to me and I asked why he’d never been abroad or even visited nearby England or Ireland – did he regret it?
He told me, “Why would I need to go anywhere? Everything I need is right here. I’ve enjoyed my life and am quite happy. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
This was a man who had indeed lived a “calm and modest life” and my encounter with him has always stuck with me and shaped my own thinking considerably as I grew older. Over the years, as I thought about my conversations with the old man whose name I never knew, there were times when his answer troubled me.
On several occasions, I decided he must really be unhappy. How is it possible to be content when you haven’t seen the world beyond your own front door? How can a person be truly satisfied when they live a life of modest means? It made no sense. He didn’t even have an expensive watch or drive a nice car.
It was only later that I understood the irony. Here was this old man, healthy and content in his 80s having lived a modest life, and me in my teenage years getting worked up over my idea that it was impossible for a person to be happy unless they’re striving for more than they have.
As Einstein and the old man both knew, happiness isn’t something that can be brought about by an endless pursuit of things that exist outside ourselves. Rather, it’s something that visits us when we stop chasing and start being more present in life right here where we are.
As the author Eckhart Tolle puts it, “Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness.”