Advice given to a bellboy in 1922 on how to be happy in life.
By Peter Burns [October 27, 2021]
Were you to ask three random people on the street what happiness was for them, you would likely get four different answers. For this concept is elusive, changing based on the person, circumstances, or even time of day. It’s something people strive for, yet often can’t quite reach.
If told they could get the secret to happiness, most people would pay thousands or even millions of dollars to get it. And some actually did just that. A few years ago, a small auction was held in Jerusalem. On the selling block were two ordinary pieces of paper. One of them fetched a price of 1.56 million US dollars. The other went for 240 thousand.
What was so special about these two papers that people were willing to forgo a fortune to get them? It was none other than the secret to happiness, as devised by Albert Einstein, the man synonymous with genius.
The Choice of Achilles
In one of the most poignant scene of “The Illiad”, as retold by the ancient bard Homer, Achilles mentions the choice that had been given to him at birth by his mother, the goddess Thetis. Live a short, unhappy, but glorious life, and be remembered for all eternity. Or, live a long, happy, peaceful life, but be soon forgotten.
Achilles chooses to strive for glory. Constantly fighting, and struggling, he kills Hector, the great defender of Troy, but in turn is dispatched to the Afterworld by Paris’ expert arrow shot into his heel. His outtakes pass into legend, still discussed thousand of years later as the epitome of a hero.
Yet, if you examine the text of Homer’s epic carefully, you will see that Achilles was wavering as to what road to take. Initially, he was leaning towards returning home to live a life of peace and happiness. Somehow, deep down, the great hero knew this would be the best personal path to follow.
The Path of Einstein
Fast forward thousand of years later. In 1921, Albert Einstein is at the top of his game. He is accorded that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. The brilliant scientist goes on extensive tours abroad, engaging in lectures and receptions, and sharing his knowledge with the crowds. As part of his itinerary, Einstein visits Japan the following year.
The story goes that as he was exiting his hotel in Tokyo, a bellhop came up to him to deliver something. For some unknown reason, Einstein didn’t give him a tip as is customary, but instead took out a pen and paper and wrote something down.
Remarking that they might prove valuable in the future, Einstein handed the hotel worker two pieces of paper. On the first one, he scribbled down what has now been termed Einstein’s theory of happiness.
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” — Albert Einstein
According to the discoverer of the theory of relativity, the chase for money, power and influence is tiring and a source of constant restlessness. Instead, a calm and modest life brings more happiness than the never-ending pursuit of success. Take a step back and think about what Einstein was saying here.
What most people in the modern world consider the point of life is wrong. In direct contrast to the preachers of 21st century hustle culture, the man whose name came to symbolize genius believed a calm and modest life was where the sweet spot of existence resided at. In the place of Achilles, he would have advised him to take the path of a long, peaceful life.
Einstein’s philosophy of life
Albert Einstein was an admirer of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher whose family had emigrated from Portugal and Spain. It is from this great thinker, that he drew much of his life philosophy.
In many ways, Spinoza’s life epitomized Einstein’s idea of a calm and modest existence. Offered a professorship and a big chunk of money, he turned it all down to live a simple life, making and grinding lenses. While staking out a meager living, Spinoza’s choice offered him something more valuable, the space to pursue his own ideas in complete freedom.
Just like Spinoza, Einstein didn’t care much for distinctions or money. His priorities were elsewhere. In a famous 1929 interview, he went further into describing what made him happy:
“I am happy because I want nothing from anyone. I do not care for money. Decorations, titles or distinctions mean nothing to me. I do not crave praise. The only thing that gives me pleasure, apart from my work, my violin and my sailboat, is the appreciation of my fellow workers.” — Albert Einstein
The legendary scientist, then contrasted this to the life of the captains of industry of his day. While they strove for riches and success, thinking it will bring them freedom, what they received is a straight-jacket that hinders their very being.
“I am sometimes sorry for men like Ford. Everybody who comes to them wants something from them. Such men do not always realize that the adoration which they receive is not a tribute to their personality but to their power or their pocketbook. Great captains of industry and great kings fall into the same error. An invisible wall impedes their vision.” — Albert Einstein
Einstein’s ideas echoed the wisdom of the ancients. Their ideas withstood the test of time.
“It is undeniable that the enlightened Greeks and the old Oriental sages had achieved a higher level in this all-important field than what is alive in our schools and universities.” — Albert Einstein
This Einstein statement hints at something profound. And unlike many Einstein quotes, this one is real. It shows that Epictetus’ idea for limiting your wants, or Buddha’s preaching to let go of your ego are much more conducive to living a good life than their modern alternatives.
Life is about a different type of striving
Living modestly doesn’t mean you should stop striving for stuff. In fact, Einstein is famously quoted as saying you should tie your life to achieving goals.
To explain the type of effort we want, we can turn to a 19th century German great of philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche. His notion of the will to power describes the inner forces that drive a person’s acts in the world. Yet, this will can be manifested in different ways.
It has often meant the quest of certain individuals to try to dominate others. It has also been behind the urge to get fame, power, and riches. Applying Einstein’s insights, these however are the wrong avenues to take. The will to power can also be manifested in the never-ending quest for self-improvement, for knowledge, and for creativity.
This is also the best way to induce flow, the state of mind where you are so immersed in an activity that you don’t notice the time go by. Some psychologists have posited that this is the state most akin to happiness. Albert Einstein echoed this view, and in a letter to his son shared this as his secret to learning almost anything.
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.” — Albert Einstein
Instead of striving to control other people, to get rich, or powerful, Albert Einstein tied his life’s meaning to figuring out how the world works. This didn’t require him to own lots of houses, cars, or post selfies of himself on social media. In fact, when people tried to thrust him into positions of power (such as becoming the president of Israel), he politely declined.
How to apply in your life
Armed with this basic idea of what really constitutes a good life, you can start thinking of steps how to apply this advice to your life. Ask yourself some basic questions.
Is it really worth it fighting pointless battles over nothing in the office? Do you really need that middle management position, or wouldn’t you be happier doing something else? Is that new fancy car really necessary, when taking the bus would suffice?
Albert Einstein has the answer:
“The ordinary objects of human endeavor — property, outward success, luxury — have always seemed to me contemptible.” — Albert Einstein
The ancient Epicureans were right when they stated that “the wealth required by nature is limited, and easy to get.” In short, you don’t require countless amounts of money or power, to get the things you need to survive and prosper.
There of course isn’t a precise formula for happiness. You can’t really go e=mc2 on life as you can with mass and energy. As humans we all have different needs. Our situations differ. I might be single, but you might have a family with kids. Therefore, the way to achieve a calm and happy life might not always be the same. Everything is relative, as the old genius used to say.
Yet, Einstein’s insight into what brings happiness in life applies no matter the circumstance. Having a calm and modest life as your goal will prove much more satisfactory than chasing after useless things. The Nobel Prize winner used thought experiments to determine how the world works. You too can use the same method.
Picture yourself happy. Think about what is really important to you. What will warm your heart deep down. Is it swimming in big piles of money? Or is it your family? Is it that management position that requires you to work 24/7? Or is it, doing something intellectually fulfilling instead?
And sure, even good advice is not always easy to implement. You might not be in a position to take a step back and stop hustling right away. Over time, anything is possible though. As Einstein noted down on the second paper he handed to the bellhop, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” — Albert Einstein
Peter Burns is a curious polymath who wants to know how everything works.