Albert Einstein is famous for his Theory of Relativity, but he is also credited with other milestone works – including some that my readers might not be readily familiar with – like his views on happiness and success.
In 1922, while on a talking tour in Japan, Einstein learned that he was being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. It is said that the messenger who came to the hotel to deliver the news to Einstein either politely declined to accept a gratuity, possibly in accordance with Japanese custom, or that Einstein did not have small change for tipping. So, the physicist penned two short notes and handed them over to the messenger. One of the two notes read, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” This came to be known as Einstein’s Theory of Happiness.
Einstein appears to suggest that Quality of Life is to be preferred over Standard of living. The former depends on a subjective experience while the latter is more objective and definable. It is a discussion that comes up regularly in our circle of friends and family.
Working with newcomers to Canada, I would ask them to share their reason for coming to Canada. The responses would vary equally between “We came to Canada for a better quality of life” or “For the future of our children”. When pressed to clarify what “quality of life” meant to them, their expectations covered items like better opportunities for a good job, more money, better housing and schools, good infrastructure and healthcare etc. The focus appeared to be on what might be considered tangible “standard of living” factors. We have created and are now fixated on a predetermined status that is widely accepted as a measure of good living. For instance, the size of the house and the neighborhood, model of the car, private school or “ivy league” college where the kids are studying, the club that one belongs to, preferred shopping brands and boutiques, or where one takes a vacation and how many times in a year, etc.
Other newcomers stated that they were drawn to Canada for its natural beauty, nice people, healthy and affordable lifestyle, to breathe clean air and drink untainted water straight from the tap, enjoy playing with their kids in the neighborhood parks etc. They were listing intangibles that do not necessarily depend on wealth and defined for them a good “quality of life”.
These are subjective, personal choices and each of us vacillates when deciding on what we really want in life. One needs a mortgage-free residence, unencumbered loan-free education and a “decent” job that provides a “good lifestyle” and “something for a rainy day”, one might argue. The question “why” we need money can be easily answered; it is more difficult to determine “how” much is needed to afford the security and happiness that we seek.
In my attempt to understand Einstein’s Theory of Happiness, I am reminded of a “doha” (lyrical verse) by the 15th century mystic poet, Sant Kabir:
“Chaah gayee chintaa mitee, manwaa beparwaah
Jinko kachhu naa chaaheeye so hi shehanshah”
[Letting go of greed removes all cares, sets free the mind,
King of kings is the one who leaves desires behind]
The Enlightened Gautama Buddha would instruct his disciples when setting out to seek alms each day, that they accept offerings only enough to fit in the cupped palms of their hands. He wished to keep the neophytes from developing base emotions. Feelings of greed arise when one wants to get more and hoard, in case one has to return empty-handed the following day. A novice might become fearful that future offerings might not be enough for sustenance, or that another colleague might steal the hoard being stashed away. Jealousy might arise against the one that gets more alms. Becoming suspicious that another person might be stealing, giving rise to anger against the one who might have pilfered. It was therefore important to focus on being content.
Einstein’s note suggests that contentment leads to happiness. Many years ago, my own mentor (late) Professor Singh had defined Happiness as Satisfaction divided by Desire:
One can either reduce desires or increase the level of satisfaction, to remain happy.
Bobby McFerrin agrees: