Even though we may not fully understand it, we are all undoubtedly familiar with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and in particular, his theory of special relativity expressed simply as e=mc². The theory transformed our understanding of physics and astronomy and has had profound implications for how we live our everyday lives. As a result, many consider Einstein to be the most influential thinker of the twentieth century, if not of all time.
One of my favorite Einstein stories has nothing to do with his theory of relativity. It concerns a different, lesser-known theory. A theory that is perhaps more important than the one for which he is most famous. In 1922, Einstein decided to skip the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm to receive his prize in physics and instead honor his commitment to deliver a lecture in Tokyo, Japan. While staying at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, Einstein received a delivery to his room. Not in possession of any change but wanting to tip the courier, Einstein decided to write down his theory of happiness on a piece of hotel stationery and give it to the young man. Here is the English translation of that note:
A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.
The courier kept that note. In 2017, his family sold it at an auction for $1.56 million—a large sum for sure. But the implications of that note are priceless.
It is commonly said that what all human beings are seeking is happiness. I believe that to be true. With a little bit of artistic and scientific license, perhaps we could say that Einstein’s e=mc² was also his formula for happiness, where e represents eudaimonia, the term for happiness in ancient Greece, m is modesty, and c is calm. We would be wise to understand and follow this formula, one by which Einstein tended to live his own life. As the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus shared some two thousand years before Einstein: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” It’s really that straightforward. The more modest our needs and wants and the less restless we are, the richer our experience becomes. One of the many silver linings of the pandemic is that it has forced us to simplify. When I hear people express their concern that we will return to the normalcy of pre-pandemic life, I believe they are alluding to the unnecessary complexity of that prior world. I believe they are longing for a modest and restful existence. I believe that we all are. That we are all seeking the happiness or eudaimonia that Einstein points to in his theory.
I’m not advocating for a monastic experience, although that may be right for some. Rather, I’m pointing to the possibility of being even just slightly more discerning about what we take on in our lives. Of saying no a bit more often. Of being more present to fewer things. In Einstein’s theory, a bit more m and c, and a lot more e.