Einstein’s Secret to Happiness.
The fascinating story behind the short note bought for $1.56 million.
Last week an anonymous buyer bought a short note written by Albert Einstein for $1.56 million an auction in Jerusalem, an all-time record for the sale of a document in Israel. The story behind his putting pen to paper to record his perspective on achieving true happiness is fascinating.
It was in 1922, after Einstein had completed his first paper on his unified field theory, that he learned he had won the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics. Instead of going to Stockholm for the customary award ceremony, Einstein felt an obligation to honor a commitment to lecture in Japan and began a stay at Tokyo’s famous Imperial Hotel. During his visit a bellhop came to his room with a delivery of a package and Einstein, feeling embarrassed that he had no Japanese money on him to offer as tip, decided instead to pen a note on a piece of hotel stationery which he asked the bellman to kindly accept in lieu of cash. “Keep this and perhaps someday it may be worth something.” In the interim, Einstein added, it should serve you as good advice for the rest of your life.
Einstein chose to offer a one-line sentence on the secret of happiness:
"A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness."
Last week’s seller of the Imperial Hotel note is reportedly a grandson of the Japanese bellboy's brother who lives in Germany. A spokesman for the auction house, Meni Chadad, told The New York Times that it had expected the notes would garner $5,000 to $8,000. When the sale was announced, he said, the room burst into applause.
Of course the value of the note was predicated on its unique authorship. But we would be guilty of a serious lack of respect for the mind of an intellectual giant if we didn’t equally attach profound worth to the sentiment as well as to the source of this supremely important life serving instruction. Nor should we ignore the obvious echo of Einstein’s advice in Jewish thought and Talmudic teaching – ideas which may well have resonated with him either on a conscious or subconscious level by way of his heritage.
Happiness, it’s been said, is a very serious matter. In Ethics of the Fathers we find Rabban Gamliel’s teaching: “He who increases possessions increases worry” (Avos, 2:7), and Ben Zoma famously said, “Who is the happy person? One who takes pleasure in his lot” (Avos, 4:1). A restless pursuit of success rooted in an immodest lifestyle guarantees the opposite of its goal. Einstein said it in one way; the rabbis expressed it in another. Perhaps the best summary of Jewish thought is to comprehend that success is getting what you want but happiness is wanting what you get.
We are all far too familiar with the vicious cycle of life. Above all we want to be happy. Our culture keeps telling us that the way to be happy is to have more money. Then we can buy more things that will give us more pleasure. When they don’t, we’re told that we really need more money to buy bigger and better things, so that’s why we have to take on more work and more stress – because then we’ll really be happy. And as we see less and less of our family and accumulate more and more possessions, we end up discovering that it wasn’t only Rabban Gamliel who grasped it but Benjamin Franklin similarly came to the realization that “He who multiplies riches multiplies tears.”
In Jewish tradition, there’s a saying that during our lifetimes we have three main friends—and when we die, they leave us in exactly the reverse order in which we treated them. No sooner does our soul leave our body, than all of our wealth flees with it as well. Families are more faithful. They walk with us after our passing to the cemetery, our final resting place. Then, they too leave us to go on with their lives. It is only our name, the good deeds we performed for others, and the influence we may have had upon them, that outlive us and offer us a share of immortality.
Strange then, isn’t it, that we spend most of our lives chasing after money, spending far less of our time than we should with our families, and spending so little of our efforts to accomplish those things by which we will be remembered!
Maybe making a fortune isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we can even identify with the profound words of the contemporary author Emile Henry Gauvreay: “I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest to make money they don’t want, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they dislike.”
Relatively speaking, money and possessions aren’t really as valuable or as important as “a calm and modest life” – a life judged not by possessions accumulated but by a respected legacy earned. That insight, that ability to perceive happiness in proper perspective is an illustration of a theory of relativity shared both by Torah as well as by Albert Einstein – and well worth more than many millions of dollars.