When everything seems to be changing, it becomes increasingly important to know what endures.
A timely reminder of this has come this week thanks to the auction in Israel of a small note that the physicist Albert Einstein gave to a Japanese courier in 1922.
“A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest,” the note written on Imperial Hotel Tokyo stationery reads.
The note comes to light as more people are starting to reevaluate what success actually means and the purpose behind their increasingly fast-moving and complex lives.
Einstein’s scribbled message also aligns with a growing “new economy” movement that points out that our current form of capitalism, which puts the pursuit of success and profit as top priorities, is not only leading to unprecedented environmental destruction but is also increasing social inequality.
That inequality is one reason why people do not appear to be happier despite an expanding economy.
In a study of 16 developed countries, Selin Kesebir, assistant professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, found that when income inequality is high, an increase in gross domestic product per capita was “virtually unrelated to life satisfaction.”
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, she concluded that “what we can say for sure is that it’s a fallacy to equate GDP with well-being. It’s not a foregone conclusion that growing the economy will make for a happier people.”
She also points to the data which shows that despite the post-war economic boom in America between 1946 and 1970, surveys showed no improvement in happiness.
That remains true today, with a United Nations World Happiness Study released in March 2017 showing that while the U.S. ranked third for happiness among the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2007, it had fallen to 19th by 2016.
That’s not surprising when you see that the U.S. is facing an unprecedented opioid addiction crisis, while research presented at the American Psychological Association convention in August showed that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity and is getting worse.
Meanwhile, new analysis unveiled earlier this year showed that Americans are experiencing mental health problems in record numbers.
Some economists, such as the U.K.’s Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson, are calling for a complete rethink in the way we measure success, moving away from an obsession with GDP growth towards broader measures of wellness that include data on happiness and social stability.
Spiritual leaders are also recommending a fundamental change in the way success is measured and point out that our desires for success tend to lead only to suffering.
Pope Francis has issued several scathing critiques of the current capitalist system.
“Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change,” the pope said, during a speech in Bolivia in 2015. He added that the capitalist system “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.”
This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.
Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh also echoes Einstein’s words of wisdom. “If you have a healthy desire, such as a wish to protect life, or protect the environment, or live a simple life with time to take care of yourself and your beloved ones, your desire will bring you to happiness,” he writes in his 2001 book “Calming the Fearful Mind.”
“If you run after power, wealth, sex and fame, thinking that they will bring you happiness, you are consuming a very dangerous type of food and it will bring you a lot of suffering. You can see this is true just by looking around you,” he added.
Nhat Hanh recounted speaking with a business leader running a global company with more than 300,000 employees.
“He shared that people who are very rich are often extremely lonely because they are suspicious of others,” he wrote. “They think anyone who approaches them in friendship only does so because of their money and only wants to take advantage of them. They feel they do not have any real friends.”
The corporate world is starting to wake up to Einstein’s idea that a focus only on the pursuit of success can lead to constant unrest.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which represents more than 200 of the world’s largest corporations, has been carrying out research into what it terms the “The Good Life.”
Its recommendations very much fit into Einstein’s note. Julian Hill-Landolt, the council’s director of Sustainable Lifestyles, calls on brands to “rethink the picture of the world that they paint through their advertising. We’re not asking them to stop selling their products, we’re just asking them to stop selling their products in a world that is all about bigger, faster, and more.”
“The [Good Life] Playbook shows how people are already taking pleasure from a different type of world, one where time with friends and family, health and good food are all luxuries to aspire to,” he said. “At the end of the day, this isn’t rocket science. We’re suggesting that forward-looking brands should check the structural integrity of their messaging.”
It can sometimes seem an impossible task for those that are seeking to transform the capitalist system, and help move away from the mantra of short-termism and profit maximization.
But for those who may start to lose hope that it is possible to create an economic system that generates prosperity for all within environmental limits, Einstein has another piece of wisdom that is worth remembering.
He wrote another short note to the Japanese courier in gratitude for delivering a message to him, which also sold at the same auction. It’s message: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
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