Einstein on Happiness

Happiness was on Einstein’s big brain in the early 1930s.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

What did arguably the smartest person of his day think humans desired most?  “It’s happiness we’re after,” Albert Einstein told an interviewer for a German newspaper in 1931, confessing he didn’t care which political system ruled as long as people all over the world were happy.  (Einstein was currently living in Germany but would settle in the United States two years later as Adolf Hitler rose to power.)  Now that capitalism had failed (it being two years into the Depression), the world-famous scientist continued, he was open to all political alternatives, including some sort of collectivism.

Happiness did indeed seem to be on Einstein’s big brain in the early 1930s.  Earlier that same year, he gave a talk entitled “Science and Happiness” at Caltech, questioning whether his field was making the world a better or worse place.  “Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness?” he asked students, his answer a simple one: “We have not yet learned to make sensible use of it.”

Albert Einstein was hardly the only scientist wondering if people were happier with all the advances made in the past few decades than people in earlier times.  The crash and the Depression had made many rethink the very notion of progress, and raised the question of whether previous generations were happier because things were simpler. C.E. Kenneth Mees, director of research for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, for example, made headlines when he told a group of colleagues that those who lived in ancient societies thousands of years ago were happier than 20th century Americans.  “Will any student of history agree that the inhabitants of a American city are, on the whole, happier than those of a Greek or a Babylonian city of the past?” he asked attendees of a symposium (ironically billed as “Engineering Progress”) in 1931.  

Mees said he would be literally happy to have lived thousands of years ago in pre-scientific times, no doubt shocking his fellow engineers with such regressive talk.  Exponential advances in science made since then have yet to make people any happier, study after study shows, begging the question if we will ever learn to make sensible use of it.

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