Paul W. Smith
Happiness According to the Experts
If you had a serious medical question, chances are you would not ask your brother-in-law the politician. If you are like most of us, you would not only seek out a doctor who specialized in your ailment, but you would probably go a step further to find the smartest one. In an age where this type of research is only a few keystrokes away, there’s no excuse not to seek an expert.
This same approach makes sense when dealing with the most pressing life questions that each of us face – What is the meaning of life, and what is my purpose? In 1982, The Washington Post printed the oft-quoted “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”, attributed to a 15-year-old named Tony Daniels. According to Quote Investigator, this is the earliest recorded use of the phrase, although there are literary references to a similar notion dating back to 1922. History does not tell us if young Tony grew up to be a politician, and we can certainly hope he didn’t qualify as an expert.
Much of what is written about these critical questions comes from the great philosophers, who often control the conversation until equations are written and measurements are taken. Thirteenth Century Persian poet Rumi wrote “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” While this is a great prompt for a Philosophy 101 paper, it is not the answer most of us are looking for. Contemporary philosopher John Lennon had a more accessible view.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
While John’s cheeky answer feels a bit more grounded, there are credible ideas that lie somewhere between a 13th century poet and a 20th century rock star. Among the Top Ten Smartest People of All Time are four very recognizable names each of whom had something to say about happiness.
Like John Lennon, Albert Einstein was a 20th century musician/thinker. Although Albert played the violin, he is more closely identified with esoterica like the photoelectric effect or special relativity. He also found time to ponder happiness and is remembered for this 1922 note on the subject.
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
This idea caught on, and in 2017 Albert’s handwritten note sold to a happy buyer for $1.8 million.
Nikola Tesla, the unsung 19th century genius who is better known as the namesake of a popular EV, is considered by some to be the inventor of our modern world, with over 700 patents to his name. While Einstein was a brilliant thinker, Tesla was a prolific achiever. Nikola found his own personal happiness in bringing his ideas to life.
“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success...such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”
Tesla appears to have accepted the constant restlessness Einstein warned about in order to experience the occasional bursts of happiness - the “thrill that goes through the human heart” – that come with success. Based on his staggering number of successes, he must have led a happy, albeit solitary, life.
Sixteenth century Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci had much to say about happiness, some of which was later echoed by Tesla and Einstein. Leonardo stressed curiosity and independent thinking as the foundation, and his own insatiable quest for knowledge is legendary. Da Vinci once said, “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding”, and he is remembered for questioning everything. Independent thinking is much more difficult in this modern world of information overload, but finding your own personal truth is worth the effort. American poet Henry David Thoreau echoed this thought.
” What lies behind us and lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen.”
The experts have spoken. A wide-ranging sample of the greatest minds over the past many centuries encompasses fundamental beliefs about life. Creating is more fulfilling than just consuming, and sharing those creations brings joy. Meaning is found by rejecting the noise and looking inward. Curiosity leads to understanding and satisfaction. Serenity and modesty are more desirable than traditional success. Happiness is personal and begins within.
My personal takeaway is that the meaning of life is simply to be happy, and our purpose is to spread happiness in the world.
But then I’m no expert.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.