Relative Happiness

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

For the past several years, the Harris Poll organization[i] has put out a Happiness Index, asking Americans about their state of happiness. The Harris Poll Happiness Index goes into depth, with breakdowns for gender, age, and contributing factors, but also comes up with an average number. In 2008 and 2009, the average percentage of people who said they were “very happy” was 35%. In 2010 and 2011, the average dropped slightly to 33%. The poll wasn’t taken in 2012 or 2014 but 2013 remained static at 33% and 2015 saw an uptick to 34%. In 2016, there was almost a 10% drop, down to 31%.[ii] This year, we’re back up to 33%.[iii] With all the fluctuations, for just shy of a decade, around a third of respondents have been very happy; which means, roughly two-thirds of those polled have not.

One of the founding documents of this country considers happiness, or, its pursuit, as one of three “unalienable rights,” right along with life and liberty.[iv] The Declaration of Independence was penned in 1776 and the numbers indicate we’re still pursuing happiness today, with varying degrees of success. As a professional therapist, you might say the pursuit of happiness is a major part of my business. I can’t begin to calculate the percentage of people who have, at one time or another, sat in my office and said, “I just want to be happy again,” because I tend to work with the two-thirds.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that happiness is qualified as a pursuit, as something to be sought. Happiness may be a “right” but not a given. Happiness, in my experience, can be excruciatingly elusive. I’ve worked with people who thought wealth bought happiness. Or those sure happiness would arrive on the heels of achievement. Or others who assumed accolades would pay a dividend of happiness. Each were disappointed when the fulfillment of these conditions failed to deliver the goods. Wealthy, accomplished, and applauded, they were still unhappy.

Yesterday, a note on happiness, written by the genius, Albert Einstein, in 1922, went up for auction. According to the story in, apparently, Einstein didn’t have cash that day, so he gave a handwritten “tip” to a hotel bellboy instead. The note, in German, translates as: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” The final auction price for this one-sentence note was 1.3 million dollars.[v]

From my high school science classes, I knew about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Up until this week, I wasn’t aware of his theory of happiness, that “a calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” In our fast-paced and pressured lives, this theory may be as difficult to understand as “space and time, relativity of simultaneity, kinematic and gravitational time dilation and length contraction.”[vi]

There’s an assumption that someone able to understand the space-time continuum might have other things figured out. Einstein didn’t just confine his comments to math, although he is quoted as saying, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas,” and “Don’t’ worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are greater still.”[vii] I’m not so sure about that last one.

Einstein is also credited with the following: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it,” “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” and “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”[viii]

When Einstein gave the bellboy that note, he was operating on the theory that a note by Albert Einstein would end up more valuable than a cash tip.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.