The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our attention this year, and here Professor Amélie de Marsily explores whether contemplating our own happiness is a waste of time in such pressing times.
The past year has brought a wide range of novel and pressing questions that have completely disrupted our attention span. Individuals, just like organizations, have been forced to make sometimes highly impactful decisions in times of unparalleled uncertainty, and this decision-making has moved to the forefront of our lives. In this context, resilience has become a buzzword, while others, like happiness, have been somewhat shunned, leading to the question: Is it a waste of our time to care about happiness given all the important matters and decisions that need our urgent attention? After all, Einstein famously said: “Well-being and happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambition of a pig.”
Two Kinds of Happiness
What did Einstein mean? Are we no more than pigs (metaphorically speaking) if we care about happiness?
Behind his famous interrogation is, in my view, a subtle difference between two kinds of happiness. The first is the well-being that arises from activities that bring us pleasure, like exercise, spending time with loved ones, enjoyable food, having fun, having sex, doing things that interest us. These are generally derived from what we can get from the world – let’s call them hedonic needs, which are by no means trivial. This is the primitive happiness Einstein derided, with his idea that only animals – in this case pigs – exist to receive from the world rather than give to it. This is in complete contrast to the many scientific contributions that Einstein himself made to the physical world – contributions that also happened to be the basis of his livelihood.