Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

einstein creativity

As one par­tic­u­lar­ly astute observ­er of human emo­tions might put it, it is a truth uni­ver­sal­ly acknowl­edged that we can’t all be Albert Ein­stein. In fact, none of us can. That unique expe­ri­ence was denied even Einstein’s son Hans Albert, though he did go on to his own dis­tin­guished career as an engi­neer and pro­fes­sor of hydraulics. Ein­stein father and son had a strained rela­tion­ship, yet the great physi­cist had a hand in his son’s suc­cess, inspir­ing him to pur­sue his sci­en­tif­ic pas­sion. But Einstein’s pater­nal encour­age­ment extend­ed fur­ther, beyond sci­en­tif­ic pur­suits and to a gen­er­al the­o­ry of learn­ing and enjoy­ment that sug­gests we can be hap­pi­est and most pro­duc­tive when being most our­selves.

While liv­ing in Berlin in 1915, Ein­stein wrote a poignant let­ter to his son, just two days after fin­ish­ing his the­o­ry of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty. His tone swings from buoy­ant to pained—lamenting his family’s “awk­ward” sep­a­ra­tion and propos­ing to spend more time with Albert, as he calls him. His son can “learn many good and beau­ti­ful things from me,” writes Ein­stein, “These days I have com­plet­ed one of the most beau­ti­ful works of my life.”

Ein­stein also writes, “I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and car­pen­try are in my opin­ion for your age the best pur­suits.” An ama­teur musi­cian him­self, Ein­stein under­stood the val­ue of devel­op­ing an infor­mal avo­ca­tion. “Main­ly play the things on the piano which please you,” he tells his son, “even if the teacher does not assign those.” Doing what you love, the way you like to do it, he goes on, “is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing some­thing with such enjoy­ment that you don’t notice that the time pass­es.”

This great theme of total immer­sion in a cre­ative endeav­or sur­faced sev­er­al decades lat­er in anoth­er scientist’s work, that of Hun­gar­i­an psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi, described by Mar­tin Selig­man—for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Association—as “the world’s lead­ing researcher” in the field of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy. Pre­sent­ed in his pop­u­lar TED talk above, and at more length in his books on the sub­ject, Csikszentmihalyi’s insights into human flour­ish­ing mir­ror Einstein’s: he calls such cre­ative immer­sion “flow,” or the state of “being com­plete­ly involved in an activ­i­ty for its own sake.”

The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, move­ment, and thought fol­lows inevitably from the pre­vi­ous one, like play­ing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Con­trary to our usu­al con­cep­tions of using one’s “skills to the utmost,” Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi tells us that the reward for enter­ing such a state is not the mate­r­i­al ben­e­fits it gen­er­ates, but the pos­i­tive emo­tions. These, as Ein­stein the­o­rized, not only moti­vate us to become bet­ter, but they also pro­vide a source of mean­ing no amount of finan­cial gain above a min­i­mum lev­el can offer. “The lack of basic mate­r­i­al resources con­tributes to unhap­pi­ness,” Csikszentmihalyi’s data demon­strates, “but the increase in mate­r­i­al resources does not increase hap­pi­ness.” While none of us can be Ein­stein, Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi tells us we can all ben­e­fit from Einstein’s advice, by doing what­ev­er we do to the best of our abil­i­ties and with­out any motive oth­er than sheer plea­sure.

via Far­nam Street/Brain Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Musi­cal Mind of Albert Ein­stein: Great Physi­cist, Ama­teur Vio­lin­ist and Devo­tee of Mozart

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Calls for Peace and Social Jus­tice in 1945

Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • THABO says:

    I think Albert Ein­stein’s work of moti­va­tion and the­o­riz­ing will nev­er obso­lete, because all the sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that are made, they are com­pared to Albert’s the­o­ries. May his work always stay used and moti­vates the com­ing gen­er­a­tions

  • Bobby says:

    Please teach e more on abert ens­tiane

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