I love this quote for a few reasons.
First, I just plain old enjoy it when people known for their big math or science brains take the time to think up and say something humanistically relevant. That Mr. Einstein would come up with this tickles my sense of profundity.
One might expect a mathematician of his caliber to be focused on logic, reason and objectivity. Instead he picks three very expansive and subjective traits to describe his ideals; goodness, beauty and truth. They are good ideals, and I love that Mr. Einstein chose them ahead of, say, empiricism or pragmatism.
The real meat of this quote is in the closing sentence though. After holding up his ideals and putting them on display, he makes a comparison to comfort and happiness, two words with generally happy, positive connotations. Yet here he describes them as possessing metaphysical substance fit only for herd animals.
The imagery seems ironic and provocative considering that happiness and comfort are the primary motives of most of the people in our society. It’s hard not to conclude that he is referring to the mass of society as a herd, and the goals of comfort and happiness as hollow and vapid.
Taken in that light, the ideals of truth, beauty and goodness take on a larger dimension. They are massive things worthy of self-sacrifice and self-deprivation. In comparison, happiness and comfort become transitory; ephemeral and insubstantial.
The question I ask myself when I read this is: What am I willing to make sacrifices for? What would inspire me to gladly give up a life of material comforts and traditional models of happiness in exchange for something more profound and meaningful?