Working on a special issue that allows you to learn about a single subject—in this case, happiness—in its many forms and functions . . . Asking readers to write in and tell you what makes them happy, hoping to get maybe a handful of letters, and getting so many responses you can’t fit them all in the print edition . . . Having those responses be thoughtful and funny and earnest and truly insightful about what brings contentment . . . Asking a wish list of big-name authors—Farai Chideya, Stephen Dixon, Barbara Ehrenreich, Benjamin Ginsberg, Bill McKibben, P.J. O’Rourke—to contribute an essay about happiness and having them all say yes.
I’ve spent the past few months doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about happiness as background for this issue, and one thing I’ve learned is that, as a society, we spend a lot of time talking about it. (As the mother of a 1-year-old, I’ve been especially interested in the flood of surveys conducted and essays written about how miserable parents are.So far at least, I disagree.) I’ve also learned that the inherited bits of wisdom, and even most of the clichés, about how to be a happy person make for pretty good advice: Simplify. Be grateful for what you have. Spend time with the people you love. Do something you’re good at. Learn something. Take care of your body and mind. Help others.
As we were planning this issue, we decided to leave the “how to find happiness” material to other publications. Instead we’d pose some probing, intellectual questions to Johns Hopkins researchers. What’s funny is that, in their way, our experts all circled back to that same advice. Neuroscientist David Linden tells us that the evolutionary drive that makes our brains respond positively to food and sex also makes us feel good about meditating, learning, and volunteering (“Pleasure on the Brain,” by Michael Anft, p. 30). Happiness economist Carol Graham, SAIS ’86, explains that money, beyond what you need for the basics, really doesn’t make us happy, though consistency does (“More Money, Less Mirth,” by Dale Keiger, p. 38). And several Hopkins health care providers teach us that dealing with tragedy day in and day out is managed by focusing on the positive impact you have on people (“Keeping On,” by Deborah Rudacille, p. 46).
It seems that happiness, though sometimes elusive, isn’t that much of a mystery—and that there’s truth to that biggest cliché of all: It’s the little things. My mood really did soar when readers’ “What Makes You Happy?” letters and e-mails started rolling in (p. 52). And statistics be damned, I am definitely happier because I got to play in the surf with my daughter for the first time this summer.