A Man with the Key to Happiness

Is a gold medal the key to happiness? The man in the picture won one, but I’d not suggest you aim for something similar. Happiness is not in the precious metal medal. In fact, Steve Henikoff — the happiest man I’ve ever known — never strove to win it.

I had a Thursday dinner with Steve. He was in Chicago to receive the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to the field of genetics in the last 15 years. The award itself takes the form of a very heavy, circular, gold paperweight inscribed with his name.

Steve and I go way back, to sixth grade or so. He was a curious kid, interested in many things: from photography to music, from chess to skiing, from crossword to jigsaw puzzles. Even Mad Magazine. And he was a passable softball and basketball player, just one of the guys you wanted to be around and who wanted to be around you. But Steve had a greater gift that went unnoticed at the time: to enjoy whatever he was doing.

He hasn’t lost it.

Sounds simple. Try it sometime and you’ll find it isn’t so easy.

Dr. Henikoff’s research has moved the entire field of genetics forward through a combination of technical innovations and fundamental discoveries,” said Dan Gottschling, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Division of Basic Sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “His selection as the recipient of the GSA Medal is a fitting honor to a scientist who inspires so many of us in so many different fields.”

Please understand, Steve was delighted to receive the award, but that is not the secret to his happiness.

If you read the rest of the GSA’s press release, you will note words like “visionary,” “influential,” “landmark research,” “inspiring,” and “generosity.” Yet, none of this high praise has much to do with happiness either, except the last of those words: generosity. Steve loves to collaborate with others and mentor young scientists. Like nearly everything else about his vocation, those activities are unselfconscious and fun.

The hitch in achieving moment-to-moment happiness is something called “hedonic adaptation.” We are built to quickly return from a high or low point — a great achievement or a heartbreak — to our relatively steady state of emotional functioning. Put differently, we live on a “hedonic treadmill,” only temporarily able to get higher than our own “normal” mood. The new car smell doesn’t last, the raise in salary is yesterday’s news, and the thrill of a better job title is pushed aside by growing ambition and a bigger goal.

That’s where Steve’s model is instructive. He was thrilled to win the award, but you can’t win gold medals every week. What then? Must you work into the dead of night figuring out how to boost your well-being?

I doubt the good Professor thinks much about being happy. Indeed, I suspect not thinking about it is one of the most important reasons he enjoys himself most of the time. Steve probably wouldn’t say this, but here is his secret:

He doesn’t meditate about life satisfaction, he lives it. His high-powered brain does not over-think.

Dr. Henikoff is at ease with himself, having fun — yes, fun — in the full-immersion joy of invention and discovery. SH loves to think about his research, talk about it, solve scientific puzzles, write about the work, and discuss his findings with others. Steve thrills to spark the minds of young scientists. He lives in the moment, having the kind of good time we all once did — when we were preschoolers playing games, learning new things, and exploring a world where everything was fresh. All before we began to worry about what others thought about us and punish ourselves to succeed.

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Steve Henikoff has not lost the childlike wonder of a new day. He cannot wait to get to his lab and do work that is not work, but play.

The Professor doesn’t puzzle much about philosophical stuff. He is pleasantly busy with those tasks he has identified as the most important in his life. He achieved success not because he strove for it, but because the involving and enjoyable work was so well done, it caused others to notice. Had you given him enough to eat, a decent place to sleep, and a lab to work in, I believe he’d have been just as pleased on a daily basis even without recognition. Oh, yes, he might have required some clothing, too!

I must mention his comely and compatible collaborator and wife, the brilliant Jorja. Both his happiness and his work — their work — are completed by her presence. A woman he knew, after only six weeks, was perfection. A young lady he married in just that time, over 40 years ago.

Steve creates for the love of it. He is content learning, doing, and mentoring. It is not as though he has avoided losses, including those dear to him. But Steve’s attitude is simple. Loss is in the nature of things. There is nothing to do but accept it and, before long, jump back into the pool of life.

The water in which my friend swims is not untroubled. The academy is a competitive pond, full up with sharks. But Dr. H. has the gift of buoyancy. Moreover, he does not add the unnecessary weight of hoping for a bigger home or fancier clothes.

Little thought is spent on those concerns that might distract and destroy this scientist’s equanimity. He doesn’t have to screen them out. At “work” they are simply absent.

Look at Steve’s smile in the top photo. Why is Dr. H. so happy? For him it was just another day at the office, doing the magic he was made to do. Who among us could wish for more?

The top photo is of Steve in his lab. The second image is a 1974 snapshot taken in Boston. From left to right: Steve and Jorja Henikoff; my wife, Aleta; and yours truly.