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.


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.

Bald is Beautiful? Reflections on Hairlessness

I recently had a brief on-line conversation with my old friend Steve Henikoff (pictured above), whom I met in fifth or sixth grade at Jamieson School in Chicago. I mentioned that I was struck by his father’s baldness as soon as I was introduced to his dad, Armand. I recall thinking to myself that Steve would therefore probably go bald too, and that I would be exempt because my dad had a full head of hair. That shows you how little I knew about genetics — how unaware I was of the fact that Male Pattern Baldness (MPB) wasn’t that simply acquired. Not surprisingly, Steve has a great head of hair to this day and I am — well — just look at the picture on the right.

Steve, however, was not a fan of his father’s nose and claims to have the spitting-image — sneezing-image? – of his dad’s schnozzola. I never noticed anything about his father’s nose that seemed remarkable. But, Steve certainly inherited the best of Armand and Sylvia Henikoff’s brain-power, as he is an internationally recognized researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and one of the few folks in the world elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS is the Hall of Fame of living scientists, comprising approximately 2200 members and 400 foreign associates, of whom about 200 have won the Nobel Prize.

Steve’s hair undoubtedly contributed to his success. Yes, I know he graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard and is fantastically smart. But I’m here to report that it was his hair that enabled him to become world renown. Doubtless, if not for my own shiny pate, I would be right beside my old buddy on the NAS roster. I tell myself this so that I can sleep at night.

I, unlike Steve, began to lose my hair in college. I noticed a few too many strands on the bathroom sink during a summer that I worked at MIT and shared an apartment with Rich Adelstein and a friend of his. My initial reaction was that those black hairs couldn’t be mine. I looked for name tags attached to the individual hairs, but finding none, didn’t think too much about it. I simply buried the idea of this being some sort of early warning signal. By the beginning of graduate school at Northwestern, however, there was no doubting that something was happening — to me! My roommate then was blond. Ownership was indisputable.

A bald man who has cleverly figured out how to distract you from his baldness.

Passing thoughts occurred to me about the potential speed of my condition’s progress, but since it wasn’t obvious to anyone else I didn’t agonize about it. I suppose that I might have done some calculations. “Let’s see, if I have X number of hairs and I am losing hair at the rate of Y hairs per day, then I will be bald as a coot by — Tuesday!” As I say, I didn’t do this and wouldn’t recommend this exercise in self-abuse.

Talk about vanity. Before long I was trying to figure out whether I would look better if I had longer hair in the area of my temples or if shorter hair would achieve a better disguise. But I still had lots of wavy hair, despite the beginning signs of a bald spot on my crown. I was a poster child for the early stages of Male Pattern Baldness, which, unlike female baldness, tends to be localized at the start, rather than a thinning of the hair over the entire scalp.

By the 1980s a blood pressure medication called Minoxidil (Rogaine) was producing good results for some of the men who used it to deal with their hair loss. I knew friends who vouched for its safety and effectiveness. But somehow I couldn’t get around the idea of taking medicine for something that had more to do with self-image than with health. I’d also seen too many bad hair-pieces by that time, and heard that the care and feeding of those creatures — “Is the animal on your head still alive?” — was time-consuming. They also reportedly generate a good deal of heat on the top of the scalp, not being ventilated the way that real hair is.

Other possibilities presented themselves. For example, some guys look good with their heads shaved. The danger here, I think, is coming off as a little too intimidating; plus, you need the right shaped head. Not for me.

The idea of a serious comb-over seemed worst of all. I always wonder about the romantic partners of these guys. Don’t they have the guts to say “You know dear, I have to tell you that combing the six-foot-long hairs from behind your left ear to cover the top of your head makes you look like CRAP!!!”

Scalp reduction surgery was more intriguing. As I’ve written elsewhere, it is designed to get more coverage out of the hair you have by reducing the territory on top of your head.

I can imagine the following conversation:

Surgeon: ‘Well, Dr. Stein, we’ve studied your head, your hair-line and scalp and we have some good news and some bad news.”

Me: “Tell me more, Doctor.”

Surgeon: “The good news is that we can give you a full head of hair!”

Me: “And the bad news?”

Surgeon: ‘Your head will be the size of a grape.”

According to Wikipedia:

One large-scale study in Maryborough, Victoria, Australia showed the prevalence of mid-frontal baldness increases with age and affects 73.5 percent of men and 57 percent of women aged 80 and over. A rough rule of thumb is that the incidence of baldness in males corresponds to chronological age. For example, according to Medem Medical Library’s website, male pattern baldness (MPB) affects roughly 40 million men in the United States. Approximately 25 percent of men begin balding by age 30; two-thirds begin balding by age 60.

The news that you have (or will have) some company in the hair loss department is cold comfort, especially if you lose too much hair early, which I didn’t. As with money, status, jobs, and just about everything else in life, we are more likely to make comparisons to those who are better-off than those who are lower on the totem-pole than we are.

Question: Does this look more like Steve’s father or me?

A man who is honest with himself will admit that the reason he wants hair on the top of his head is to look good for others. When you are alone reading a book in your room, I doubt that many guys think that the experience would be better if they could run a hand through thick and wavy locks every few minutes and say to themselves: “Boy, you know I liked The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, but it’s really much better now that I have a hair transplant!” No, I don’t think so.

So this is about making a good impression, rather than a bad impression or no impression at all. It is about being sexually attractive even if you have no real interest in having sex with those who might admire you. And, as with many other things, it is emotionally tougher for women, some 30 million of whom have hair loss issues in the USA alone.

Eventually, at least for most guys who don’t try to change the course of nature, you reach the point that your baldness can neither be disguised nor denied. You are a bald guy. Face it. Because, I’ll tell you what, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. Think of some of the advantages:

  1. You will find yourself thinking much less about either hair arrangement or being without hair. It is just who you are.
  2. You will save money on hair spray, hair cuts, and hair-care products.
  3. You will save hours combing your hair and have much more time for re-reading The Great Gatsby.
  4. You can rent out the top of your head as advertising space — “Eat at Joe’s Restaurant” — and make some extra money.
  5. Some woman actually prefer bald men and many value other qualities more highly than hair.

There is one other advantage, but I’m afraid I can’t transfer this to my brothers in baldness. It came in the form of a 2008 handmade Father’s Day card from my daughter Carly. To help you understand the message, you need to know that we have a cabinet-filled room full of CDs which is mostly devoted to my listening to music. If you happen to be in the kitchen, you can see into the room easily, and see me from behind as I am seated on a couch. Here is what Carly wrote on the inside of the card:


Your bald head has always had a warm place in my heart. Sounds peculiar, I know. But ever since I was little, I would look at the back of your head sitting in the music room and it comforted me. The image still does. It’s because that picture (below) represents my Dad who is always there to listen, to give ample hugs, to give sound advice, to dole out corny jokes, and when he smiles I know how much he loves me. To someone else it may be just a bald head, but to me it’s the gleaming ray of sunshine that is my Dad!

As perhaps you can imagine, reading that was worth all the hair loss in the world.

The photo of a Bald Eagle was taken by Vlad Butsky and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.