Editorial: Spread a little happiness

"The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing," said Groucho Marx. "If you can fake that, you've got it made." It seems even more appropriate to today's recession, with its record frauds and disguised debt, than to the world of the Wall Street crash, the great depression and the Marx Brothers.

Every day brings more news of car makers stopping production, manufacturers shutting their gates or electronics multinationals laying off thousands of workers at a time. At stake is the welfare of real people - emotional and physical as well as financial. It would of course be wrong for us to imply that all they need to do is to cheer up or smile - and that's not what we mean by this, our tongue-in-cheek, 'happy issue'.

Happiness, though, is now a serious subject in academic and political circles and has become an important subject of study in medical and health research. Of course, where there's research there's a research journal: yes, there is a Journal of Happiness Studies.

"I just want to be happy" became a joke phrase, with its naïve plea for such an apparently simple ambition that's really so hard to define and even harder to achieve. We all want to be happy, the cynics would say, the difficult part is knowing how.

Now the joke's on them because with all this research we know what makes people happy, and the answers aren't rocket science. Play a sport, don't watch too much TV, follow a healthy diet, maintain a good life/work balance, make time for friends as well as family, have realistic goals in life, do work you find rewarding, and all the other things that family doctors have been recommending for years but few of us manage to follow all of them.

There are some less obvious feel good factors too, like being spiritual, subscribing to a religion or taking part in protests. You can't turn real commitments like these on and off at will. But how many of us do all of the things that statistics and sometimes science show that we can do to be happier? And how could we spread that around?

We journalists are not at all used to this, but in this issue we look on the bright side.

The first bit of good news is that engineers are naturally a happy bunch (yes, difficult to believe I know, but it's official) and Piers Bizony looks at how you might spread a little sunshine to gloomier parts of society on p22. After that, on p26, we ask psychologist Richard Wiseman, who claimed to have found the world's funniest joke, for novel ways to make people happier.

Could robots help with happiness in the future? Find out on p40. Could happiness be used to help with the environment? Pelle Neroth discovers some designs that appeal to the heart rather than the head to save energy on p52. And finally, we have ten reasons to be cheerful in IT on p60.

Perhaps what we all need is another Marx Brothers. After all, they lifted spirits during the great depression with quotes like this from Groucho: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them…well, I have others." Or, how about: "Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife."

All right, just one more... "A four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can't make head nor tail out of it." Come on, that raised a little smile didn't it?

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