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Cover Story

What Happiness Looks Like

We puzzled long and hard over what to put on our cover for this issue. Happiness means so many different things to so many different people. How to distill its essence into one perfect image of joy?

Our creative journey began with photographs of children. After all, aren’t children a universal symbol of joy? It was an obvious place to start, even though we were keen to avoid cliché. We first considered the black and white picture below, by French photographer Raymond Depardon. Taken in 1981, it shows a group of kids jumping rope in Harlem, their grinning faces and leaping bodies bursting with the sheer energy of happiness. Literally jumping for joy. Then, as we widened our search, another image stood out — a shot of a child in Nepal.

Suddenly, we remembered our alumnus Barry Shaffer and his superb photographs of Bhutan. Shaffer is a remarkable man who has forged an extraordinary life. A dentist for more than 40 years in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, upon retirement he exchanged Encino’s bustling Ventura Boulevard for the pristine air and sweeping mountain views of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to start a new life as a photographer. He made three trips to the principality and the result, his first major book of fine art photographs, Echoes of Bhutan, was launched two years ago at the prestigious Telluride Mountainfilm Festival.

As soon as we saw Shaffer’s photograph of an elderly Bhutanese woman, her weather-beaten face radiating joy, we knew we had found our cover. At first glance, perhaps this seems a surprising choice. This woman is clearly poor. She is old. She appears to be in the middle of nowhere. And yet, she embodies the startling research findings of our scholars — findings that you will discover in this issue: that happiness isn’t about more money or youth or possessions; that, in fact, we will grow happier in old age; that our digital universe of dating apps and social media, rather than making us more connected, is actually making us lonelier and more isolated; and that where we live in the world can have a major influence on how we assess our well-being.

The fact that this photograph was taken in Bhutan, a nation committed to Gross National Happiness — its signature quality-of-life indicator — gave it even more resonance.

If you are curious about what makes us joyful and what does not, you may find some answers within this issue of USC Dornsife Magazine. As you read it, consider the words of author Kurt Vonnegut: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Susan Bell
USC Dornsife Magazine

A group of kid jump rope together in a street.