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As an adult, I've experienced deep, rich, sometimes even complex pleasures. I've fallen in love and fallen into long, lively conversations with quick and intelligent friends. I've cradled babies, comforted toddlers, and received massive, satisfying hugs from my growing children. I've drunk fine wines and savored gourmet dishes in elegant restaurants. Believe me, it all feels mighty good. But when it comes to experiencing true joy, well, nothing beats doing Superman.
Here's how it works. My husband lies on his back in bed. I stand in front of him and, with his feet positioned just so on my belly, he lifts me up in the air with his legs. If we get the balance right, I can let go of his hands, put my arms out ahead of me and turn my head from side to side, just like George Reeves in the opening of the old TV show. It feels ridiculous, and ridiculously fun, and it never, ever fails to get me giggling like an 8-year-old.
My Superman moments are pure joy, the kind of joy children feel all the time and adults experience only too rarely. Tap any adult you know, no matter how erudite, and watch her eyes sparkle as she tells you what made her giddy as a kid: sledding, riding bikes until dusk, digging into a full bowl of Halloween candy. My friend Gail, a smart and accomplished editor and mother of two, certainly enjoys shopping and working and socializing and arranging holiday meals for her large extended family. But she revels in outdoor showers. "My grandparents had a beach house, and I spent my childhood washing off the saltwater and sand in an outdoor shower," she says. "Now, when we rent a house at the beach, I insist that it have one. Nothing brings me back to childhood more than showering outside and then drip-drying in my robe on the grass."
There's no denying that the education, experience, and proper ID required for grown-up pleasures are great perks of adulthood, but the joys of childhood -- like alfresco showers -- are incomparably sweet. One reason is the nostalgia for a time that was free of responsibility and full of discovery. "Childhood was a time of firsts," says Edward Hallowell, MD, a psychiatrist in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (Ballantine, 2003). Think back: You might remember the first time you jumped off the high board at the pool; the sleepy summer afternoons you spent mastering the art of gliding on your bike without touching the handlebars; or the days at the ocean when your mother, as mine did, held you in her arms as the incoming waves jostled you up and down.
Such joys can be even greater when experienced as an adult, both because they're so rare and because, unlike children, we're aware of how fleeting they are. "Reliving childhood joys is a step deeper than experiencing them for the first time; you have to recapture and re-create something," says Dr. Hallowell. "It can be bittersweet -- joy mixed with sadness." Kathy Franklin, a mom and a vice president at Disney Worldwide Outreach in Burbank, California, agrees. "I know from experience, for instance, that wanting to dress up like a princess morphs quickly into wanting to wear exactly the 'right' clothes to fit in with the cool kids," she says.
The chief advantage childhood joys have over the adult variety is that they tend to be primal -- they bypass the brain and go straight to the heart, the taste buds, or the funny bone. They're the ultimate in living in the moment. When I enjoy that fine meal, a good part of the experience is intellectual. I'm thinking, What is that herb I'm tasting in the soup? or, The lamb is fabulous, but is it $29.95 worth of fabulous? But when I stick my spoon into a jar of Marshmallow Fluff, I don't think a thing except, Mmmm! Ditto for running: When I go for a jog (gotta work off the lamb and Fluff somehow), I listen to news radio on my headset, think about my miles, think about my time, think think think. But when I race my son, or try to steal a soccer ball from my daughter, I don't think at all. I just laugh.
Apart from being an enjoyable escape, though, is there any real reason to seek out the silliness of our youth? I mean, we've got families and jobs and laundry to do. Must we really make time for this nonsense? The answer is yes. There are benefits obvious to anyone who regularly reads newspaper reports of studies confirming that happy people are healthier. Just this past year, for example, a Duke University Medical Center study found, after following heart patients for 11 years, that those who had reported happiness, optimism, and joy were 20 percent more likely to be alive than those who had frequently reported more negative feelings. So, certainly, reintegrating joy into your life can be good for your health.
But Dr. Hallowell suggests the psychological benefits are even more critical. Behaving "childishly" is not only invigorating, it also reminds you how little you need to be happy. "Someone once said happiness is not having what you want, it's wanting what you have," he says. "Kids are good at this. They can show us that all you need is to be alive to find all kinds of excitement."
And even more glorious, reexperiencing childhood joys can help reignite our dreams. Sadly, as our responsibilities grow, most of us lose a bit of the fire of our childhood, that fabulous flame that allowed us to imagine doing great and exciting things. "There's no reason adults have to lose that," says Dr. Hallowell, who suggests that a visit to childhood activities can help revive it. "Maybe you need to go back in your mind, or even physically go to the street you played on or the house you lived in, to get that fire started again."
So if childhood joys are so good, and so good for us, then we shouldn't wait until they fall into our laps -- we should go out and make them happen. Parents have it easy because being around children provides such a clear road map to your own memories. The desire to share our own childhood joys -- anything from cannonballing into the swimming pool to pulling Silly Putty apart just the right way so it makes that satisfying pop -- gives us an opportunity to indulge in them again. If you don't have a child of your own, borrow one for the day. (Most of us parents are more than happy to oblige any trustworthy adult who offers to whisk our children off for a few hours.) Don't think of it as babysitting, but as having a play date. When you've finished pushing the swing, grab one for yourself and pump, baby, pump. Go as high as you can, higher than you did when you were little and didn't have quite as much body weight to propel the swing. Now, how does that make you feel?
There are countless other ways to revive the joys of your own early days. Start by writing them down, says Hallowell. Then act: This summer, go back to an amusement park and ride the teacups, the roller coaster, the merry-go-round. Come fall, head to the store and stock up on "school" supplies for your office.
You can also rediscover what's funny about being silly. If your sense of humor has become a tad sophisticated, trade in the New Yorker cartoons for SpongeBob SquarePants. Watch as many episodes as it takes to appreciate it. As adults, we've worked hard to become discriminating about our entertainment. Kids don't have that self-censoring impulse -- they just let the laughs rip. Clearly, they're onto something. "'Childish' humor is essential, basic, and consistent through the ages," says Dr. Hallowell. Go for whatever makes you giggle. Drop your oh-so-mature disdain of bathroom humor. Shakespeare found flatulence funny, so why shouldn't we? Go ahead, get that whoopee cushion. You know you want it.
Speaking of whoopee cushions, don't underestimate the value of toys for joys. Though kids can help you uncover the joy buried under years of adulthood, they're not an absolute necessity. Play Mad Libs, Parcheesi, or Pictionary with a group of adults.
Do include your spouse in this project -- in fact, take advantage of him. Men seem to have ready access to their inner child. Maybe it's because most of them worry less than women do. Whether they're throwing a child into the air or pointing their skis down a precipitous slope, men don't automatically think, Someone could get hurt! Or maybe it's just because they're so famously reluctant to ever part with their inner child. Whatever the reason, tapping into his juvenile side shouldn't be hard. (Of course, some guys need prompting, particularly if they're accustomed to acting all grown-up around you.) Surprise him by picking up some squirt guns at the supermarket and ambushing him one afternoon, or by aiming a snowball at him this winter, when you know he needs a break from shoveling. Suggest a leisurely bike ride (a take-no-prisoners game of Ping-Pong if he's the competitive type), or hark back to the intimate, comforting joy of being read to by deciding on a book you'll read aloud to each other at bedtime.
And for goodness sake, alone or especially with the one you love, eat occasionally for pleasure, abandoning all thoughts of calorie and carb counts. One of the finest restaurants in New York City, The Four Seasons, understands the power of the culinary throwback. There, patrons celebrate special occasions with a big plate of cotton candy. "People love it," says the assistant pastry chef, John Chang. "It's not something they get to eat very often and it brings back a lot of memories." For me, the memory resides in a rectangle of graham cracker dipped in a glass of milk just the right amount of time (in too long, and half the cookie dissolves).
How you decide to resurrect the joy of childhood is, of course, a highly personal decision, and one I recommend you pursue as often as possible. Along the way, as research suggests, you may boost your immune system or protect your heart. Moreover, you may decide it really isn't too late for you to try to write a novel, visit Paris, hike the Appalachian Trail, or tackle any of the myriad dreams you once nurtured and believed could come true. At the very least, as you rediscover your own version of Superman, you'll giggle and grin like a little kid, which, when you think about it, is plenty.