Come On, Get Happy!

Pam Johnson knows our dirty little secret: We're privately merry

If Pam Johnson was disappointed, she didn't show it. She'd expected her book-signing to look like a party, with balloons and kids' games at the store's main entrance, where she could ensnare Saturday-afternoon passersby, sell a few books and bask in laughter. Instead, Bookstop placed her on its upstairs balcony; to reach her signing, you had to climb stairs, then pass through a room of books and a coffee shop. The payoff for that journey appeared slim: Pam's setup looked more like a lecture than a party. Not surprisingly, few of Bookstop's regular patrons bothered themselves with the affair. The ten-person audience was composed mostly of her relatives, who'd caravanned from Beaumont and Winnie. Another author might have cried or stormed out. Pam smiled.

People expect Pam to smile. Two years ago she founded the Secret Society of Happy People, and her book is named Don't Even Think of Raining on My Parade. She maintains that though our culture pretends to value happiness, we prefer to talk about pain, and we distrust the chronically perky. Want to stop an office conversation dead? she asks. Just tell people how much you adore your spouse. Want to gather a flock of sympathetic listeners? Air your grievances.

This relentless "parade-raining" infuriates Pam. She doesn't deny that tragedy infests the world: We hurt, we grow old, we die. But everyone, she says, has "happy moments," and if we don't stop to savor that light, we'll end up dwelling on the darkness.

Pam Johnson and her studied smile
Deron Neblett
Pam Johnson and her studied smile

So Pam did not bemoan that at the end of a month of hard traveling, when she could have been spending a quiet weekend at home in north Dallas, she was here, in this way-too-quiet Bookstop on West Alabama, talking to a microscopic crowd. She was pleased to see a photographer and a reporter. She was not depressed that no members of the society's Houston chapter managed to attend; instead, she was excited about recruiting new members.

She was dressed, surprisingly, all in black, and she wore black eyeliner and dark lipstick. When the photographer's flash went off, it illuminated the kind of smile you see in yearbooks and wedding photos, when people have composed their faces for a camera, determined to leave a record of their happiness. It was not a fake smile, but it was a studied smile, a practiced smile, a smile set against a black background and a long day of driving.

Pam was choosing to be happy. I wondered, Do I have a problem with that?

A woman from Bookstop introduced Pam, which was a bit funny, since most in the audience had known Pam since she was a kid. Pam's relatives probably appreciated the humor in the situation; they seemed to possess high levels of what Pam calls happiness awareness. Not only had they read Pam's book (they liked it), but most wore "Don't Even Think of Raining on My Parade" T-shirts.

Holding a microphone, Pam related the history of the Secret Society for Happy People -- which is, basically, the same story that she tells in her book. In the spring of '97, she began writing a newsletter to accompany the personal-empowerment workshops she taught. For its humor column, she imagined an underground group of sunny people who gathered clandestinely to share the emotion that dare not speak its name.

When Pam told people about her idea, they laughed. Some said, "I want to join." The idea nagged at Pam until she did something about it. A year after she tried to make a joke about the Secret Society of Happy People, she ended up declaring it a real organization, with a mission statement ("Be the voice for the expression of happiness") and a slogan ("Are you happier than you think you are?")

By November '98, the Secret Society boasted a Web site ( and roughly 40 members from all over the country. A couple of them called Pam to complain about an Ann Landers column in which the advice maven urged readers not to send chirpy happy-news holiday newsletters. The society had found its first battle against the forces of darkness: The advice columnist was trying to quash holiday cheer! Pam stayed up all night faxing the society's statement to newspapers and TV news shows.

The society's protest made the Associated Press wire service and was printed in papers across the country. The society's Web site logged thousands of hits; hundreds of new members sent in their $30 dues. Pam did radio and TV interviews. She was exhilarated; she was hitting the big time.

In 1998 and 1999, the society continued to make national news. Pam has appeared on CNN, on Politically Incorrect and in People magazine. The AP ran stories about the society's list of 1998's happiest moments (No. 1: The first 14 days of 1998 are very happy because no one has heard of Monica Lewinsky) and its attempt to have governors proclaim August 8 as National Admit You're Happy Day. The 19 governors (including George W. Bush) who issued a proclamation were labeled "Happy Governors"; the 19 who refused were "Parade-Rainers"; and anyone who noted that the society's petition didn't meet state requirements was a "Stick in the Mud."

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