Come On, Get Happy!

Pam Johnson and her studied smile
Deron Neblett

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.

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."  

Pam often complains that journalists are professional parade-rainers, but stories about the society tend to be happy. Reporters rarely note the darkness implicit in the society's proclamations and battles. Why attack Ann Landers, who usually gives good advice? Doesn't such a fight focus on Ann's failing, rather than on her strengths? And if the first 14 days of '98 were "very happy," what does that mean about the following 351, when we'd all heard too much about Monica Lewinsky? And what about poor Monica? Is the society raining on her parade?

Also, is it fair to brand a governor a parade-rainer because he refuses to sign a cute little proclamation? What if he believes he's upholding the dignity of his office? And worse still, what about calling a governor who plays by the rules a stick-in-the-mud? If Bill Clinton had been a stick-in-the-mud, would we ever have heard of Monica?

And what exactly is happiness? Pam says it's both an emotion and a process. You are happy, but you can also pursue happiness. Sometimes, she says, happiness is a kind of virtuous circle: You can make yourself happy simply by recognizing your happy moments. Never mind John Stuart Mill. ("Ask yourself whether you are happy," grumped the philosopher, "and you cease to be so.") Pam urges us not only to ask whether we're happy but to recognize the happiness embedded even in dark situations.

Her book opens with a quote from Anne Frank, the holocaust's most celebrated victim. ("We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.") To illustrate "Cheerful" happiness, the book offers the story about Betty, who beams as she tells friends that her biopsy showed uterine cancer. "I think I created this illness because I didn't have anything to do," Betty tittered. "I just needed a "project,' that's all. I was bored." (Another book might have called that statement "denial.")

Besides "Cheerful" happiness, Pam illustrates 20 other varieties, ranging from "Amusement" to "Bittersweet" to "Spiritual." The typology implies a kind of scientific rigor, less a Proustian cloud of tangled emotions than a bird-watcher's checklist of commonly sighted species. We are to collect and identify our flickers of happiness in the way that butterfly collectors pin specimens to a board.

I was skeptical. I wear a lot of black, and I suspect I'd have more fun hanging out with Pam's foes, the chronically cranky, than with her happy band; innately cheery people make me feel grumpy by comparison. But I'm also susceptible to books, and after immersing myself in Pam's, I began road-testing her worldview. I searched for the silver linings of famous clouds. Considered in the right light, Romeo and Juliet isn't just a tragedy but a marvelous illustration of Happiness Type 14: Love. Lear discovers that Cordelia really did care for him (Types 14 and 20: Love and Surprise), and Othello finds out that Desdemona was faithful after all (Types 17 and 20: Relief and Surprise). Hamlet enjoys producing a play (Type 9: Fun), and after he's dead, Denmark is no longer metaphysically rotten (Type 19: Spiritual). Alas, poor Yorick: "A fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy," he embodies Type 1, Amusement, even after he's dead.

I began to enjoy myself (Type 12: Humor). In a weird way, Pam had won.

So far, 2000 has been a slower year for the society. Its list of "The 100 Happiest Inventions of the Century" made CNN, and Parade magazine ran the "Happiest Events and Moments of 1999." But neither story made the AP news wire; AP told Pam that it had already given the society "too much coverage." Pam felt a pang of frustration, but only a fleeting one. The society would prevail. Happiness would triumph.

She self-published her book in June, and here and there, a few newspapers ran stories about the society's unilateral proclamation of August as Admit You're Happy Month. Pam interprets this slower pace as a good thing, of course; she says the society has entered its "grassroots" phase, in which its local chapters can begin finding their own ways in the world.

Four teenage girls took seats halfway through Pam's lecture, and when Pam finished, they told her they wanted to launch their own high school chapter of the society. Pam was jubilant: Teens, she thinks, are always surfing the crests of trends, and "happy awareness" is the next hip thing, the big rebellion against the glum status quo. The society hasn't plateaued. Its 15 minutes of fame aren't up. Its glory days still lie ahead (Happiness Type 2: Anticipation).  

Pam's T-shirted relatives posed for the photographer. Afterward, Pam's mom, Mary Lafferty Denhart, talked to me. At first, Mary said, she didn't understand Pam's concept: "I was like, hey, you're old enough to do what you want." But after reading Pam's book, Mary thought she might start a chapter in Winnie.

Pam had stayed with her mom the night before, and Mary enjoyed the company. Sometimes Mary misses her second husband, who's in a rest home. His family wanted them to divorce, Mary said, so she gave in. But she considers the divorce a technicality, and she doesn't think her husband remembers it at all. He's nearly deaf, so when Mary visits, he asks her to stand close and speak directly into his ear. He's not willing to let many people stand that close.

Pam would probably classify her mom's story as a happy one. And I would not dare rain on that parade.

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