[28 August 2002]
Laughter is a tranquilizer with no side effects..
Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.
While skimming news stories on the web a few years ago, I ran across an item about a Texas-based society that was petitioning governors around the nation in an effort to establish August 8th as “National Admit You’re Happy Day”. In disbelief I read through the entire story only to realize that this was indeed no joke. The organization called itself “The Secret Society of Happy People”. Seated at my desk at work, I was doubled-over with laughter, wondering who on earth these silly people were. Dreams of a possible Monty Pythonesque documentary devoted to the trials and tribulations of the Happy People inspired me to email the story and the Society‘s website to a slew of friends.
Over the next few years, however, I forgot about the Happy People, until I saw a recent story in the New York Times about the World Laughter Tour. Inspired by Indian doctor Madan Kataria, the “Giggling Guru”, the motto of the Laughter Groups is simple: Get a bunch of people together and make them laugh. By 1998, according to the Times, by 1998, 12,000 people joined the group and celebrated their mirth on May 5, aka “World Laughter Day”. It’s in the Times. So laughing has become the vogue.
Hard to believe, really. For the past 40 years mainstream culture has idolized images of sultry, troubled, brooding rock stars, artists, actors, models, and writers, whose “Whoa is me”, melancholy demeanors, and quick-fix divorce and rehab lifestyles have established what has become the morose norm. Even comedy (take Saturday Night Live for instance), is often laughter generated at the expense of others, and this moroseness applies virtually everywhere: The Irish laugh at the English, the English laugh at the French, the French laugh at the Germans, and the stolid, serious Germans wonder how they’ve become the butt of so many jokes. In addition, given what is now considered a depressing “September 11th” world, one has to wonder if random chortling is not only hard to accomplish, but rather odd, if not all-out inappropriate.
Perhaps Pam Johnson, founder of The Secret Society of Happy People put it best: “Americans have gone from keeping our wounds and problems a secret to keeping our happiness a secret . . . . [A]s it became politically incorrect to talk about our wounds, it became politically incorrect to talk about our happiness.” Indeed happiness, in this day and age, isn’t, shall we say, “cool.”
Fair enough, but do you actually have to join a club to get your jollies? Apparently, according to Jacki Kwan of World Laughter Tour, that’s exactly what’s happening. Kwan, who runs a local chapter in the Washington DC area, explained that her father used to send her away from the dinner table for laughing, and now she gets paid for it. She works with a number of Holocaust survivors, and explained that the organization’s mantra is “Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha.” Puzzled as to how laughing exercises, clapping, and a “Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha” would help these people, given the severe psychological traumas that Holocaust survivors have suffered, Kwan offered the contagion theory: “When one person starts laughing, others also begin.”
Even a few moments of laughter can work wonders. According to Kwan, acupuncture therapists claim that clapping stimulates acupressure points in your palms, which in turn help to balance energy in the body, and laughing exercises and Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha’s allow us to take in more air; hence, we breath more oxygen.
After my conversation with Kwan, I practiced clapping and saying Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha, but to no avail. I felt I was imitating Santa Claus, and frankly, I burst into laughter at the thought of, well, sitting around clapping and Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha’ing. Perhaps that was the point.
Next, I had to confront the “Secret Society of Happy People.” Armed with a slew of questions, I decided to put my skepticism aside. I used to wear a lot of black, listen to bleak music, and I believed that in a perfectly happy world, I would be married to singer/songwriter Tom Waits or actor Colin Firth and live a noisy life full of mishaps and mayhem. Growing older and wiser, I have replaced bleak music with Jazz, add the occasional dash of bright color to my wardrobe, and hope to marry a reasonably cheerful, traditional fella who can promise me a quieter life. I felt that given my aspirations, I was a possible “Happy People” candidate.
Not quite. Visiting the society’s website, I failed the “Happiness quiz”. The society’s slogan asked: “Are you happier than you admit you are?” Answer: No. The mission statement of the society was to “encourage expressing happiness and discourage ‘parade-raining’.” According to Johnson, parade-rainers are those who put a crimp on other people’s happiness, “a syndrome that has taken America by storm.” I signed up to become “an amused member” and decided to delve into the world of the Happy Society.
In 1999, armed with a proclamation for “National Admit You’re Happy Day”, which requested that governors “urge all (your state) citizens to acknowledge and to further their commitment to talking about happy events and events in their lives”, Johnson and Co. took their case to the government. The results were mixed, and often hilarious.
The office of Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura responded with: “Governor Ventura represents the people of Minnesota and doesn’t see how this impacts them.” An aide at New York Governor George Pataki’s office explained: “We have no official position on happiness.” An aide at Georgia Governor Roy Barnes’s office replied: “We don’t give national proclamations unless the president of the United States issues them for things like National Boating Week.” What? Florida Governor Jeb Bush replied: “. . . (A)s a rule we don’t do resolutions such as these, and secondly . . . I admit I am happy most of the time.” His brother, however, then Texas Governor George W., accepted the proclamation and earned a ranking on the society’s “Happy Governors” category, along with 18 other governors who recognize August 8th as “National Happy Day”. According to Johnson, the ever-exuberant society is taking another stab at the happy declarations in the near future, hoping to recruit remaining states.
The organization first entered the spotlight as a result of confronting an Ann Landers column which criticized people who include “happy newsletters” in their Christmas cards (Landers was against them, and the SOHP disagreed). Since that incident the society has garnered serious press attention, ranging from Associated Press articles to features in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, People magazine and CNN. Receiving several queries from members who felt that they had been discriminated at their workplace for being “too happy” (one can only imagine what happy feats incurred the wrath of their employers), Johnson also contacted the ACLU in efforts to curb happiness discrimination.
According to Johnson, who has also written a book, Don’t Even Think of Raining on My Parade: Adventures of The Secret Society of Happy People, “Somewhere between the Ed Sullivan show and the Jerry Springer show, talking about being happy became politically incorrect.” Speaking of which, Johnson was also invited as a guest on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect program, and had to battle the ever morose actor Richard Lewis and other critics who believed that “only people who are ‘slow in the head’ can be happy.”
But such criticism would inevitably be dismissed by Johnson and her crew as typical parade-raining tactics. Johnson (whose brother had facetiously claimed that he was starting the “Society of Publicly Pissed-Off People” and bet that he would attract more members) is thrilled that the SOHP website boasts a whopping 1.4 million visitors worldwide. In a hilarious excerpt in her book, Johnson refers to a newfound Chinese email pal who sends a slew of emails in Chinese, leading Johnson to repeatedly write back: “I can’t read Chinese,” to no avail. Well, as long as it makes them happy, right?
In addition to “happy” newsletters and website postings (which were later dismantled as a result of numerous profane messages), SOHP offers an analysis of the types of happiness (ranging from amusement, to humor, to relief) and also surveys its members for its “Happiest Events, Inventions, and Social Changes of the Century” list. The century’s top 3 “happiest” inventions were as follows: 1. indoor plumbing, 2. air conditioning, and 3. Medical technology. Pizza delivery came in at 29, beating Cable TV and answering machines, and even Federal Express and acrylic nails are apparently great sources of happiness.
By the time I had interviewed Johnson and came to understand the society’s “We want people to talk about happiness once they have found it and discourage parade-raining” theory, my cynicism had greatly faded. As a wise man once said, “Happiness is no laughing matter.” Or is it? Reviewing the society’s Happy lists, I realized that, frankly, I hadn’t given much thought to the joys of air conditioning, telephones, and Federal Express, nor would I. They are, to most of us, a given. As a test, I emailed the list to a slew of people and each one responded differently. A few ranked television as the happiest invention; others went with indoor plumbing; and a few wrote back that they had their own list of items that weren’t even mentioned. A couple of people wondered if the Happy People were affiliated with drugs.
In the end, the ideal theory of happiness is, perhaps, to each his own. I am currently compiling my own list which leads with my precious 20-month-old nephew whose incessant cooing, gurgling, and giggling would beat any Ho-Ho-Ha-Ha-Ha any time.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/taghizadeh020828/