When Pam Johnson founded the Secret Society for Happy People a year ago, the cheery Texan (who signs off her e-mails with "Keep Smiling") had no inkling there would be times when organizing unabashedly happy folks might sometimes turn that smile upside down.
Seems some cynics aren't willing to take her and her cause seriously. And others just plain don't like the idea of that much concentrated glee and empowered joy. Johnson says that only proves her point: "Our culture isn't sure what to do with it."
Take, for instance, her unshakable campaign to have Aug. 8 proclaimed "National Admit You're Happy Day." Figuring the idea wouldn't meet criteria to be declared as such by the U.S. Congress and many states, Johnson nevertheless went on her merry way, leaning on 50 state governors to come on and get happy.
"I thought we should get a waiver," she says. "If you can't approve a proclamation for a national happy day, what can you approve one for?"
Most of the governors probably thought she was just a blissed-out wacko, acknowledges Johnson, but she refused to go away. "I keep calling them and faxing them," she says. "Our organization's name sounds funny -- and it is meant to. But our message is somewhat serious: We're not telling you to be happy if you're not. But if you are happier than you admit you are, put a little more emphasis on talking about being happy."
As of yesterday, 18 governors decided to do just that. Or, at least, they decided to recognize a day when their constituents could. States that officially signed on to National Admit You're Happy Day include Maryland, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Indiana, and Johnson's own euphoric state, Texas. Johnson calls the seven that declined due to no Society of Happy People (SOHP) members in-state, the "Stick-in-the-Mud Governors." The 12 who turned her down despite members in their states are the "Parade Raining Governors." Twelve are undecided. And then there's New York.
"Happiness is in the closet; it is not out in the open where it should be," protests Johnson, who got into a pickle last week after publicizing what apparently was meant to be an unofficial reply from New York Gov. George Pataki's office -- saying that the Empire State didn't have an official position on happiness. "It's kind of silly," she adds. "Maybe I should ask all the candidates about their happiness positions."
In the meantime, she's focusing on smaller acts of happiness, such as the hour of "happy songs" the music Web site www.discjockey.com has promised to play on Sunday, and on the SOHP members who are planning to whoop it up this weekend.
"I hope people actually celebrate for the whole month of August and not just one day," says Johnson, 33, a Dallas-based publishing sales rep. "Hopefully on Sunday you'll pick up your phone and share one happy thing. It doesn't matter what."
In fact, the society started as a joke. Johnson, who explains that she's never been married because she's never found a happy enough Mr. Right, was writing a humor column for a personal empowerment newsletter and wondered where all the happy people were. "I said, I bet they have their own club and don't tell anybody about it," she recalls, " 'cause they don't want anyone raining on their parade." The more she thought about it, the more she became convinced an organization that lobbies for happiness was no joke.
Around 800 members have joined the club, which has no meetings or guidelines. The $30 dues pay for an SOHP T-shirt, lapel pin, bumper sticker, quarterly newsletter, and the chance to connect with like-minded folks. Since December, more than 123,000 people have visited the society's Web site, www.sohp.com, which features updates on efforts in behalf of happiness, a bulletin board, a "happy thoughts" pep-talk page, and instructions for voting on the century's happiest events.
"We attract a cross-section of economic standards, cultural backgrounds and religions -- from born-agains to a Wiccan warlock," says Johnson, who also is pleasantly surprised by SOHP's gender breakdown. "I was probably incorrect to think this was more of a chick thing. But a third are men and I suspect it will be closer to 50-50. . . . Despite things that keep people separate, happiness is universal."
Don't mistake this for some smiley-face club, however. Johnson has positioned the SOHP as "the consumer advocate group for the right to be happy and publicly share it."
Last Christmas, syndicated columnist Ann Landers' column agreed with the sentiment of a letter-writer that we all be spared the cheery family news people write in holiday cards. Johnson fired off a letter demanding an apology to "the millions of people you made feel bad for wanting to share their happy news."
In March, she had to fend for happy rights on ABC-TV's "Politically Incorrect" when whiny comedian Richard Lewis and other guests were so hostile toward her rosy perspective that even sardonic host Bill Maher seemed nonplused.
It all proves that people who publicly express happiness face discrimination. "Sometimes it happens but people don't recognize it as discrimination yet," she says, adding that she has received 30 to 40 letters and e-mails from people reprimanded at work for being too happy.
But recently, even the SOHP bulletin board has been infiltrated by naysayers. "You people are completely insane," messaged one grump. "Please let me clear something up for you: People aren't discriminating against you because you are happy. They are acting like that to you because you are obnoxious, annoying cliches of smurf-like happiness."
Johnson says she is considering closing down "the happy board," since debating about what makes people happy is overriding its original purpose of encouraging happy communications. But at the prospect of Sunday's National Admit You're Happy Day, she reverts to a don't-worry, be-happy attitude.
"If nothing else," she says, "maybe people can sit down and reflect on how much of their life they are actually happy with."