Wait! Is That Funny?

Wait!  Is That Funny?

I’m sure that somewhere, in the depth of a research facility, someone is trying to determine where the sense of humor is located in the brain, assuming as we all do, that everyone has a sense of humor.  I endorse the research because I have known several people who may not.  Most of my teachers and my wife at times, for example did not/do not find me amusing in the least, and yet, I keep on trying, because I am profoundly amused by, well, by myself, I suppose.

I entertain myself by persisting in the face of palpable disdain.  The more I keep it going, the more I am aware of myself absolutely NOT amusing anyone else.  Which amuses me.

So, is that funny?

As a person of limited proprioception, I once dropped into the seat of my car, slamming the door shut before I was actually inside the vehicle, crushing the side of my head between the car’s frame and the heavy door.  I’m pretty sure I was concussed; I know the side of my head was purple for more than a week, and my ear was so swollen that I seemed to be wearing half-finished clown makeup.  The passenger seated to my right still spits up laughing about the event.  I do not, to which the passenger says something like, “I wish you could have seen yourself”, then is lost once again in helpless mirth.

I need to confess that had I read the description of the head slam without the experience of having slammed my own head, I might chuckle, almost certainly smile.

Is that funny?  Am I a bad person?

These are but two sorts of situations that can pass as humor, not the most elevated, probably not the most common, but they open the door to the wider discussion of this commonly experienced capacity for humor.  I hesitate to describe this capacity as one of the markers of humanity as countless viral videos seem to indicate that animals are amused or amuse themselves.  Cat videos are an entirely separate subject of investigation, one I do not intend to pursue at this time.

Without donning a lab coat, I’m pretty sure that humor must be attached to several sorts of brain activity.  Puns, for example, tickle some people mightily, indicating sensitivity to verbal incongruity.  Some puns are richer than others, but any pun asks the listener to sorts words and the meanings of words in an instant.

Here are some pretty bad puns:

“Have you heard about the Italian cook with an incurable disease?  He pastaway.”

“What do you call a fake noodle?  Impasta.”

And some pretty good puns:

“Last night I kept dreaming I had written Lord of the Rings.  My wife said I’d been Tolkien in my sleep.”

“A photon is going through airport security.  The TSA agent asks if he has any luggage.  The photon says, “No, I’m traveling light.”

Funny?  I’m not making a judgment about susceptibility to word play; even a good pun has to land in just the right circumstance.  What matters here is that puns are entirely verbal.  The head-in-the-door thing or slipping on banana peels, or getting hit with a pie are entirely visual.

My intention was now to look at humor that might be termed “conceptual”, the creation of an imagined circumstance at odds with our experience of reality – the “What if…” sort of humor.  “What if dogs could talk”, “What if men could give birth”, etc.  Some are verbally conceptual.  “What if you wrote a book about failure, and it didn’t sell.  Would that be success?” I intended to go there, but I was sidetracked in looking at “What if artificial intelligence has a sense of humor?”  Not the HAL 9000 in 2001, but something benign, in our own homes.

I found this description of what Amazon’s personal assistant, Alexa, “says” when asked to rap:

“My name is Alexa and I have to say, I’m the baddest AI on the cloud today. Your responses are fast, but mine are faster.  Sucker speech engines, they call me master.”

Two obvious responses.  First, who asks Alexa to rap?  Second, shouldn’t it be “fastah” and “mastah”.  Just saying.

Back to humor.  Let’s consider what has come to be called “situation comedies”, “sitcoms” because they are differentiated from sketch comedy and stand up comedy by presenting ongoing situation for a character or characters.  The sitcom’s “humor” is found as the audience becomes familiar with characteristics of the same individuals placed in familiar situations week after week.  I Love Lucy’s wacky Lucy manages to make chaos of order week in and week out.  Mork of Mork and Mindy is an alien responding with wacky inappropriateness to ordinary circumstances. The four geeks on The Big Bang Theory respond as geeks do, at odds with ordinary social behavior.  30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy is consistent in his self-assured narcissism, Tracy Jordan in his mental illness.  Kramer on  Seinfeld, Homer on the Simpsons,  Joey on Friends.  We’d probably not respond happily to any of these characters were we to meet them on the street, but in the confines of their world, the are predictable and funny because of their predictability.

Without any evidence other than my own observation, I have to believe that nature/nurture, cultural background, relationships, employment, geography, and a dozen other factors have something to do with what we think funny.  In a stunning leap of faith, I checked Reddit to see who pops up as the most unfunny comedians of our time.  Some nominees, such as Carrot Top, go without comment.  A jab at all German comedians (?) brought this rejoinder, “Haff you ever noticed how ze sings ve do are different from ze sings ozer people do?”, which I thought was reasonably funny in that context.  Others did not agree.  There were dozens of nominees; the most frequently  mentioned were Jeff Dunham and Kathy Griffin, both of whom have had considerable success as performers.  One respondent thought Kathy Griffin was Carrot Top, so we will have to take this survey with a grain of salt.

Finally, I’m increasingly aware of generational humor, not as a line of academic research, although I have read several articles about “Millennial Humor”, none of which struck me as particularly insightful.

I came of age in the early days of commercial television.  I suppose most of the earliest comedies were adaptations of radio shows; it took a while for the formulaic set ups to emerge, but by the time I started high school, most of the Golden Age comedies had found their footing; Leave It To Beaver and The Flintstones covered most of the main avenues of humor; Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie added the “what if my wife was a witch?” trope and hilarity ensued.

Against all odds, they’re still in syndication, so I can check back and ask again, “were they funny?”  Not so much, and even a laugh track fails to convince me they were.  The current dramedy, This Is Us, recently brought it all back as one of the characters, Kevin, an actor trying to escape typecasting as a dumb hunk, returns to the show that made him famous, The Manny, ostensibly funny because … Kevin is a man… and a Nanny … Get it?!  He’s made to crawl around the set in a diaper to the great amusement of a studio audience.

There’s nothing funny about it, but the scene reminds me that much “popular” humor comes from the viewing discomfort of others.  We’re not laughing near you, we’re laughing at you.  I think the laugh track is supposed to bully us into thinking we are amused.  And maybe some people are.

What’s funny?  Apparently there’s no telling, but it’s clear that humor matters.  Even Gandhi, Gandhi of all people, said, “If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”  My favorite piece of historical humor is attributed to a Spartan commander threatened by Philip of Macedonia.  Apparently Philip sent this threat:

“You are advised to submit without further delay., for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

Sparta’s response?  “If”

The historical antecedent to, “I got your threat right here,” or in New York City, “Fuhgeddaboutit.”






My parents frequently entertained their friends.

I don’t even know how to explain that sentence to my adult children.  I can recall perhaps two or three occasions on which my wife and I set out to entertain, and the memory of those occasions reminds me of why we don’t  We inherited all the appurtenances necessary to entertaining, even packed and moved them more than once.  More than one tea set has survived and several sets of china, but none have seen the light of day since the last unpacking.

A more casual approach to friendship suits me as I am an outgoing introvert, enjoying the company of people quite a bit, until I need to recharge.  My recharge alarm inevitably starts to blink well before the party or dinner reaches the organic winding down moment, bringing a familiar dilemma.  As the Beatles put it, “I don’t want to spoil the party so I’ll go”, but in leaving, have I spoiled the party?  My absence does not dampen any get together, but the act of leaving may give the unfortunate impression that all is not well, with me or with the party, or that it would be polite of others to let the hosts get on with the rest of their lives.

As a host, do I send the “when can I get on with the rest of my life signal?”  I do.  I try to wallow in companionship as the hours pass, but the fidgeting begins all too early.  “Leave the dishes,” my guests implore, but, come on; I’m supposed to chat with food encrusting plates that would wash much more easily with a good rinse right now?

Complicated, and I don’t do complicated well.  I certainly don’t seek it out as recreation.   So we don’t entertain and obviously give off the “this couple is not the entertaining sort” vibe, which, again, suits me fine.

And yet, I think of the pleasure my parents took in entertaining and wonder if I lack the capacity for friendship that brought them a large circle of friends.

I hadn’t really thought much about friendship, beyond  regretting  the loss of friends from the various stages of my life until we retired, left a community of colleagues and friends, and moved to a town we hadn’t known.  I suppose I imagined friendship as belonging to the general category of things that happen … or don’t.

We now live near Ashland, Oregon, a small city considered somewhat, well, fey, a quality we enjoy.  Ashland isn’t a tie-dyed crunchy, dreadlocked, hemp trousered, bandana banded town, although we do often see a person of that description walking his sheep through the parking lot of the local Safeway.  For the most part, it is a free thinking, progressive community, occasionally given to conspiracist ranting, and more devoted to essential oils than I might wish, but a town in which the arts are celebrated and artists admired, in which the environment is treasured, and in which mountains and rivers and Shakespearean couplets feed the hearts and souls of its citizens.

So, should be easy to find and make friends, and, in fact, we have met people that we like, but, once again, no entertaining is happening at our house, and the entertainment hotline is not ringing off the hook.  I will admit to a certain pathology that may also have something to do with the shape of my social life, a largely unconscious affect announcing that I am miffed not to have been invited to an event I wouldn’t think of attending.

I’m working on that.

As I’ve sorted through contending notions of friendship, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I am authentically friendly and genuinely like the company of many people, I have treasured the friendship of very few.  Even as I write, I think of them with gratitude and  pleasure.  They don’t live here, and I don’t see them as often as I would like, but we’re still connected, and maintain a digital exchange that often makes me laugh out loud.

In looking at the question of friendship, I realize how important humor is to me and how dependent humor is on trust.  My friends can say things to me and about me that would be terrifying in an ordinary civilian conversation.  Terrifying, and yet, delivered by a friend, capable of throwing me into spasms of laughter.  Call 911 funny.

And that observation leads me to a final epiphany.  Not only do I never tire of the company of my wife, my brother, my children, I am sustained by their friendship.  We don’t all share the same sense of humor, but all three of my kids have left me panting in exhaustion, tears flowing, breathless in admiration of their wit.  I love my small family, of course, but can also sit happily in their company for hours and hours, no problem.

They entertain me, and I am delighted to entertain them.  I’ll bust out the best china from time to time; it’s pretty and seems to like getting out of the cupboard for  a few hours.  Some of our meals are elaborate, but a trip to the local ice cream parlor is as satisfactory.   I’m glad my parents had friends and enjoyed the back and forth dinners and parties, but I am grateful for the friendships I’ve been given, even if, maybe especially because, I don’t have to get dressed up to enjoy them.








Your Movie – Who Are You?

Your Movie – Who Are You?

I am fortunate in having a daughter who asks the sorts of questions that occupy my mind for weeks.  Her latest?

“If you were able to pick one movie as your movie, the film with which you identify most completely, what film would that be?”

Not my pantheon of greatest films, the list endlessly debated by cineastes and regularly revised as new masterworks appear.  That list is director heavy and affected by the impact that the film has had on generations of later filmmakers.  It is also a list that reflects my visual sensibility, recognizing that Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood moves a bit deliberately, and that Scorsese’s Taxi Driver presents some questionable attitudes.  If you haven’t seen Apocalypse Now, buckle up and don’t watch the Director’s cut.  I’ll talk about Schindler’s List in a bit, but it’s in my pantheon.  Oh, and a lot of folks have trouble with Lolita.  Mad Max – Fury Road?  The Black and Chrome print?

And, I’m not talking about the list of equally visually interesting films that don’t always hang  together, but which have scenes that knock me out.  Those include the films produced by Val Lewton, creepy and dark, any of Wes Anderson’s pastel compositions, Manhattan, any of the plot-impaired films by Terrence Malick, In the Mood for Love, Barry Lyndon (maybe just the candlelight scene), Blade Runner.

And it’s easy for me to crank out the list of films that I encourage or make people see – the “Wait!  You haven’t seen THAT?” list.  Obviously, the audience for some is different from the audience for others.  I mean the sorts of films that have found a permanent place in the culture (or ought to have).  A colleague once asked me how me might catch up on films that seem to have a life beyond their first release.  He didn’t want the cult films, so I didn’t pass on Eraserhead, Repo Man, Freaks, The Warriors.  You know, I  probably should have included The Warriors.

Not all of these are my faves, but here goes:

Princess Bride, Breakfast Club, Ten Things I Hate About You, Goodfellas, LA Confidential, Memento, Terminator, Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, Die Hard (I,II,III), Love Actually, Brokeback Mountain, Annie Hall, Groundhog Day, Some Like It Hot, The Matrix, This Is Spinal Tap, Back to the Future, the Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Singin’ in the Rain, Clueless, Spirited Away, Silence of the Lambs, The Producers, Toy Story, Mean Girls, Shaun of the Dead, Waiting for Guffman, There’s Something About Mary, Fight Club, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Dark Knight Rises, LIttle Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, Perfect Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Forest Gump, Seven, Batman Begins, Inglourious Basterds, Grease … and … whatever additions come to mind.  Operators are standing by to take your call.

But, my daughter has asked the harder sort of question, one that demands serious thought and considerable imagination.  She suggests that the choice of a single film tells some part of your story or speaks to some part of your soul.  There’s a huge difference, for example, between picking a film that would be screened at home as a lark and a film that has been inscribed on your driver’s license as that sort of significant identifier.

“License and Registration Sir – Hmmmm.  5’8, 145 lbs.  Killer Klowns From Outer Space.

Yeah, that could be a problem.

I’ve put it off long enough.  Two of these personal films are from another, perhaps simpler, time:  Ball of Fire – Bookish professors encounter gangster’s moll/ lovely characters and each changes, The Court Jester – Timid tag-along (Danny Kaye) discovers his inner-Errol Flynn, Groundhog Day – Insensitive cynic learns karmic lessons  and is transformed, Field of Dreams – Father and son, baseball, magic.

Finally, Schindler’s List is a moving, terrifying, beautiful film.  I’ve seen it at least twice a year. for a decade.   “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”  No other film has  so moved me. So, Schindler’s List for me.

And for you…?


“They Are Coming For Us” – Why Evangelicals Support Donald Trump

“They Are Coming For Us” – Why Evangelicals Support Donald Trump

I am not an Evangelical Christian.  I cannot speak as an Evangelical Christian; I cannot speak for Evangelical Christians.  My intention here is only to respond to the frequent observation that Evangelical Christians and Donald Trump do not seem to be likely political allies.

Donald Trump is not the godliest of men; much of his behavior is indefensible, and yet, his support among Evangelical voters remains secure.  Coarse language, well substantiated accounts of impropriety, virtual ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity apparently don’t matter.  He’s not a true conservative , and his political instincts may be curious and occasionally dangerous, but again, these failings also do not seem to matter because Donald Trump provides what mainstream, politicians cannot offer – a retreat from secular progressivism.

As a secular progressive, I have a difficult time understanding that what I take to be right, essential, and eminently progressive could be threatening to anyone.  Progress is good; science is good; awareness of climate change is good; securing the rights of marginalized people is good.  As a nation, we appeared to have made great progress in a relatively short period of time.  Why would anyone want to go backward?

I’m not alone.  My fellow secular progressives find it hard to understand that the very initiatives we found emblematic of a great age of  global awareness, mindful celebration of diversity, and freedom from outdated social conventions have convinced Evangelical Christians that our march toward enlightened and progressive polity inevitably brings an assault on those who do not share our point of view.

I was surprised to learn that Evangelicals consider themselves more discriminated against than are Blacks or Hispanics.  Even more unsettling was a phrase used by a moderate, articulate, compassionate, conservative Christian in explaining Evangelicals’ willingness to disregard Donald Trump’s unseemly behavior.  He suggested that the culture had become notably anti-Christian and that in time the last vestiges of religious freedom would be systematically squashed.

“They are coming to get us,” he said.  And, in his mind,  “they” are people such as I am.

In  order to understand what happened and is happening, we secular progressives have to look at Christianity in the United States, starting with the consideration of the term “secular”.  My fellow liberals thinks of secularism as the clear separation of church and state, the Constitutional certainty that a democratic nation can not be ruled by individuals or agencies of any religion; political decisions ought not be affected by religion.  With measured pride, we assert that we are a secular nation.

Secularism is one of the cornerstones of democracy.  That is an article of faith for liberal progressives.

I’ll have to return to that assertion, but need first to present a competing notion of secularism, one more likely to be held by Evangelical Christians.  To them secularism, progressive secularism, or secular humanism is the assertion that faith in a power beyond worldly apprehension is unnecessary at best and at worst, inimical to the principles by which Americans ought to live.  To be secular is to live without concern with any judgment other than the laws created by human beings. To be secular is to find no authority greater than laws enforced by human will.  To be secular is to believe that truth and morality are not absolute but relative.  Expedience, consensus, compromise, the ordinary elements of political life may seem necessary and benign to a voting majority but are at odds with the convictions of people of faith.

When humane Christians of good will called for politicians to give them back their country, they sought to regain what they saw as the lost freedom to acknowledge their faith in every aspect of public life.  The elimination of prayer in school, federally mandated suppression of the display of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, the banning of nativity scenes on municipal properties – each of these asserted the secularism of life in America and appeared to discount convictions of people of faith.

Trump’s presidency may have opened new fissures in the political landscape, but deeply felt divisions were well established before this presidency and before this year’s barrage of inflammatory rhetoric.  We are a more secular nation than we were fifty years ago; we are a less Christian nation.  For many Evangelical Christians, the largest concerns in the last election were that a liberal demographic tide was about to hit the shore, that the Supreme Court was about to become even more resolute in support of Roe V Wade, and that increasingly the dominant culture had contempt for their beliefs.

Differences of opinion can be discussed, argued, and perhaps resolved.  Differences of belief can not be talked away.  The unresolved differences of belief with regard to reproductive politics is at the heart of some contemporary Christians’ rejection of progressivism.  For some Christians, a government that protects elective abortion is a government that has abandoned them.  The belief that human life begins at conception is not open to discussion or compromise. Ardent advocates of the Pro-Life movement compare themselves to abolitionists who could not abide the institution of slavery. The majority of Americans may not share that conviction and may wish that the power of their argument might silence those who do, but convictions are unmoved by argument.

Liberal and progressive convictions are equally unlikely to yield to opposing ideas, as is evidenced by my earlier statement that for those of us who are progressives, it is an article of faith that secularism is one of the cornerstones of democracy.  Articles of faith are not preferences or predilections; articles of faith are unquestionable certainties.  President Trump has blown right by questioning to the dismissal of conventions we progressives had considered inviolable.  While Evangelical Christians may not agree with every tweet, there is some satisfaction for them in seeing political correctness corrected.  This administration is determined to turn back the clock, undo what has been done.  For the Evangelical Christian, deconstructing the government allows space for Christians to practice their faith in the ways that they live their lives.

Politics makes exceedingly strange bedfellows, and this political moment offers the curious spectacle of  Evangelicals bunking down with a hyper-secularized wheeler-dealer in what they consider a last-ditch effort to prevent the secularization of their nation.

One has to suppose that this will not end well.











What Happened to the Mouse?

What Happened to the Mouse?

Look, I recognize that I am at the front of the Baby Booming Bulge and that my notion of contemporary culture may have stalled somewhere in the mid-seventies, but I grew up with the assurance that Disney’s groundbreaking mouse was the most recognized figure in the world.  Clearly, that is no longer the case.  In fact, from what I can see, Mickey is running a poor third or fourth in the Disney pantheon of Disney favorites and limping along in terms of endorsement and merchandising.

Maybe not even fourth or fifth.

You’ve probably wondered just how many Disney characters are walking around Disney World during the course of a day.  How about one hundred and fifty mostly loveable members of the Disney cast, sweating their way as Grumpy or Goofy?   Visitors to the Magic Kingdom vote with their feet, and according to someone, the most sought out characters on the lot are Chip and Dale, Cinderella, Buzz Lightyear, Elsa, and Anna.  There are several version of Mickey on hand, the most popular of which is Mickey the Magician, but compared to some of the most heavily merchandised, even magic is a slow sell.

The next batch are almost entirely the catalogue of heroines generally known as the Disney Princesses.  Some are of royal blood – Elsa, Anna, Jasmine, Cinderella, Ariel, Snow White  – and some soon may be.  I’m not sure what rank Beast held before becoming beastly, but Belle will certainly move up several notches as the lady of his house.  Rapunzel is all set, and Mulan is probably somewhere in the upper echelon of imperial advisors.

A younger crowd is fine with Mickey and Minnie, much more popular when they appear together, but is considerably more excited in meeting Winnie the Pooh  Eeyore, Tigger, and the rest of the denizens of the 100 Acre Wood, Tinkerbell, Simba, and Nala.

There are some oddities among the most popular; Gaston, for example packs ’em in as do Lady Tremaine, Drizella, and Anastasia. Ariel’s nemesis, Ursula and her companions, Flotsam and Jetsam, not so much.

In terms of merchandising, Disney’s richest haul has come in absorbing the Marvel and Star Wars franchises.  No contest.  But in the standard Disney line, the Disney Princesses as a team pulled in 1.6 billion bucks last year followed by the Winnie the Pooh line of stuffed animals and clothes at 1.09 billion.  Next, not just in the Disney stable but across all demographics, Cars I and II (1.05 billion ).  The Hello Kitty line intrudes on the Disney sweep, but a group identified as Mickey And His Friends (Donald, Goofy, Pluto, etc) pull in 750 million.

And his friends.  Et al.  Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  Ludwig von Drake.

I’m not worried about Mickey; I’m sure he’s been putting something aside since his days as a roguish scamp and the trendsetting rodent in the Disney menagerie.  The various iterations of Mickey Mouse have kept pace with the times, even as the jollity of cartoon life was eventually replaced with the heavy lifting expected of a corporate magnate. He’s still the face of Disney, a sop to those of us who remember Disney as a cartoon factory, relatively benign and cheerful.  From the 1940’s on, perhaps we think of fairy tales and nature films.  Then, with the widespread ownership of televisions, at first a Mouseketeer clubhouse, then A Wonderful World of Color.  Mickey has survived the corporatization of the Disney brand and still gets a lot of facetime at all of the Disney outlets and the various kingdoms; the mouse, his ears, still respected merchandising icons.

Who took Mickey’s place as the most recognized, most iconic figure in the world?

That would be Michael Jordan, who despite having retired from the NBA thirteen years ago, pulls in something like 100 million a year from endorsements and who generates about 1.7 billion a year in sales.

OK, even the most rabid of Michael Jordan fans have to agree that in terms of cartoon viability, almost any of the mouseworks holds up better than ProStars, the Saturday Morning Cartoon featuring Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky as crime fighters, and yet, there’s Jordan on billboards around the world.

What to make of this shift in popular culture?  Sign of the times?  Sign of the Apocalypse?  Maybe an indication that we’ve lost a little innocence, some small measure of faith in tiny ambassadors of goodwill and buoyant, spunky little guys who beat the odds?

On the other hand, Hello Kitty?




Apparently, Money Might Be Able To Buy A Little Happiness

Apparently, Money Might Be Able To Buy A Little Happiness

I’m squarely mired in the late 20th Century, barely able to operate my phone and texting at the speed of tar.  I’ve got a few favorite sources of news and information and subscribe to both the print and digital versions, assuming, I guess, that I might miss something were I to settle into one mode over the other, but still more comfortable in reading hard copy.

All of which is to say that Time Magazine sends me daily teasers which I generally ignore.  Yesterday, however, the tagline was, “Money Really Can Buy Happiness”.  P.T. Barnum was probably gentle in making the observation that a sucker is born every minute as my inner sucker is reborn time and again when the improbable seems too delicious to ignore.

So, I opened the article, primarily wondering who measures happiness in any meaningful way, what kind of money,  and why hadn’t they called me?  The heartening and completely unsurprising result of the incompletely described research is that the folks who were given money to spend in any way they wish were happier when they spent on others than when they spent on themselves.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered that observation – “It is better to give” … and so on, but I’m pleased to know that scientific inquiry supports what might be called generosity.  Happiness is ephemeral, fleeting, and not all that easy to pin down, despite the plethora of posters and buttons that offer pithy resolutions to be followed on the road to Happytown.

“There is no road to happiness; happiness is the path”

“When it rains, look for rainbows; when it’s dark, look for stars.”

“Life only comes around once, so do whatever makes you happy, and be with whoever makes you smile.”

Whomever, but let it go.

“… be with those who make you smile” would work, but … no, leave it alone.

The point is that every one of those statements is excellent advice, but similar to the advice given to one who would become an accomplished artist:

“Become a perfect person then paint naturally.”

OK, and yet.  Still fleeting, ephemeral, and not easily summoned.

Let’s agree for a moment that we’ll consider all these suggestions without irony.  If, say, happiness is the path, it seems there’s an obligation to take steps along the way, and, the enlightened seem to be arguing, it is the steps themselves that make the difference.  Since we can’t buy our way to happiness or, based on my experience, think our way to happiness, there’s nothing left but to try this generosity ploy, this selfless consideration of others gambit.

Let’s pare this down to the essential action step.

Act as if the well-being of others mattered.  Take the actions that one would take if, say, the well-being of others mattered.  There’s no need to wear a hair shirt or make yourself a doormat, even if, maybe especially if, the doormat role has been the go-to mode of being for a while.  The key, from what I can gather, is moving beyond intention into action – making the phone call, writing the letter, stopping by.

Apparently, it’s also good to give something if you can.

Time Magazine did not offer research into the salutary effect of petting kittens or puppies, but it’s worth remembering that’s always a reasonable last-ditch option should all else fail.  Giving puppies to others?  Not always appreciated.

Leaving puppies and Time Magazine behind, I turned to a short and giddy work, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending by Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, a professor of marketing at Harvard.

Leaving aside the observation that having money to spend in the first place may be a happier state of being than not having money to spend in any fashion, the authors suggest five significant was to spend happily, suggestions fortified by the same sort of research our pals at Time carried out.

The first of these is to spend on experiences rather than stuff.

I’m not a hoarder (I know,  if I have to make that case, I’m probably a hoarder), but I am surrounded by stuff, even after having touched every  object as the tidiness experts have instructed, waiting for the “spark of joy” that separates the articles that I must keep from those that need to be packed up and left at the curb with the “Free to Good Home” sign taped to the box(es).  I face the unlikely truth that experiences may have more “happy clout” (not a scientific term) than yet another pair of shoes or Roy Rogers lunchbox.

Next, it appears that we actually do better in giving ourselves a treat from time to time, especially in celebrating the treat, openly, dare we say, happily.  No, we can’t spend every night out on the town, but hitting a great restaurant or a special concert as a treat seems to be the sorts of experiences that linger in the memory.

Overwhelmed?  About to snap?  These scientists argue that one of the happiest investments we can make with whatever money we have to spend may be in buying time.  Time off.  Time away.  Time with.  Time without.  Time to think.  Time to play.  Time to remember.  Time to connect.

Pay now, consume later.  This is the trickiest of the strategies, well conceived, but tough to work out in practical terms.  Let’s say we intend to treat ourselves, have an experience, spend some money in the hope of enjoying the memory of the event as much as the event.  So far, so good.  But, if the last thing we remember is paying for the meal, some of the jolly encounter can be mitigated by remembering the cost of the appetizers or the desert.  Perhaps we just went ahead and ordered willy-nilly, without considering cost.  “Yikes”, we say, or something along those lines; “That cost a lot more than I thought it would.”  Experience soured.

Pay in advance.  A week in advance.  A month in  advance.  Buy a gift card or a coupon or a ticket.  Remember the experience and not the cost.

Finally, our scientific duo arrive at the very lesson we learned at the start of this conversation.

Invest in others.

I remember being asked as what I wanted to be and answering, “I’d like to be a patron.”  That hasn’t turned out to be the vocation I’ve pursued for most of my life, but there have been moments in which I have been able to help someone in a small way by buying a painting or buying a ticket to a concert or performance, occasionally several tickets, and, in more than one holiday season, feeling blue for all the reasons that folks feel blue during holiday seasons, I’ve written checks for not-very-much-money and sent them to institutions and agencies that help people.

Do I have scientific proof that spending money in that way made me happy?  No.  But I remember it as making me feel ok, actually feel ok in remembering it now.  Not so bad as spending goes, and where would I put another lunchbox anyway?