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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Sense of humor is something to be inherited

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 3:00 p.m. MST

If the secret to happiness is part genes, part events and part values, I think my DNA lucked out from my having two grandparents with a wry sense of humor.

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I was a pretty happy kid growing up.

My memories are filled with sunny summer days and the smell of freshly cut grass tickling my nose as I lay on my tummy in the grass in the backyard.

My days were filled with doing whatever I wanted to do, such as writing, drawing or playing with my Barbie dolls. Life was pretty good.

When I first heard about the concept of having “a bad day,” I was baffled.

“What do you mean, ‘a bad day?' " I remember asking my friend sometime in middle school.

“You’ve never had a bad day?” she asked me incredulously. “Don’t you know what a bad day is?”

I did not.

A bad day is when you wake up at the wrong time, and you step in a rain puddle, and your lunch gets soggy, and your friends don’t like you, and you are mad and sad and scared all day long, she said. That’s a bad day.

Way back then, I could honestly not think of a single bad day that I had had to that point.

Oh, me. Sweet little wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky, always optimistic, 12-year-old me. In the wake of those simple days, I’ve learned a lot about what a bad day is, and I’ve had plenty.

But on the whole, I’ve been pretty happy. And it’s possible my genes are partially to thank.

According to a December New York Times opinion article by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., scientists have found the recipe for happiness. Apparently, it is part genes, part events (happy things such as weddings, job promotions, etc.) and part values (faith, family, community and work).

So I’ve been thinking about what I inherited from my predecessors — which parts of my personality are because of my DNA and which parts are just because I have a unique spirit.

One thing I know about my grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, is that she had a sense of humor. Her upbringing was full of tragedy and Depression-era strife, but she and my grandfather Irvan (whom I also never met), had an easygoing approach to life that lent itself to lots of laughter. My uncle says she found humor in a lot of things, not necessarily on TV or the radio, but in real-life situations.

“She just doubled over with enjoyment, particularly with other members of the family and what they were doing,” he told me.

I think that sense of humor allowed my grandmother to better cope with challenging situations. For example, at one time she and my grandfather owned a duplex in Oklahoma. When they lived in Salt Lake City for a short time, they rented half of the home and left the other half vacant for when they returned.

When they moved back, sometime in 1944, they found that their tenant had surreptitiously sublet the other side of their house to someone else in their absence. My uncle was 5 years old at the time, but he still remembers his father telling the squatters that they needed to leave, and the squatters being gruff about the idea.

In response, my grandfather backed his trailer with all of his and my grandmother's belongings into his driveway, unloaded his double bed into the garage and set up camp. The next day, when my grandfather was at work, the man — a bigger fellow — approached my grandmother to pick a fight with her to scare her away. But she grabbed a pipe wrench and scared him away.

In the end, the man called the police and my grandparents and uncle ended up being hauled off to the county courthouse. Everything was sorted out, but my uncle still remembers his mother wielding that great equalizer, the pipe wrench.

That is the kind of story that, to me, is worth remembering and chuckling about. Laughter makes it easier to take the good with the bad because there’s already enough that’s bad in the world.

Next time, I’ll tell you how my genes are shaped by sadness, trial and heartache, too. And I don’t mind.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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