Ambrose Bierce, a man who did not suffer cheerfulness gladly, once observed of trite optimistic proverbs that ''a saw is so-called because it makes its way into a wooden head.'' The most dour of American journalists, he summed up his philosophy this way: ''He laughs best who laughs least.''
Then, in 1913 - possibly to escape another round of cheerful saws about life being just a bowl of cherries - he mounted a mule and rode off on his journalistic duties in the general direction of Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution, never to be heard from again.
We do not for a moment subscribe to Bierce's grouchy war against sunshine. In fact, we are proud to say that a very close relative was nicknamed ''Smiley,'' more or less by popular acclaim. But we do appreciate Bierce's point - that forced smiles, laugh-track chuckles, and obligatory ''That-reminds-me'' jokes violate the essential spontaneity of humor.
Systematic humor - humor as an organized work program - is simply a contradiction in terms.
And so we have come to view with alarm the latest tendency to treat jollity in general as a form of therapy, like the fiber diet or 50 sit-ups.
A survey conducted at the University of Florida concludes that men who believe in those cheerful saws Bierce abominated experience less ''stress,'' and therefore fewer undesirable ''Type-A'' consequences on their bodies. Another new study advises that people who smile a lot enjoy superior health to those whose lips stay firm and contracted.
What worries us - what wipes the smile off our lips - is that a false cause-and-effect argument gets established here. It seems that one should not be cheerful and witty because this is a happy or virtuous state but because it is presumed to slow down the pulse and such.
Humorless people, so obsessed with their physical conditioning that they are at it from the minute they jog into the morning dawn until they fall asleep at night over a handful of sunflower seeds, will now approach complete strangers and ask them if they've heard the one about . . . .
They will share humor - one of the most generous of social acts - not for their companion's benefit but for their own benefit, and only for the benefit of their bodies at that!
Humor as a branch office of the me-industry is not a nice thing to contemplate. But it is even worse to think of Americans turning into a nation that pops a joke the way it pops a pill.
What an indignity - to bottle into a sort of snake-oil tonic the joy that wells up into a smile or bubbles over into a laugh.
There are some very unfunny questions to consider. If cheerfulness becomes the new health fad, what effect will it have on the rest of us? Will we have to play straight man - even stooge - to a small mob of fitness fanatics as they descend upon us, wielding their Henny Youngman joke books as grimly as their barbells?
To protect ourselves from such humor-harassment, will we have to institute No Joking sections in restaurants and on planes?
Must books by Woody Allen now take their places on the medical-text shelf?
Will records by Bob and Ray be sold at the prescription counter?
No joking matter, to be sure.
Rampant, willful cheerfulness could become hazardous to an innocent bystander.
But we have a feeling that day will never come.
We remain confident that humor - genuine, free-floating humor - will put the whole issue in sane perspective. What else is humor for?