Laughter – Yes, it’s Good for You

So the last few days…ok, in reality almost every post I’ve made so far has been pretty serious. Tonight I have a more lighthearted topic: laughter.

I think anyone who has struggled with illness, mental health issues, or addiction will remember pretty clearly the point in their recovery when they were first able to truly laugh again. One thing about being sick, depressed, or addicted (and many other things, or, as in my case, all of those together) is that it becomes very difficult to laugh. You may fake a laugh or give a little false chuckle. But a really deep, body shaking, soul lifting, cheek straining laugh….that just doesn’t happen.

You’ve all heard the saying, “laughter is the best medicine”. Whoever first spoke those words was more right than they knew. Because studies have shown that laughter really is medicine. It touches a part of our brains that is older and deeper than conscious thought. We don’t really know why laughter developed. But we know it is good for us. Here’s a quote from a Psychology Today article (Click here to link to the full article):

“Laughter, it’s said, is the best medicine. And there’s lots of evidence that laughter does lots of good things for us.

It reduces pain and allows us to tolerate discomfort.

It reduces blood sugar levels, increasing glucose tolerance in diabetics and non-diabetics alike.

It improves your job performance, especially if your work depends on creativity and solving complex problems. Its role in intimate relationships is vastly underestimated and it really is the glue of good marriages. It synchronizes the brains of speaker and listener so that they are emotionally attuned.

Laughter establishes — or restores — a positive emotional climate and a sense of connection between two people, In fact, some researchers believe that the major function of laughter is to bring people together. And all the health benefits of laughter may simply result from the social support that laughter stimulates.

New evidence shows that laughter helps your blood vessels function better. It acts on the inner lining of blood vessels, called the endothelium, causing vessels to relax and expand, increasing blood flow. In other words, it’s good for your heart and brain, two organs that require the steady flow of oxygen carried in the blood.”

Wow. If only coffee did all that for us! Coffee you can make with coffee beans and water. Laughter can’t be poured into your cup from a French Press. It can’t be grown on a tree and cultivated. In my opinion, laughter is one of the most purely spontaneous human experiences. You can’t force true laughter. No matter how “funny” something might be, it doesn’t always make you laugh. In addition to being spontaneous, laughter is also a communal experience. Think about it. When was the last time you were sitting by yourself, watching a silly movie, and you laughed out loud? Doesn’t happen too often does it? (this is one of the reasons the internet slang LOL irritates me…but don’t let me get off track..) On the other hand, watching that same movie three days later with your best friend, you both burst out laughing. Strange isn’t it? I don’t think so. I think that the nature of laughter is to produce and deepen the communal bond between members of our human species. Check out the quote from Psychology Today again. See where it talks about laughter being the “glue of successful marriages”? That is because it stimulates production of hormones and neurochemicals that promote bonding, trust, and pleasure.

In my own experience, I know that many of the women I have dated made me laugh early on in our relationship. Something they did or said made me burst out into the strange physical and vocal act we call laughter. And after that, I felt a greater connection to them.

Think about your best friends. They are your friends for a lot of reasons, I’m sure, but one thing that I am certain of (without knowing you or them) is that there have been times in your friendship, and probably more than a few, when you have laughed together. At a movie, at a comedy show, at a television show, at a joke you told or at something odd one of you did…it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that you laughed. And through that laughter your brain and body became more connected to that of your friend, and he/she to you.

Ok, enough science/philosophy stuff.

I was prompted to write about laughter tonight because my aunt, uncle and I were sitting watching a new ABC show called “Trust Us With Your Life”. The premise of the show is that improvisational comedians act out scenes from the lives of famous people who come on the show as guests. Tonight we had Serena Williams first, then Jack and Kelly Osborne. Several of the improv artists used to be on Whose Line Is It Anyway, including Wayne Brady (yeah, he’s taken a lot of flak lately, but I still think he’s a great improv comedian). What really cracked us up, however, was a bit where the actors are filmed from above, while doing the scene lying down on the ground. So the floor becomes the rear wall. It might not make sense with me explaining that way. So try and imagine this: you get up from wherever you are sitting and lay down on the ground. Lay on your side, with your feet straight and your arms out in front of you. Now, imagine that someone on the ceiling has a camera and is filming you straight down. Imagine there is a white line the runs beneath your feet that symbolizes the floor, and the floor on which you are lying is the wall. Let me just tell you, it is hysterical when you actually see it done. The actors were acting out a tennis game with Serena vs. some unknown Russian opponent with a grumpy umpire. They had tennis rackets and tennis balls. At the very beginning, the “Russian player” tossed the ball up to serve, but to do that he had to literally roll the ball across the floor in the direction that was now “up”. But he rolled it too hard so it disappeared off-screen. And the reaction and expression of the “tennis players” was so hilarious that my aunt, uncle and I could barely stop laughing through the rest of the skit.

I have read a lot about why we find things funny. Out of all the things I have read, the one that I think makes the most sense is the idea that it is the surprise, or the unexpected, that is funny to most people. Of course, different cultures and age groups and socioeconomic classes have different “senses of humor”. But one thing that seems to stay the same regardless of where you are or who you are is that a novel or unanticipated twist is funny. Sometimes, things are funny vicariously. For example, dramatic irony. When the audience knows something is going to happen to a character but the character doesn’t. The audience laughs because they are anticipating the surprise of the character onscreen. Inhabiting the surprise of someone else is apparently just as funny as being surprised yourself.

But the question I find myself asking tonight is this: what does this stuff about laughter say about the experience of being human? And furthermore, what does this information about laughter say about the experience of being me?

I don’t have a concrete answer for you (or for myself) yet. What I do know is that I love to laugh, and that I can feel the power of a really good laugh deep inside my body and my spirit. People tell jokes sometimes to “lighten the mood” or to “ease the tension” because true laughter does just that: it lightens the energy within us, it forces our bodies to tense, but to ultimately relax. It makes people feel more connected to one another. And that lightening, that relaxing, and that connecting…they are vital components of a healthy life.

I challenge you to a contest: post the funniest joke, video, link or whatever on the comment section of this post. The one that is the funniest (according to some relatively impartial judging method which I will develop later) will win a prize (which I will also decide on at a later date).

Thank you for reading, and thank you, in advance, for your funny comments. I’m sure they will provoke much laughter, and we will all be that much healthier because of it.

Goodnight, and happy laughing,

-Nathan

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2 responses to “Laughter – Yes, it’s Good for You

  1. I love this! Some time ago, I had a desire to add to the humor in my life, so decided to post “a joke a day” for 30 days to a mailing list of friends and family. I still have that list around somewhere, I believe. I’ll go find a good joke and be back soon. Thanks for asking!

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