I wouldn’t want to live in a world without humor. Even a day without laughter would be unthinkable. Laughter has proven healing power; it also reduces tension and fosters comfort. Humor is like the air in car tires; you cannot get very far without it. Instead of moving, you just sit there, feeling the weight of your sullen being. Humor grants you a clearer perspective on what’s important and what’s not, and can help you realize that what you feared was a boulder, may be just a pebble after all.
Why do we laugh? What is the purpose of laughter? Philosopher John Morreall says laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief that a danger had passed. And since the relaxation that springs from laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate and promote mutual trust. That would make laughter essentially shared between us.
Along these lines, several researchers maintain that the purpose of laughter is related to establishing and strengthening human connections. Researcher Mahadev Apte says, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter shared, the more bonding within the group.”
In short, laughter draws us closer together and strengthens our trust in one another. Laughing alone is not the same as laughing with others. Shared laughter is more satisfying than laughing alone. Shared laughter is affirming and confirming. Shared laughter has enormous bonding power. It is difficult to argue with one with whom you just laughed. Not only does laughter catch us off guard; it makes us drop our guard, if only for the duration of the laughter.
Laughter may be good medicine. That is what recent studies are suggesting, confirming what sages have been saying for millennia. Researchers reported that a daily dose of laughter can be beneficial to the heart because, just like exercise, it makes our blood vessels work more efficiently. Depression, on the other hand, can increase the risk of dying from heart failure, yet another study found.
Researcher Dr. Michael Miller said, “We don’t recommend that you laugh and not exercise, but we do recommend that you try to laugh on a regular basis. Thirty minutes of exercise three times a week, and 15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis is probably good for the vascular system.”
Dr. Miller and colleagues looked specifically at the endothelium, the lining of blood vessels. They found that average blood flow increased 22 percent during laughter, while decreasing 35 percent during mental stress. “The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so, given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Miller reported.
In short, laughter may be almost as helpful as exercise. “The magnitude of change we saw in the endothelium is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains and muscle tension associated with exercise,” Miller said.
Laughter has been called “inner jogging,” and its total health benefits are impressive. Laughter elevates mood, revs up the immune system, improves brain functioning, protects the heart, enhances creativity, lowers blood pressure, reduces pain, fosters relaxation, connects you to others, and spawns an overall sense of well-being. A session of giggling also reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, helping you to cope better with daily tension.
If you have ever heard of “Vaudeville,” which was a popular kind of entertained during the years before television, comedy was king. My mother, may she rest in peace, worked in vaudeville. And one of her routines sounded ridiculous, and ridiculously easy. The curtains in the theater would part, and there she would be sitting in a chair at the center of an otherwise empty stage. Then she would begin laughing; that is all, just laughing. After a while one or another of the audience would begin to join her in laughing. And before long the entire audience would be in hysterics – for what could be more ridiculous than laughing at nothing, which became strangely funny. As long as she kept laughing, so did the audience, even to the point of pain! I have actually witnessed her perform this.
Humor can harm as well as heal. It can strengthen or weaken, put us together or at odds, open or close doors, serve as a salve or salvo to the affection of others. According to humor expert C.W. Metcalf, there are significant differences between healing and harmful humor. If we want to be effective in human relationships, it is vital to understand and respect these differences.
Healing humor has the following characteristics: it bonds people together in understanding difficulties and accepting responsibility; it laughs at itself, illuminates solutions, decreases tension, builds confidence, and involves others in enjoyment. Harmful humor moves in the opposite direction: it divides people from each other and places blame on others, it laughs at others, obscures solutions, increases tension, tears down another’s self-worth, and excludes others from enjoyment.
Healing humor bonds us to one another. I remember once during my training in the Marine Corps. Several hundred of us were gathered in an open November field in North Carolina; we stood around for hours waiting for instructions to begin an infantry exercise. Tension and boredom were increasing; we were cold and angry. Then a private climbed atop a large rock, and with a strong baritone voice boomed: “MARINES! You are probably wondering why I called you here today.” The field erupted into laughter; the tension broke and we felt united with one another again. Over the years, during periods of seemingly endless waiting, I have said the same thing to others–and it has never failed to elicit laughter and good will.
Healing humor laughs at itself, rather than at others. Its objective is to laugh at life’s fundamental frustrations and setbacks, rather than to demean others, whether concerning their personal, sexual, racial or ethnic particularities. Another memorable example: some years ago during a golf tournament, right after my partner’s crucial putt came up short, rather than cussing or throwing his putter, he looked at me, smiled and said, “They say that at least 99% of the putts that come up short do not go into the cup.” His comment put golf into humorous perspective; it soothed my competitive intensity, and drew me closer to him – and to all golfers.
Healing humor removes burdens and barriers between people. It clears rather than fouls the air. Healing humor prompts us to say, “I can do this; I can bear up and take it a bit longer.” No wonder oppressed people have developed humor to a fine art, for laughter helps us to endure. If we are unable to laugh about something, it is all the more difficult to find relief from it. It might be objected that whether humor is harmful or healing depends as much on the listener as the speaker. Our attitudes and sensibilities certainly do affect how we hear a joke; nevertheless, if we find something offensive, that should be respected – regardless of how the joke was intended. The best thing to do is to say, “I’m sorry if you took offense; none was intended.” Then don’t tell such a joke again – at least around that person. Sensitivity and tact are even more healing than humor.
Enhancing your sense of humor requires putting time, focus and energy into those experiences which make you laugh and feel better. If you want to increase your sense of humor, here are some tips to help:
– Look for humor in the everyday. Look for and become sensitized to the silly, absurd and incongruous things that go on around you daily.
– Observe infants and little children. Learn from them how to find amusement and delight in the most ordinary things.
– Elevate your exposure to comedy. Attend to funny movies, sitcoms, joke books, comedy clubs and the like.
– Hang around funny people. Laughter is contagious and they can jump-start your humor.
– Take a 5-10 minute humor break daily. Read jokes, create a humor notebook, listen to a comedian on tape.
– When you hear a joke you like, write it down. Then practice telling it to friends.
– Remind yourself that life is to be enjoyed. Remember to have some fun every day.
– Associate with those who help you see life’s brighter side. Not only is laughter contagious, but so is positive, possibility thinking.
– Be wary of taking in negative messages. Avoid conversations, entertainment, news, etc., that upset, frighten and distress you, or push you toward feeling sad and unhappy. Bad news you shall have with you always. Fortunately, there will always be laughable news.