The Power and Importance of Laughter

The Power and Importance of Laughter
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 5, 2014

Norman Cousins is famous for being a journalist, an author, and a peace activist. Did you know he is also a trailblazer in the field of laughter? He was editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review for 30 years; he authored books and essays about politics, history, and literature; he was an unofficial ambassador between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Pope John; and during his lifetime he was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize, the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award, and the United Nations Peace Medal.

He is remembered for saying things like: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” “Laughter is a powerful way to tap positive emotions.”

Later in life, he had an experience of illness that led him to develop what he called the laugh-cure. He was diagnosed with a form of debilitating arthritis. He chronicled his struggles in has book Anatomy of an Illness, published in 1979. He was told by doctors that he had little chance of surviving.

So he went about developing his own recovery program involving mega-doses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. He says:

I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.

He went on to live ten more years, during which he had a near fatal heart-attack, wrote several more books about health and healing, and continued to advocate for his ‘laugh-cure.’

When Cousins did this in the late 70’s, few researchers really took him seriously. But over the past decade or so, we have been coming back around to a holistic sense of health, and laughter can be part of the conversation. Health researchers have begun to take laughter seriously. [http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter-cure-illness.htm]

For example, research shows that laughter decreases the body’s cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress-induced chemical related to heart disease and high blood pressure. Laughter also strengthens your immune system and increases the production of antibodies. Researchers state that a good laugh has many of the same benefits as a brisk walk. As Norman Cousins had said many times, “Laughter is inner jogging.”

Laughter increases your air intake. Increasing your oxygen-rich air intake stimulates all of your organs and relaxes your muscles. The Mayo Clinic advocates for laughter as a means to boost your immune system, sooth tension, relieve pain, and improve your mood. [http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456]

The piece that I’m noticing in all this is that the researchers are not talking about humor or about finding something funny. They are advocating laughter – the behavior of laughing. Charlie Chaplin has said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” There is Laughter Yoga and Laughter meditation out there, laughing groups even that meet and simply laugh together.

Laughter is a vital part of life.  I don’t mean life should be a laugh a minute. Simply that life is full of tragic suffering and hardship that can overwhelm a person; but laughter makes life sweet. And life should be sweet. With all life’s bitterness and difficulty, laughter is a balm, a balancing mechanism to keep you steady. “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” 

There is that classic scene in the movie Mary Poppins with actor Ed Winn as “Uncle Albert” who has gotten himself stuck on the ceiling with his laughter.  He sings “I love to Laugh,” and it turns our Ed Winn adlibbed much of his lines for that tea party on the ceiling.  “I Know a man with a wooden leg named Smith” Bert says. “Oh really,” Uncle Albert replies, “What’s the name of his other leg?” Later Bert tries to cheer Uncle Albert up with another joke that isn’t as funny, and he says with a sigh, “My dad always said there’s nothing like a good joke.” And Uncle Albert says “And that was nothing like a good joke.”

Humor often has a bit of an edge to it. The early Greek philosophers saw laughter as a mixture of anxiety and pleasure – part of that old slippery-slope into immorality.  They saw it as a great moral danger and potential weapon.  As if to laugh is to succumb to some great inner flaw or at least as a temptation toward vice. 

Plato held the perspective that laughter arises from our desire to feel superior over other people. He also warned that laughter could lead to an undermining of authority and ultimately to the overthrow of the state. 

Well, certainly I have seen how humor and laughter can poke fun at arrogance and pomposity. I have seen how laughter can disarm people. Plato may well have the truth of it. Laughter is an equalizer, we all laugh. Plato’s warning was about the upset of our hierarchies, and yes, laughter can certainly do that. 

Jewish thought has always held a valued place for joy.  Oh, sure there are lines in Hebrew scripture such as Ecclesiastes 7:3 “Sorrow is better than laughter” but there are also a fair number of stories and verses about dancing and joy and celebration. One commentator noted that while professional comedians make up 5% of the population in the United States, something like 80% have been Jewish. 

The early Christian church was a fair mix of both Jewish thought and Greek thought. Clearly the Greek thought won out on the question of humor in Christianity for a long time. The Early Christian Church denounced laughter on the grounds that Jesus is reported to have wept but never to have laughed….so weeping alone led to unity with God.

Elizabethan England had some staunch defenders of seriousness. Laughter was considered a form of ‘losing control’ of oneself. It was seen as uncouth, even dangerous. One critic, George Catlin, warned that regular laughter irreparably damages your teeth.” (“Shut Your Mouth”)

“Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanzania . . . . “ It began as an isolated fit of laughter (and sometimes crying) in a group of schoolgirls. This isolated event, however, spread to epidemic proportions. “Contagious laughter” propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. The epidemic of uncontrollable laughter was so severe that it required the closing of schools. It lasted for six months. (from Laughter by Robert Provine) Uncouth, even dangerous – the Elizabethans counsel. It could lead to societal breakdown – Plato cautions. It might irreparably damage you teeth, we are warn. 

Or it could be natural. Babies all develop laughter without being taught to laugh. And babies and children laugh at least ten to twenty times more often than adults. It is not laughter that is taught, but seriousness. How much better things are now that laughter and humor are seen as healthy. Researchers and doctors support the perspective that such levity promotes health.

But laughter is not simply something for your personal health. Norman Cousins calls laughter inner jogging and researchers compare a good belly laugh to the benefits of a brick walk. Yet taking a brisk walk all by yourself is quite normal and healthy. Laughing all by yourself, alone with no external stimulus such a book or video, is uncommon and perhaps cause for concern.

Robert Provine, in his book Laughter, offers the insight that on a social level, laughter fortifies our sense of belonging and trust in others, “Laughter is more often a consequence of relationships than of jokes.”

I can certainly attest to this in my experience. Gathering my three children in the room with my wife and myself will often result is joyful laughter. Laughter brings people together. Victor Borge said “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”

Theologically, laughter is a sign of joy. Medically, it is seen as a means of stress relief. Psychologically, it is a means of mood enhancement. Philosophically, it may mean chaos or equality for humanity. Sociologically, it is a social phenomenon of group bonding, the establishment of group mores, and a means of conflict reduction. There are many meanings tucked inside this physiological near-autonomic response life.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping in the forest. After a good dinner and a bottle of wine, they went to sleep in the tent. Several hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend, Watson.

“Look at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson answered: “I see millions and millions of stars.”

“And what does that tell you?”

Watson thought a minute and answered: “Astronomically, that tells me that there are potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I see that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, I deduce that it is approximately three ten AM. Theologically, I see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically I suspect that we shall have a beautiful day tomorrow.”

Holmes was quiet for a minute and then said: “Watson, you idiot, it means someone stole our tent.”

Laughter may mean many things, but let me spend a few minutes offering a case for the spirituality of laughter: laughter as a spiritual practice. First we need to recognize it as a particular kind of spiritual practice. Specifically, laughter is a form of public spirituality – social spirituality. “Laughter,” theologian Karl Barth has said, “is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

Laughter affects us on a holistic level; our bodies, our emotions, our minds, our spirits, even our relationships. Laughter can be healing, connecting, and healthful. We don’t choose to laugh – we don’t recognize the humor of something and then choose to laugh. It just happens. But we can cultivate a practice of being open to and aware of life in a way that promotes laughter. We can develop our sense of humor. That may be one of the aspects by Barth compares Laughter with grace. Grace is not something we can control, but we can cultivate our lives to recognize and welcome grace when it comes. So it is with laughter.

Cultivating a sense of humor in response to life is something we can choose to do. I commend behaviors of forgiveness and surrender as openings to the absurdity of life which can lead us to laughter. If you want to develop more laughter, work on surrender and forgiveness. Notice how absurd your life can be. When I am frustrated or anxious, impatient or irritated, it is hard to let go of such feelings. They are like negative feedback for a situation. My frustration and impatience are responses that don’t really ease the problem I am experiencing. When I can relax, when I can let go, forgive, and have empathy for others, then I am lightened. I can laugh. When I am laughing I feel stronger, I feel more connected with others, I feel capable of weathering the storms of life.

Laughter does not end the trouble and turmoil of life. Laughter does not stop depression or grief. Laughter is not an end to sadness and sorrow – only to seriousness. When we look for laughter in our lives, when we choose to meet the world with giggles and guffaws, what withers away is not the pain or the grief. It is instead the gravity of it all that fades, the solemnity and seriousness that dwindles. Let us take all of life – the laughter and the pain, the joy and the sorrow. Laughter is important and powerful in how it can help us frame our outlook on the affair.

Your well is deep and your life is rich. Laughter rises and bubbles forth in abundance if you open your heart to the full range.

In a world without end,
May it be so.