Laughter IS a funny thing. How does it work, why does it happen, and what is gained from it mentally, physically, and emotionally?
It starts with a giggle, builds to a roar, dies with a whimper, and it is very contagious. Once it really catches on, it infects everyone it touches.
Laughter is defined as a movement (usually involuntary) of the muscles of the face, particularly of the lips, with a peculiar expression of the eyes, indicating merriment, satisfaction, or derision, and usually attended by a loud and interrupted expulsion of air from the lungs.
Shortly after Mattie, the central character in my novel, The Velvet Bridge, meets Max, they burst into a spontaneous fit of silly laughter, triggered by something that really wasn’t even that funny. The following is excerpted from the book, pages 110-111:
They saw Mortimer Snerd’s face grinning at them from the back window of a departing bus. He had his arm around one of the giggling girls, and Hiram Walker had his head on the shoulder of the other.
“He looks just like Mortimer Snerd, the red head,” Mattie said. “What’s his name?”
They started to laugh. Something in the simple way Max said the name triggered the kind of hilarity that takes hold unexpectedly. It grabbed them both and their laughter grew into sidesplitting spasms. Mattie thought her lungs would explode. She gasped for breath, helpless as if someone was tickling her in the ribs and wouldn’t stop. She couldn’t remember laughing so hard.
They fell into the front seat of Claudia’s car holding their sides. When the laughter subsided, they sprawled in the seat, wrung out by the force of it. They avoided eye contact, fearful of another onslaught.
Finally, she asked, “Red what?” She watched him struggling with his answer and prepared herself. Oh no!
“Green,” he croaked, in agony, as a new fit of laughter seized him.
“No!” she squealed, pounding the steering wheel, accidentally hitting the car’s horn. “Oops,” she cried, putting her hands to her mouth. A group of men and women engaged in their own jubilation in front of the car scattered, startled by the sudden blare of the horn. Seeing the pretty woman and the handsome soldier roaring uncontrollably, they started laughing too. Then, like a contagion, the spontaneous laughter rippled from one group to the next, increasing in intensity as it spread, filling the parking lot.
“Red Green is his name?” Mattie was overcome. She couldn’t breathe. She just threw her head back against the seat and hollered, her whole body shaking with the mysterious hilarity of it, her face wet with tears. “That’s funnier than Mortimer Snerd!” she screeched, her words barely coherent.
Max doubled over, holding his stomach, his body shaking convulsively. “Oh, I’m dyin’,” he moaned. He wiped the tears from his face. “God, Woman, you’re killin’ me.” He writhed in the agony of still another belly laugh.
She twisted her position so that she faced him. Placing her hands on each side of his face, she lifted his head and looked squarely into his tear-filled eyes. “It’s not even THAT funny!” Another spasm shook her body. She gasped, struggling to continue. “I can see the headline now, ‘MAN SURVIVES WAR BUT DIES LAUGHING IN BUS STATION PARKING LOT.’”
They fell into each other’s arms, clinging onto each other in another ridiculous laughing seizure, shaking and crying until it finally stopped. Red’s bus was long gone before Mattie and Max gained control enough to resume their travels.
The laughing episode between Mattie and Max bonded them. It created an intimacy, a connection apart from the physical attraction that drew them to each other in the first place. We all know that nothing breaks the ice, eases tension, promotes goodwill and friendship, the way shared laughter can. Someone once said that it is the shortest distance between two people.
I am not the only one who thinks more attention needs to be given to laughter. There is an entire field of study about it with its very own name, and it is called gelotology. Much research has been done, and is being done, concerning the benefits of laughter. Studies show that those who laugh more are healthier, and that spontaneous laughter occurs less frequently as we age. I have noticed it in myself, as I get older. I do not laugh loud enough, often enough, or long enough. Do you?
A journalist, Norman Cousins, said laughter is inner jogging, and he was the first to popularize the notion that laughter has healing qualities. He suffered from a painful degenerating disease. In 1978 when he published Anatomy of an Illness, he wrote that he had found relief through sustained laughter, which he achieved by watching funny movies.
Mark Twain said, “The human race only has one really effective weapon and that’s laughter. The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
Laughter is a universal language. It knows no cultural, religious, or linguistic barrier. We can all speak laughter, and it makes us all feel the same way. Genuine, heartfelt laughter creates an overall feeling of goodwill and camaraderie, which is a powerful, positive, healing emotion.
Have you ever heard of World Laughter Day? On January 11, 1998, the first World Laughter Day took place in India, when some 12,000 members from international Laughter Clubs (yes, there really are laughter clubs) joined in a mega laughing session. World Laughter Day has now been organized to take place on the first Sunday of May, every year. Hundreds of people, sometimes thousands, gather on that day to laugh together.
Laughter clubs are developing all over the world, but so far I have not found one in Texas. What a concept, and what a thought! Wouldn’t it be great? Imagine what could transpire if the whole world laughed at the same time!
It is such an elemental human activity. As babies, we laughed so easily but age puts a damper on it for some reason. Recent studies show that infants even at 17 days of age have vocalized laughter sounds spontaneously. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
Other studies show that the ability to laugh more is genetic, that we are predisposed to be jolly, to laugh a lot, or not. That we inherit the disposition just as we inherit our laugh sounds and patterns, even our taste in what we find humorous.
Adults become inhibited in all our interactions, but spontaneous laughter seems to be one of the first human responses to go. On average, children laugh 400 times a day, and adults, only 15 -17 times a day. And we get crankier and more unpleasant it seems, as we age, until the next thing you know we have high pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, and other age related health problems. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
A study done at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore found that people with heart disease laughed 40 percent less than those of the same age without heart disease did. (http://www.umm.edu/features/laughter.htm) Many studies show that laughter provides essential health benefits including lower blood pressure, healthier arteries, lower blood sugar, pain relief, and an overall better outlook on life. We do not need a study to prove to us that laughter just plain and simply makes you feel better. It easies tension throughout the body.
Scientists agree that laughter is triggered when we find something humorous. All laughter begins in the brain, and can express different emotions such as mirth, joy, surprise. It happens when we are physically touched, tickled. Even mild pain can produce a laugh, such as when pressure is applied to the “funny bone”. Men and women have different ways of laughing. Women tend to laugh in a more lilting, singsong fashion, while men are apt to grunt or snort. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/laughter.htm)
However, one funny thing about laughter is that human beings don’t always think the same things are funny—not as a race, a group, a family, or even as a couple. Our brains have all been culturally programmed, by our upbringing, by the diversity of stimuli we have been exposed to in our lives. So, different cultures naturally differ in what tickles their funny bone. Cultures laugh at one another, making fun of each other, so the one being laughed at will not see the humor in what is being said, while the other side may think it is just hilarious. So, for something to be universally funny, for laughter to be genuinely shared, the parties involved must be on the same page, so to speak. They have to “get it”.
One theory, about what we find funny, suggests that humor happens when logic and familiarity is replaced with the unexpected, with an abnormal occurrence, or word, in a given situation. That is why the punch line in the joke is the funny part of it. It is what you do not expect to hear. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/laughter.htm)
Another theory, known as the superiority theory, says we find humor in someone else’s stupid mistake or accident, such as when someone falls down. We first stifle the urge to laugh, before expressing concern. Why is that? Well, the superiority theory states the obvious. We feel superior, we are detached, it didn’t happen to us, and we laugh because we are glad it didn’t. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/laughter.htm)
I also think that the first theory of the unexpected applies to why we laugh when someone falls. We certainly don’t expect an adult to fall, we are expected to walk upright, completely balanced at all times, and when suddenly we slip, trip, or stumble, and worst of all, fall—it’s certainly not expected by anyone. It’s like the punch line to a joke.
The third theory suggests that humor is expressed to relieve stress. Adults seem to fit into this theory. Life has mellowed us, making us hopefully more tolerant of others, less judgmental. We tend to find humor in the things that most stress us out. We find humor in our own shared embarrassments and common predicaments. Sometimes we just need a release, and laughter provides our system with a coping device. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/laughter.htm). One thing’s for certain, we adults certainly do not laugh as often as we once did.
Another funny thing about laughter, not only humans do it. Yes, animals laugh too, and it has been proven. The studies may not show that animals have a sense of humor, but they definitely have documented the vocalization of laughter in apes, dogs, and even rats.
Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, both in the wild and in captivity, have been documented laughing and expressing joy, vocalizing laughter-like noises in response to physical contact such as wrestling, chasing each other, or tickling. One study compared sounds made by human babies and chimpanzees, when tickled. The sounds were recorded, and found to have followed the same vocal patterns, although the chimps’ sounds were in a higher frequency. The babies and the chimps also shared similar facial expressions. Both humans and chimps have the same ticklish spots on our bodies: in our armpits and on our bellies. The chimps enjoy tickling at every age and the activity does not diminish with them as it does in humans, with age. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
Rats and dogs have been studied as well, and both laugh. Dog laughter sounds like a pant. This sound has been recorded and analyzed, finding that the pants occur in frequencies. Dog laughter recordings have been replayed to captive dog audiences, such as those found in shelters. When the dogs hear the sound of the recorded laughter, they socialize; they react by initiating play with each other. Stress levels are reduced in the dogs when they hear the laughter. Dogs between four months to ten years of age have been compared, before exposure to the laughing tapes, and afterwards. Before hearing the recordings, the dogs displayed stressful behavior such as growling, salivating, pacing, barking, or cowering. Afterwards hearing the recorded dog laughter, positive reactions included tail wagging and facial expressions indicating playfulness. They became more approachable, licking their lips and panting more often. Researchers recommend that dogs in shelters be exposed to dog laughter as a way of calming them, therefore making them more adoptable. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
I have seen, and heard, my dog laugh, as I am sure you have yours. Mostly she smiles but sometimes she pants in a humorous way when I know she is especially amused. Now, rats, well, I will have to take the word of the scientists on this one. for I will never tickle a mouse to see if it laughs. I couldn’t hear it anyway, because the studies show that rats make a high frequency sound, which cannot be detected without equipment. These sounds are described as high-pitched chirping, although squeaking is the way it is most commonly described, and the chirping sounds occur during social interacting, such as tumbling and playing. When tickled by humans, some areas of the skin generated more laughter than others did; the laughter was found to be associated with positive feelings and social bonding. The rats became conditioned to the tickling and even appeared to seek it. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
Other studies show rats chirp when wrestling each other, and before sex, and when receiving morphine. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
It was also discovered that the rats who laughed the most, attracted other laughing rats, promoting interaction between them, while other less humorous rats were less social. It was noted that as rats age, the response to tickling and their laughter decreased just as it does in humans. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laughter)
This brings me back to us humans. John Steinbeck said, “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” Laughter is good medicine—no negative side affects as is associated with so many drugs, which affect people differently. It will not cause internal bleeding, kidney failure or nausea although it has been known to cause watery eyes and spastic behavior. The source of this remedy is located in the same part of our brain as our ability for speech. It is a built-in release valve and it is triggered when we experience anything that strikes us as funny. Laughter always produces the same affects, and it is free.
It reduces stress, and increases the heart rate, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. It relaxes tense muscles in your face, and through your body. It boosts the immune system, which enables the body to fight off illness, even cancer. It eases pain because laughter releases endorphins in the brain, which are natural painkillers. People with a highly developed sense of humor are less stressed, are happier all around individuals with a more optimistic view of life. And laughter encourages communication, makes us easier to talk to, more enjoyable, more popular. It promotes a better sense of belonging in all of us. A laugh a day just might keep the doctor away.
Dr. Patch Adams, the doctor Robin Williams played in the movie, “Patch” recognized the positive affects in children and practiced humor in his treatments. He acted funny, dressed like a clown, and entertained his patients in every way he could imagine to induce laughter in them. Cancer research shows that laughter has the ability to relieve pain and even to fight tumor cells. There is a lot to be said for tickling one’s funny bone.
Speaking of tickling, remember as kids how much fun it was to tickle and be tickled? How we rolled in the floor in the agony of our laughter! We thought we would die, but I have not heard of anyone dying from laughter. Have you? I think tickling should be added to every health club’s activity roster. I bet it would catch on, too. Imagine a group of adults tickling each other for ten or fifteen minutes! The image makes me want to laugh right now. Studies estimate that laughing 100 times is equal to 10 minutes on the rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike. (http://www.howstuffworks.com/laughter.htm).
We need to all look for more humor in our lives, find more things to laugh about. We need to become reconnected with the sense of humor we had as children. Remember the funny faces we used to have so much fun making? When’s the last time you sat around with friends making funny faces? I suspect it has been a long, long time.
I believe laughter and our sense of humor is nature’s gift to us all, a coping mechanism, that we as older adults do not use in the way it was intended, and we are less healthy because of our neglect. Look for something funny every day and laugh out loud at it, even if you are alone. Why do we not laugh when we are by ourselves—oh, we might mumble to ourselves and smile even, but we hardly ever just burst out in laughter. Well, I think we need to work on that. Although laughter naturally works best with others, there is no reason we can’t enjoy it alone.
Just as we should exercise more and eat right, we should find time to laugh more. See funny movies more often, or funny plays, and join the others in the theater in bursts of unabashed laughter. Read funny books, find humor in everyday things, learn new jokes and tell them, and take a break from our serious natures, if only for a few minutes a day. Buy funny cds for your car, and listen to them as you drive here and there and practice laughing out loud every time something strikes you as funny. Trigger that release valve in your brain, and spread those powerful little endorphins, those healing T-cells and B-cells through out your body! They are there, just waiting to be released so they can do their jobs. Life can still be as much fun as it used to be, if only we laughed more! The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, which was founded in 1988, promotes stimulating activities in order to provoke laughter for better health and wellness.
A fail-proof method—works on everyone, every time, even those of us with an underdeveloped sense of humor—is a good old-fashioned tickling session. I encourage you to add it to your daily exercise routine, sustaining your laughter for as long as 10 minutes at a time. All that is needed is a willing partner, because, another funny thing about laughter (and no study can explain why this is true) is that tickling never, ever works alone. We simply cannot physically tickle ourselves into laughter. But, we cannot resist the urge to laugh; no matter how hard we try, when someone else becomes intent on tickling us into a spasm. I highly recommend it. Go tickle, and be tickled by, someone you love today. I leave you with an old Yiddish proverb: What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.