What makes you laugh? Is it a joke about a man who walks into a bar, a knock-knock joke, an unexpected occurrence or a prat-fall? Psychologists tells us that laughter serves as a type of super glue in that it helps keep us connected. Laughter is universal, but humor is culturally specific.
Laughter is a natural behavior of humans and some mammals. Infants as young as five months old begin to laugh at the antics of their caregivers. By eight months, babies can become comedians themselves, making others laugh without the benefit of language.
I’ve been accused of having no sense of humor because I don’t laugh at jokes. I’ve learned over the years to snicker at the jokes told by friends and family. I know that a blank look in response to someone’s favorite joke is as unwelcome as a spray of ice water in the face on a frigid day. So, I laugh most of the time, for a good reason, to stay connected, and because I know how important laughter is to my well-being.
Laughter is hard wired into us humans. The laughter of infants makes every adult smile. However, laughter requires common knowledge and social context. What is funny in the US may not be humorous in another part of the world. Yet, even when two people don’t speak the same language, they can find the humor in a common shared situation.
True laughter has health benefits. It is a physical release of tension, like a sneeze or an orgasm. The heart rate slows down when we laugh. And most importantly, the immune system kicks it up a notch.
Killer cells that search out and fight virus, infected cells, some types of cancers and tumors become more active and multiply. Cells that fight infection begin to turn on and immunoglobulin cells that pierce infected cells in the body go into action.
Norman Cousins was intimately aware of the health benefits of laughter. In 1964, he was given months to live by his physician. He had a rare and painful disease of the connective tissues (Ankylosing Spondylitis, also called Bechterew’s disease).
However, he didn’t want to accept the fate described by his doctor. He checked out of the hospital and began watching funny movies/TV shows such as the Marx Brothers and Candid Camera. These shows made him laugh, thereby engaging his immune system.
Cousins wrote a book about his experience,Anatomy of an Illness; from the Patient’s Perspective. His disease went into remission, his pain disappeared and he lived for roughly another 40 years. Since that time, there have been many books written about the healing power of laughter.
Although laughter is universal, it isn’t always an expression of amusement. Adults will laugh when nervous or uncomfortable. This type of laughter doesn’t have the same positive health benefits. Other adults will laugh in the company of others, even if they don’t see/understand the humor, they “catch” the hilarity, building those social bonds.
As I mentioned, laughter connects us as humans. It typically signals that the situation is safe, satisfying, and joyful. However, we humans can use humor as a weapon to disguise bullying behaviors or create a barrier between ourselves and those who are different.
We make jokes about people who we view as “less than” and to create a psychological barrier between them and us.
Jokes have been used to deride and debase others. I’ve never thought jokes about women, gays, lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, blondes, Muslims, people with disabilities, or anyone who is different from me were funny.
And I’ve never considered that using “humor” to disguise aggressive behavior toward another was the least bit comical. I’ve been called a “downer,” too sensitive, a kill-joy and much more derisive terms over the years. (Being sensitive is a bad thing?)
Laughter is universal and the chortle of a baby can make even the saddest person smile. Let’s all pay attention to how we and others use language and humor. Is it to signal that the situation is safe, or to create a wall between ourselves and others? Is it to cement social bonds, or to target another person’s vulnerabilities?
I prefer to laugh at my own vulnerabilities and not those of others. I’m going to try to channel Ellen DeGeneres, to see the humor in the absurd, to laugh at myself, and to be kind to others. How about you?