Day 15: Laughter

My research is proving to be more and more fun! In my alphabetical adventure this one is next. I don’t need to list my sources of hilarity this week, as there are a million entries for ‘comedy’ on youtube that you can access at anytime, which I recommend doing because as we all know, laughing makes you feel better. After an hour or so of any of my heroes of hilarity like Sarah Millican, Eddie Izzard, or James Acaster, I can actually feel the difference in my relaxed muscles, improved breathing and general lightness about my shoulders.

The Mayo Clinic outlines the medical benefits of laughter:

  • enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air
  • stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles
  • increases the endorphins that are released by your brain
  • activates and relieves your stress response
  • stimulates circulation
  • aids muscle relaxation
  • improves your immune system with positive thoughts that can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses
  • eases pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers
  • helps you connect with other people
  • lessens your depression and anxiety

This study by Robin Dunbar explores the positive effect of the release of endorphins through laughter, and how how watching comedy enabled participants to withhold pain for longer. Also, as we know from experience, laughter is even more effective when it is shared. That’s why comedies are filmed with an audience – the laughter makes it funnier – and why the recent Graham Norton Shows include a Zoom audience to provide the essential interaction of laughter.

I was working at the Melksham Assembly Hall a few years ago when Lee Evans did a ‘work in progress’ show in our little Melksham. It was an amazing night, we laughed our faces off, and at the end joined in the rapturous standing ovation as Lee kept saying ‘I love you Melksham!’ but what I remember most was the incredible buzz of happiness, love and elation on the faces of the audience as they all spilled out of the Hall. I watched the happy crowd disperse throughout the town, to the pubs, takeaways and restaurants to continue their Friday night, and I felt like Melksham had just received a hefty dose of happiness that night.

While comedians spend lifetimes making people laugh, we don’t always have access to professional humourists, so we find opportunities to laugh and make each other laugh. I have just realised what an important trait this is in humans, because in every romcom when the love-torn protagonists do some over the top speech about why they can’t live with this other person, in the list of attributes of their beloved, they usually include the fact that they make them laugh. (Of course now I’m looking I can’t find an example but I will update when I do!).

My point is, we feel comfortable with people we can laugh with. And it’s not just nice, it’s necessary. I have found this brilliant TED talk by Sophie Scott about taking laughter seriously. She observes that as children we watch our parents to see if they laugh at something unfamiliar, to know if we need to be afraid or not, and we continue to do that in life, seeing laughter as an indication that we are safe. She says laughter also marks a bond of connection, it is inclusive and it maintains social bonds. People laugh to show they are OK, to de-escalate stress. It’s an important social skill and needs to be taken seriously because ‘it can sound like friendship, and it can also sound like love.’

My partner’s nephew often skypes him for an hour long session on Minecraft. It’s a valuable time of shared computer-game exploration, where both their characters wander around a shared pixellated world which they discuss by skype. Yesterday, the first thing nephew did was apologise profusely for killing Mr M’s Minecraft horse. He’d ‘borrowed it’ for a quest and accidentally ridden it off a cliff. Mr M’s response was to burst out laughing.

‘Why are you laughing?’ asked the nephew, perturbed.

‘Because it’s not a real horse. It’s a digital piece of fiction that doesn’t matter.’

I liked what a perfect example this was of the lesson I just learned about the importance of laughter to let a child know he’s OK. He’s not in trouble, he’s safe, and everything is alright. I was also reminded recently of how important it is that the laughter is shared, that you need to laugh with the child, not at them. Because on a video call to my sister, my 4 year old niece appeared for a hug, grumpy about something her brother had done. As she curled up with her mum and her face appeared in the screen, I thought I would try to make her laugh, which usually works, and started joking about her furrowed eyebrows. ‘Ooh that is a big frown. Can you frown even harder? Do you think you can get your eyebrows even closer together?’ She did increase her frown, and stormed off angrily. ‘Oh no, I got that wrong!’ I apologised to my sister. ‘That’s like when Dad used to say, “Oh you’ve banged your head on the table, lets just see if the table is alright?!” ‘

‘Yes, funny for the adults but not acknowledging the hurt of the child.’

‘I can’t believe I just did the same thing.’

So while my partner successfully used laughter to connect to his nephew, I managed to use it to disconnect from my niece.

The other thing we’ve all experienced laughter in is gallows humour – ‘grim and ironic humour in a desperate or hopeless situation.’ I know fireman and soldiers are good at this, as they have seen some awful things, and develop a sense of humour to cope. Similarly, comedians now are currently helping us cope with a world of bad news. I generally don’t watch the news. This year I have actively avoided it. But recently, I have found Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You to be very useful sources of updates on the many important issues of this week, but instead of being accompanied by the clanging chimes and serious gloom of the News at Ten, they are lovingly wrapped in comedic genius, so that we laugh about the failings of the test and trace system, the financial misadventures of our government or the impact of this second lockdown on our country. I don’t know that it’s the most accurate way to keep up with current affairs but it is the best way to laugh about them.

In my voluntary role with Melksham Community Support this week, we have seen the predictable increase in requests for help from isolated people. People are just that little more worried now we are back in lockdown and the cases are increasing all around us. I was on duty yesterday, answering calls to sort out medication and shopping deliveries, and I spoke to a lovely elderly gentleman about his prescription requirements. I was working through the list of questions – how many, which pharmacy, confirm address – and the last question, ‘Are any of the medicines controlled drugs?’

‘No, no, we grow those in the loft ourselves,’ he said.

I was still laughing when I had to read through the data protection policy, a new two minute shpeel of legal bobbins they have to agree to so that we can continue to support these people, and after I’d read through the whole boring paragraph, and asked if he was OK with it all, he said, ‘No. Could you read that out again to me?’ I thought he was serious for a second until he said, ‘No, no, please don’t read that out to me ever again!’

It’s so nice when the callers can have a laugh about this. They are stuck at home asking for help to get their food and medicine and they often have a brilliant sense of humour about it. It makes sense that those who can laugh about it have a better time of it, and for me, those calls where we have a laugh brighten up an afternoon of potentially monotonous bits of admin.

In his talk, ‘The Chemistry of Happiness,’ Dale Anderson talks about the importance of happiness for health. He shows that just making a smile with your face, even if you don’t mean it, starts the flow of the happy chemicals. He gets the audience to repeat after him, ‘Ha!’ and then ‘Ha Ha!’ until the whole audience is joining with him in laughter. He showed how he could take a room full of people from one chemical state to another just by the simple act of laughing, and how contagious laughter is. He says that we have our own pharmacy inside of us with access to our own happy chemicals, and calls for a ‘Happy-demic’ that we can start just by smiling, laughing and creating our own contagious happiness.

I used to think that watching TV was not the best use of my time, but now, if it makes me laugh, and especially if it is shared with my love, it counts as part of my therapeutic practice.

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