Reflections on Laughter

Reflections on Laughter

BIG deadline coming up for Bouncing Back: Chapters One-Seven to the publisher by March 5, 2012. Hence, one new poetic offering, then a re-post appropriate to overcome disillusionment – the August 2009 newsletter on Laughter. Enjoy, and thank you for your patience!
Prescription for the Disillusioned
Come new to this day.
Remove the rigid overcoat of experience,
the notion of knowing,
the beliefs that cloud your vision.
Leave behind the stories of your life.
Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectation.
Let the stale scent of what-ifs
waft back into the swamp
of your useless fears.
Arrive curious,
without the armor of certainty,
the plans and planned results of the life you’ve imagined.
Live the life that chooses you,
new every breath,
every blink of your astonished eyes.
-Rebecca del Rio

The August 2009 issue of Ode magazine was devoted to Laughter: how laughter evolved and how it makes us human; the positive impacts of laughter on health and productivity; how laughter creates trust, social bonds, and intimacy; how laughter helps people cope with stress, loss, trauma, oppression.
May these highlights of the research pouring in from around the world, and the tools and resources that follow, be inspiring and useful to you and yours.

Reflections on Laughter
Laughter Promotes Health
Laughter triggers catecholamines in the brain that heighten alertness. Laughter releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. Laughter cleanses the body of the stress hormone cortisol, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress and increasing pain tolerance. Laughter’s alternating contraction-relaxation of the diaphragm releases tension in the body, bringing our autonomic nervous system into balance. (The physiological effects of a good session of laughter can last up to 45 minutes.)

Laughter increases the flow of blood and oxygen through our coronary arteries, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Laughter staves off the anxiety and depression that can severely impact heart functioning. Laughter mitigates the damaging effects of inflammation, reducing the pain of arthritis. Laughter strengthens the immune system, helping the body fight off viruses and cancer. Laughter helps stabilize blood sugar levels in diabetics. Laughter improves respiratory functioning in patients with chronic lung disease. Laughter even burns calories.

“In the human condition, you cannot experience distress and emotional uplift at the same time,” says Steven Sultanoff, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and authority on therapeutic uses of humor. “When you’re experiencing mirth, you’re not experiencing depression, anxiety or anger. If you increase your humor quotient, it will change your life.”

Laughter Promotes Work Productivity

Laughter’s ability to counteract the body’s physiological responses to stress provides great benefit in the work place, where stress is the number one cause of worker’s compensation claims. Many different research studies show: workers who laugh regularly, long and hard, focus better, think more creatively, and problem solve better than co-workers who do not. People who laugh tend to be more efficient, more productive, and make fewer mistakes than their stressed out co-workers. Because laughter reduces the damaging effects of stress on the immune system, people who laugh a lot are less vulnerable to illness and take fewer sick days from work.

Laughter Eases Loss, Grief, Trauma

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, tracked a group of recent widows and widowers, looking for the markers of coping resiliently with devastating loss and grief. He found that the survivors who could smile and laugh as they remembered their loved ones experienced less anxiety and depression at six months after their loss, at 12 months, at 24 months. According to Dr. Keltner, the laughter seemed to give people a brief vacation from mourning, “a little trap door that allows you to escape from toxic stress.”

“To laugh in a painful or distressing situation isn’t to avoid emotional reckoning but to gain the perspective needed to make the experience productive, to see the dilemma as part of the somewhat absurd human drama, and to seek fellowship in the society of the living.” – Blaine Greteman.

Laughter Promotes Learning

The word “wit” has the same etymological root as the word “knowledge”: Old English witan – to know. The first definition of wit in the modern dictionary is intelligence. At every age, brain development and learning happen through play and fun. Children learn so quickly because they engage with the world through curiosity and play. Children at age 5 giggle and laugh between 20 and 100 times a day. Without enough amusement, fun, play, and laughter, this learning is stifled.

It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.

-Leo Buscaglia

Play, in short, prepares the brain to handle the unexpected.

– Lee Alan Dugatkin.
Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce
Babies smile, coo, snort, giggle, chuckle, guffaw long before they speak. Laughter, in fact, helps develop the brain structures necessary for speech.

How Laughter Evolved

Laughter is ancient, pre-dating the development of language. Our hominid ancestors began to laugh about 2-4 million years ago, after we learned to walk on two legs but before we evolved speech. Walking on two legs took pressure off the thorax; humans could now walk and breathe in separate physiological rhythms. This enhanced vocal control re-structured our nervous systems, increasing brain volume in the areas that coordinate breathing, vocalization, and cognitive comprehension, thus laying the foundation for the evolution of speech.

Dacher Keltner, in his book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, calls laughter as “significant a shift in our social organization as the evolution of tool making and the evolution of opposable thumbs.”

Laughter Is Social Glue

By signaling safety and facilitating group interactions, laughter helped humans evolve sustainable social groups, just as laughter helps create social cohesion today.

The essential ingredient for laughter is other people. Laughter seems to be primarily a social lubricant, not a response to “funny” situations. We are 30 times more likely to laugh in group situations than in solitary ones. We laugh most often when we’re nervous or in an awkward situation, when we’re talking to people more powerful than we are. Women consistently laugh more than men (signaling submission to the more powerful? Needing to influence of moods of those around them?) Laughter eases tension, deflects bullying, sarcasm, conflict. The absence of laughter predicts divorce far more consistently than the presence of outright animosity, according to psychologist John Gottmann, founding director of the Gottmann Institute for Researching and Restoring Relationships.

Laughter is contagious, sometimes uncontrollably so. Mirror neurons fire when we see someone else laughing; our body responds with an impulse to laugh, too. Laughter facilitates group cohesion and solidarity because people are sharing a mental and acoustic space with each other. Our laughter builds a reciprocal resonance; we laugh together with another like a duet or chorus, especially with friends. Laughter signals a shared understanding of the world; it’s foundational to like-mindedness, interdependency, and intimacy.

Laughter as a Survival Tactic for People under Siege

Ron Jenkins, professor of theater at Weslyan University, shared his personal experiences in South Africa, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia in this issue of Ode, documenting how laughter can be a powerful tool to confront, ridicule, and criticize oppressive regimes.

“For example, I lived in South Africa at the end of the apartheid regime, when the black majority had no political or economic power. They only had symbolic power, which they exercised through humor. I experienced that when I joined a political protest and the police arrested everyone. With hundreds of men, I ended up in a small jail cell. It was an astonishing experience, a very real manifestation of how laughter can set people free. These South Africans with no power at all were caged, but they were telling jokes and performing dances, transforming their confinement into a carnival of freedom.

“Humor is one of the animating forces that keeps the spirit alive when things look bleak. Humor helped provide the unstoppable energy of the movement against apartheid, as it typically does for any struggle for justice.”

* * * * *

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

Laughter is the sensation of feeling good all over and showing it prinicipally in one place.
– Josh Billings

Laughter connects people with their humanity. Through laughter, people acknowledge together that they are not alone.
– Jos Houben

Laughter is the closest distance between two people.
– Victor Borge

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs — jolted by every pebble in the road.

– Henry Ward Beecher
Humor offers a revolutionary yet simple spiritual paradigm. If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others. Laughter heals us and grounds us in a place of hope. It fosters intimacy and honesty in our relationships with each other and with God. And isn’t that what grace is all about?
– Susan Sparks

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.
– Proverbs

He who laughs, lasts.

– Mary Pettibone Poole

Stories to Learn From

Volunteers with Clowns Without Borders have entertained over 1 million children since 1993 in post-war zones, natural disaster areas, and economically distressed regions around the world since 1993. Volunteers have developed a local circus in a Palestinian refuge camp in Lebanon, created therapeutic humor residencies for kids with AIDs in SouthAfrica, started a circus skills center for disabled kids in Myanmar.
“The clown is poetic, naïve, innocent, and can speak about anything without shame,” says Stephane Gue, co-founder of Proyecto Payaso, which uses clowning to teach about HIV and AIDS to indigenous communities throughout South America.

Just one example from their website http://clownswithoutborders.org:

“Gracie steps on the stage with a shy smile displaying a gap between her front teeth. She shakes hands with a clown who presents a shiny, brass taxi horn instead of his hand. “Honk! Honk!” She jumps back in surprise as the crowd roars with laughter. After a series of magic tricks and acrobatics, she finds herself standing on the clown’s shoulders to wild applause. Beaming with confidence and achievement, she returns to her friends in the audience with a red nose clutched tightly in her hand. [Gracie is an orphan living with HIV/AIDS at Beautiful Gate Children’s Home in Crossroads, South Africa.]

* * * * *

John Morreall, professor of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, tells the story in Ode’s Laughter issue of a police officer who responded to a domestic violence call after having completed a course of humor training. As the officer walked to the front door, she heard the sound of an argument inside. Suddenly, a television crashed through the window, landing in the yard. She knocked on the door. “Who is it?” yelled an angry voice. “TV repair,” the officer replied. Her quick wit caught the quarreling husband and wife off guard, touched them with some amusement and irony, and made handling a tense situation easier.

Exercises to Practice

As we’ve seen from the research, the physical state of laughter helps shift mood states and mind states.
Sometimes just changing your face and body language can create more space in your mind. Laughter is a real aid to bring about that spaciousness.
– James Baraz

Here are three exercises to help you use the physicality of laughter to promote emotional, mental and relational well-being.

1. Laughter yoga

Laughter yoga is a form of exercise based on the principle that you can – and probably should – laugh independently of your state of mind or mood. Laughter is used as a form of breathwork and, like other forms of yoga, helps bring the body-mind into harmony and balance. More fun if you can do this with a group of friends – laughter is contagious – but an excellent way to begin the day on your own as well.

Lie on your back on the floor or in bed. Bend your knees and lift them toward your head as though you were sitting. Reach up with your hands and grab your toes, or shins, or knees, whatever you can reach comfortably. In yoga circles, this pose is called happy baby pose or dead bug pose.

In this posture, begin the laughter trajectory: smile, chuckle, laugh, belly laugh. The silliness of the posture helps. Continue belly laughing for 5 minutes, then slowly lower you legs back down to the floor or bed. Relax; breathe, enjoy any ease you are experiencing. If you do this exercise every morning for two weeks, you will notice a profound shift in how you step into your day.

2. A 15 Minute Laughing Meditation created by Dhyan Sutorious

Do this with at least one other person if you can. Find a quiet, secluded place where you can sit together comfortably. ” If you feel a little shy, laugh with your shyness. Respect your limits: you do not have to achieve anything at all.”

Stand to stretch, legs solidly planted. Stretch your muscles as you exhale, relax briefly as you inhale. Repeat this a few times as you reach over your head. You may also use your right hand to pull your left arm over your ear; and vice versa. Loosen your fingers by pulling them gently back with the other hand ( repeat with each hand.) Stretch your facial muscles by making funny faces and grimaces… without laughing.

Smile; then slowly, without forcing yourself, laugh with a relaxed throat. Laugh softly at first, then louder until you’re bellowing heartily from your belly. Don’t force anything. Allow it to happen.

“Every second of your attention should be directed at what presents itself to you at that moment: laugh or cry with it or be silent. The essence is being aware,
accepting, and letting go. The moment you totally accept the situation, the other person or yourself, you can laugh with it.” (In the final minute of the meditation, close your eyes and continue to laugh.)

With your eyes closed, slowly stop laughing and breathe quietly without sound. Each time you notice you’re thinking of something, let the thought go and focus your attention on your body breathing. Whatever you are feeling, notice it, allow it, accept it. Rest in ease.

3. Advanced laughter meditation

Steven Sultanoff, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and an authority on the therapeutic uses of humor, has found that laughter, the physical response to humor, opens us up to the psychological benefit of humor. “Humor triggers wit, and wit shifts belief systems and thinking patterns and prompts changes in attitude.”

Follow the same trajectory of laughter as in the laughter yoga and laughter meditation above: smile, chuckle, laugh, guffaw, deep belly laughter.

Once the state of laughter is solid and steady, bring to mind a nagging worry, a recent sorrow or hurt, a moment of disappointment or chagrin. It doesn’t have to be a big moment, though with practice it can be.

Allow the laughter to “hold” the moment. The laughter may calm a bit; certainly the worry or chagrin will shift a bit. The feeling of difficulty may not resolve entirely; that’s fine. But noticing that laughter can shift a mood state empowers us to use laughter as skillful means to cope with the ups and downs of our days more gracefully, more resiliently.

Books and Websites

Ode for Intelligent Optimists is a gem of a monthly international journal. Politically-socially-environmentally-culturally-spiritually correct. Topics in back issues include: The Morality of Money, Rewired and Inspired (improving mental health through neurofeedback), The Art of Happiness, Travel for a Small Planet, etc. The website allows you to access and download many of the feature articles, subscribe to a free daily feed of good news, with links to many, many other resources like the Global Oneness Project and Travel for a Good Cause vacations. When you subscribe, they plant a tree.


Clowns Without Borders brings contemporary clown/circus oriented performances and workshops into areas devastated by natural disasters, conflict, disease, poverty, so that people, especially children, can forget for a moment the tensions that darken their daily lives and celebrate life in community again with laughter.

Volunteers perform in refugee camps, orphanages and in the streets throughout Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and in distressed areas in the USA. Their website shares many stories from their many projects around the world.