ON LAUGHTER

What to do in our contemporary society of worry, where more than ever it seems anxiety and even depression secretly steal our joy? Find ways to laugh; that’s what we should do. Laugh often, escape the tyrannical screen for a while, laugh till our bellies tie into a joyous knot, at least when away from the censorious, or maybe particularly in their company. Sometimes we are serious for too long, too concerned with what needs to be done, the instant reply that’s expected on the smart phone, what’s happening in our absence, what our competitors are doing, whether we’re succeeding, what people are thinking of us, our health, growing old, the absurdity in political elections. We should sever the tendency. Otherwise our bodies, not to mention our minds, could suffer. The power of laughter to soothe the health has long been extolled. Its result is applauded in Proverbs – “A cheerful heart is good medicine”. And laughter has been given divine provenance where in Genesis it is written, “And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh”. Laughter alleviates what neuroscientists call allostatic load – wear and tear on the body from chronic stress. Excessive growth there tends to weaken the immune system and damage the brain. From accumulating stressors over time the hippocampus and pre frontal cortex shrink, causing memory lapse and cognitive decline. Another effect compounds the syndrome. The amygdala expands exacerbating anxiety. Linked to the medical positives of allostatic alleviation is a more apparent benefit. Laughter makes us feel good. It triggers the secretion of endorphins, the neurotransmitters that act as an equivalent of morphine (as the term implies) but are non-addictive. They can be contagious though, as any one who has been in the company of uncontrollable laughers knows. While other types of social interaction can provide similar profit, laughter is a sure bet. And it is cheaper than medicine or professional therapy. The psychological effects are arguably just as important. From its stance in the present, laughter liberates us from oppression of the past and future. It helps us enter a state in which Seneca, echoed by Montaigne, claimed true happiness exists. The Roman playwright held that state to be the enjoyment of “the present without anxious dependence upon the future”. Proverbs, which Seneca probably never read, recorded a comparable saying centuries before– “She laughs without fear of the future.” In shattering the focus on everyday life laughter requires us to usher in a refreshed perspective, enter a new present. The shift can stir a sense of relief, an escape from tedious reality and stressful bother. At that point, care slips off our backs like dumping a rucksack on a hiking trip or a coat in a heat wave. The call for this diversion is age old. Kings used to employ fools to provoke laughter when they were too jaded to perform the task themselves. Added to these properties is a utility of another sort. Through breaking for a moment the concentration on self and forming a cheerful connection with something outside, laughter lifts our mood, making us a little stronger, a little more capable of facing the negatives of life. In a lighter vein, to our amusement it chisels down the edge of earnestness, the boring urge in some people that borders on the self – righteous. Humour, laughter’s agent provocateur, has never enjoyed a consensus of definition. Democritus, known as the Laughing Philosopher as well as the father of atomic theory, viewed it as scoffing at human follies by demonstrating their stupidity. Sufis have always done the same, often with great subtlety. The definition I like is ‘exposing the incongruous’ in whatever application it can appear, including the scoffing type. At least Stephen Leacock, the famous humourist, thought so. Perhaps the first recorded use of humour in this vein occurs in Genesis. Sarah laughed because of the incongruity in bearing a son to a centenarian father. Others who heard her saw it as funny and laughed too. Though humour is like Proteus – taking as many forms as waves in the sea, it must stem, according to Henri Bergson, from a human base. Animals or objects can be the butt of jokes but they only become funny to the extent they remind us of something we observe in people. In that degree it is happily social, generating a sudden hug among the participants and inspiring the sense of well – being that comes from belonging. In laughter, at least in its benign form, we all belong together. For the moment, a suspension of judgment clears the air of critical thoughts and we become innocent. It has been said that the ultimate purpose of religion is to keep the human ego under control. Self- deprecating humour does that too, at least in its perceived effect. The telling of a joke against oneself demonstrates humanness, an admission of fallibility that neutralizes the ego and affords a peak into the fundamental equality of us all. Laughter has a shape. Like a fractal it has a pattern that can operate on different scales and remain similar on each one. Take a good joke for example. It can be told to one person, a few friends, a crowd, and the laughter it evokes will appear essentially the same. Intensity may vary but its characteristic and the feeling it engenders are similar on all scales. Not every joke would produce such positive results but most would, at least so long as no insult is perceived. To this degree it might be said that the action of laughter forms a dynamic system. It offers a glimpse of chaos, something that in itself can be fun. Here is a story, actually true, as a case in point. A large dinner party of important people was held in one of the superbly caparisoned Guild Halls of London. It was an international gathering representing most of the important nations in the world at senior level. The Chairman was a leading member of the French establishment, a grave and rather forbidding character, with a face Italians would call terribile. After the first course he rose to speak. Crunching his bushy eye -brows he said with a somber and heavily accented voice, “As a Frenchman I am insulted.” The room hushed in tension and a portentous pause ensued. “I am grossly offended. Not only have I been seated opposite a bust of the victor of Waterloo but I am required to eat beef Wellington too.” He smiled, and laughter erupted in the room. While the circumstances cannot be repeated, the story has been retold to different numbers of people with similar results. So, in our anxious times, let us free the soul and laugh. Let us grip the happy string that ties us to the continuum of time and be cheerful. As Sir Toby Belch suggested, “Shall we make the welkin (sky) dance indeed?” Tony Grey