While some parts of the world don’t need a reminder to laugh, there are two spring days in Britain that invite people to find the humour in life. The first is Red Nose Day in March, a BBC covered media event by the charity Comic Relief, and the other is the first of April – or ‘April Fool’s Day’ – in which a flurry of (hopefully) funny pranks are carried out before midday — miss the deadline and the prankster is branded the ‘fool’. These are events that bring a lot of fun, but as the science behind laughter becomes increasingly researched, it seems that perhaps one ought to see every day as a good day to laugh.
The 19th century German philosopher, Arnold Schopenhauer, described laughter as coming from “the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and…real objects”. This Platonic contrast between perfect ideas and the imperfect reality of things (indicative of Thomas Paine’s expression, ‘the sublime and the ridiculous’) implies that laughter and humour are a means of dealing with life’s absurdities and novelties. Schopenhauer’s analysis aside, humour is rarely of interest to western philosophers, laughter being seen as largely undignified and unbecoming of a serious intellectual.
In the scriptures of Christian and Judaic religions, other than in the form of derision, laughter is also very rarely seen[i]. The mid-20th-century philosopher Alan Watts suggests that this is because of the desire to present God as authoritative and worthy of solemn reverence. By contrast, the Buddha is regularly depicted as a laughing monk, as is the Dalai Lama today. There is also no shortage of laughing yogis in the Hindu faith. Perhaps this cultural contrast towards humour is due to western traditions leaning towards a dualism of mental states: when at work or study, concentrate, and be serious – save the humour and laughter for when at ‘play’.
The biological effects of laughter are broad and well established. Laughter releases endorphins that help relieve physical pain, support the immune system and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. It can also help lower blood pressure. Psychologically, laughter can be viewed as a coping mechanism and is correlated with higher life satisfaction. Socially it can help to enhance interpersonal relations, defusing tensions and conflicts.
More recently, laughter has been advocated as a therapeutic tool, with ‘laughter therapy’ employing concepts from cognitive-behavioural therapy to help participants to find the humour in situations. A 2016 paper at Sahmyook University, Korea, describes laughter therapy’ as an “effective and scientifically supported” treatment for depression. One of the authors of a 2009 paper suggested that doctors may at some point be prescribing a daily allocation of laughter, just as some are now doing for exercise.
As for how we might conjure up more laughter in our lives, some research suggests that simply by choosing to laugh for a few minutes, a practice popularised as ‘laughter yoga’, we might reap some of the benefits seen in involuntary laughter [ii]. Perhaps we also ought to see laughter as not just a goal, but as the side effect of having fun and socialising. If we’re not getting our daily share of laughter, it might just be an indication that we need to switch off our computer, spend time with others, and do something recreational.
Humour can sometimes mask issues that need our attention, but caveats aside, a capacity for humour seems to be an important component of a happy, healthy life. Laughing might not be appropriate in all situations, nor should it be seen as a fix-all substitute for other interventions, but if we’re feeling a little stressed or anxious in the midst of everyday ups and downs, perhaps we need to take a moment to draw out the humor around us, or to schedule some weekend activities that are likely to stimulate laughter.
[i] page 9, Morreall John, Taking Laughter Seriously
[ii] Dolgoff-Kaspar, R; Baldwin, A; Johnson, MS; Edling, N; Sethi, GK (2013-03-25). “Effect of laughter yoga on mood and heart rate variability in patients awaiting organ transplantation: a pilot study”. Altern Ther Health Med. 18: 61–6