By Angela Noel
January 31, 2018
I recently began running up forty-five flights of stairs once or twice a week. It’s not all at once of course. It’s nine floors of stairs I run up and then walk down, five times. That’s over 1,000 stairs. When I reach the top I’m breathing like a banshee and wishing the way down was at least twice as long as the way up. It’s hard. The last thing I want to do is laugh while I’m torturing myself in this way. But it turns out, that’s exactly what I should be doing.
Laughter, a study at Georgia State found, improves health outcomes in older adults. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Jennifer Craft Morgan, points out,“The older adult angle is what we were really interested in, but there’s no reason to think that it wouldn’t have the same positive effects on younger people than it did on older people. Activity is a problem at all ages and laughter and exercise has benefits for all ages.” Laughter isn’t just a benefit when working out, it’s also a powerful social tool–like a rum and coke, but without the sugar and poor decision-making.
Laughter is Contagious
When others laugh, studies show, our faces twitch and contort almost without our knowledge or consent. Laughter is physiologically contagious–a bug our bodies want us to catch. Our brains begin a complicated process of interpreting the sounds as positive and trigger muscle responses in the face. Even if we don’t get the joke, just because others are laughing our faces want to smile and laugh too. It’s pro-social, increases communal bonds, and indicates safety and comfort among a group.
None of us, when asked what we want in a partner say, “a terrible sense of humor.” No, we want someone we can laugh with. Children benefit from humor as a stress reliever too. One of my son’s favorite adjectives to describe himself is “funny.” He loves it when I laugh at something he does or says. (He loves it so much he often tries the same joke again two minutes later. . . he still has a few things to learn in the comedy department.) The point is, laughter is a gift we give and receive with such pleasure we almost don’t need the science to know its benefits are overwhelmingly positive.
And yet. . .
When the Joke isn’t Funny
Comedy gives us the means to speak truth about tough subjects. In Shadows of War: A Social History of Silence in the Twentieth Century, Jay Winter quotes Shakespeare’s King Lear and comments that the court jester has a “transgressive role.” “Comedy,” he writes, “can speak truth to power, and lives to tell the tale another day.”
But, context matters. For example, we can joke with a close friend about the time in college when he barfed in a classroom trash can, but we shouldn’t bring that story up at a work function with our friend’s boss present. Funny does depend on the circumstances. And it depends on the intent.
Comedians say all kinds of shockingly inappropriate things that offend one group or another. But they assume the audience knows what they say in their acts don’t represent their actual beliefs. Still, times change. And comedy must change with it. What we found funny because it seemed to be a harmless bit of nothing, might not be. And that’s when comedians like Jim Jeffries, and Sarah Silverman take a hard look at themselves. When they’re no longer court jesters speaking truth to power, but the friend bringing up the barf story–they (hopefully) change course. The power of laughter should bring us together, not tear us apart.
Laughter is Just Plain Good For Us
All this boils down to the following: Laughter is good for us. We should do it as much as we can as a means of connecting with others, dealing with stress, and improving our overall health.
The next time I have to run those silly stairs, I’ll think of my son telling the doctor he wore his school’s logo t-shirt because he wanted to “represent.” Or maybe I’ll recall the time I sat in a conference room chitchatting with my colleagues before a meeting when I unthinkingly said, “Can you die from water in your lungs?” And my then-coworker, now husband deadpanned, “Uh, yeah. It’s called drowning.” Perhaps, I’ll giggle over the latest funny blog post from I’m Sick and So are You, Lutheranliar Looks at Life, Fatty McCupcakes, Hot Mess Memior, Gin and Lemonade, or Actual Conversations with my Husband. Any one of those things and many more might make those stairs less of a curse-worthy torture-fest. Laughter might not make it easier on my knees to climb those steps, but it’s good for both my heart and soul.
Your turn: What makes you laugh? When do you need to laugh the most?