We had friends over for dinner last night, two couples who hadn’t met each other before. It’s always a bit of a gamble to put strangers together in a social situation. Sometimes my attempts have resulted in lackluster meals, ones where despite the effort made to create an enjoyable meal and lively conversation, the mix of personalities doesn’t seem to work. But I needn’t have worried; from the moment our friends arrived and were introduced to each other, the evening was punctuated by laughter. Not the polite kind either, but the hearty involuntary laughter of people enjoying one another. The kind of laughter I heard described earlier in the day a cognitive neuroscientist, Sophie Scott, in an excerpt from her March 2015 Ted Talk, “Why We Laugh.”
Laughter is, Scott points out, behaviorally contagious. “When you’re smilin’,” Louie Armstrong sang, “the whole world smiles with you.” We humans are thirty times more likely to laugh when we are in the company of others, but much more likely to laugh among people we know and like.
But there’s more to laughter than a good “ha, ha!” Laughter, as Norman Cousins told us in his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, is good medicine. We manage our stress better, deal with difficult situations more effectively, and, through shared laughter, build closer social relationships. Long before Cousins wrote, however, Mark Twain wrote about the power of laughter: “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that’s laughter,” he said. “The moment it arises, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.”
Now cancer is certainly no laughing matter, yet if you walk by the cancer center conference rooms where I lead the “Writing through Cancer” workshops, you’re bound to hear laughter. In fact, during some mornings, laughter occurs at least as often as tears. Counterintuitive perhaps, but as Sophie Scott remarked in her Ted Talk, shared laughter is a way of saying, “if we can laugh together, we can get through this.”
I remembered the final months of my father’s life before he died from lung cancer. My father loved to laugh, and he loved a good, humorous story. Why should his death be marked by weeping for his loss? He made his three children promise his funeral would not be defined by sorrow. “I want you to throw me a party after I die,” he said. “Invite all my friends, serve Jack Daniels and tell funny stories.” We did just as he wanted. His laughter was what we loved most about him, and sharing those humorous memories was exactly how he wanted to be remembered at his death. Perhaps he knew that our shared laughter would help to alleviate our sorrow.
Jeannette Moninger, writing in the Winter 2015 issue of CURE, states that many hospitals across America now offer laughter programs for cancer patients. Moninger describes a few: At North Kansas City Hospital, patients can watch funny movies…Duke Medicine offers a Laugh Mobile, a rolling cart from which adult patients in oncology wards can check out humorous books and silly items like whoopee cushions and rubber chickens. And the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program sends…clowns to 16 children’s hospitals nationwide to help put smiles on the faces of ill children…
Even as far back as the 13th century, surgeons used humor to distract patients from the agony of painful medical procedures. Even then, they were onto something, as many research studies have borne out. Laugh, and not only the world laughs too, but Moninger writes, your body releases endorphins, the “feel good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers,” the same hormones that create the “runner’s high.” Endorphins also decrease the body’s levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with chronic stress. Cortisol has a number of negative effects on our bodies, compromising our immune system, tensing up our muscles, elevating blood pressure—all of which laughter helps to counteract.
…when you are raised with the gift of laughter, as I was, it can’t stay suppressed forever. It’s too powerful. Thank goodness for that. I eventually could see bits of “ha-ha” in my own life. Certainly not in the cancer, but in the mind-blowing circumstances that suddenly consumed my life. And laughing at parts of those experiences made me feel a little more alive. The funniest part of it all was that the more I allowed myself to laugh, the more therapeutic my tears became. (“Jim Higley, “Finding Humor in the Midst of Cancer,” Coping with Cancer Magazine, March/April 2012)
We all need a little laughter in our lives, no matter if we’re dealing with cancer, an over-busy or stressful life, the loss of loved ones, or simply sharing time with friends as we did last night over dinner. We need to laugh just as much as sometimes, we need to cry. And laughter is best when we share it with others.
From over the wall I could hear the laughter of women
in a foreign tongue, in the sun-rinsed air of the city…
…One spoke and the others rang like bells, oh so witty,
like bells till the sound filled up the garden and lifted
like bubbles spilling over the bricks that enclosed them,
their happiness holding them, even if just for the moment.
Although I did not understand a word they were saying,
their sound surrounded me, fell on my shoulders and hair,
and burst on my cheeks like kisses, and continued to fall,
holding me there where I stood on the sidewalk listening…
(From “The Laughter of Women,” by Mary Sherman Willis, The Hudson Review, Autumn 2007)
Whether during cancer treatment or simply living with any hardship or struggle, it’s good to find something—even a small thing—to smile or laugh about. Dig back into your memories this week—the fun times you shared with others, a time you laughed so hard, tears ran down your cheeks. Did shared laughter strengthen the bond you felt with others? Write about one of those times, remembering the laughter. Let a little “ha, ha” brighten your day.. Remember what Charlie Chaplin said: “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”