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Garlock: Why laughter is good medicine

November 22, 2016 GMT

“A day without laughter is a day wasted.” — Charlie Chaplin

“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” — Mark Twain

From time to time over the years, I have volunteered to give a talk at nursing homes or assisted living facilities on the topic of humor. These sessions are always well-attended and participants are enthusiastic. These seniors have reinforced for me the conviction that a sense of humor is not only an attractive trait, but is an important weapon in the battle to cope with life’s inevitable challenges and losses.

If you ask people who are looking for a mate to give you some characteristics that are important, they will almost universally put a sense of humor near the top of the list. Of course, men tend to value a partner who appreciates their humor, and women are more inclined to be attracted to someone who makes them laugh. And many of my nursing home friends have told me how that division of labor has been an important ingredient in long-term marital success.

Psychologists have confirmed that humor is of great value. There are many lines of research to confirm this. We know, for instance, that in the workplace, humor by a supervisor reduces hostility, relieves emotional tension, improves group morale and increases the chances that difficult messages will be heard and understood. Research shows that successful supervisors use humor more than twice as often as others.

Another line of research has demonstrated the physical benefits of laughter. Laughter lowers blood pressure, strengthens the respiratory system, boosts immunity and lowers concentrations of stress hormones.

There is much research that supports the conclusion that companionship and social interaction can be more potent antidepressants than psychiatric medications. It has also been concluded that a difficult long-term relationship promotes longevity over seemingly happily living alone. The reasons for this are complex, but laughter may have something to do with it since people who are engaged in social interaction laugh up to 35 times per hour, whereas laughing while alone is rather rare.

Receptionist to psychiatrist: “There’s a man out here who says he’s invisible.” Psychiatrist: “Tell him I can’t see him right now.”

A sign posted in a store reads: “Unattended children will be given Red Bull and a free puppy.”

It remains somewhat of a mystery why some things are funny and others are not. Young children can be heard experimenting with attempted humor, trying to figure out how it works. Even professional comedians confess that they are sometimes baffled when what they thought was a brilliant idea falls flat, while something else unexpectedly has people rolling in the aisles.

The author E.B. White once said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Well, I’m not going to let that stop me from taking a shot.

The basis of humor is a violation of expectation or social norm. You can see this in the very first things a baby finds amusing. Peekaboo or hide and seek are violations of the way we normally interact with the child. Of course, the violation must be perceived by the child as harmless and safe. Going beyond that expectation brings tears instead of laughter. The same is true for jokes. It must be a violation that the listener experiences as harmless. If the violation is too mild, there is no emotional intensity and the joke fails. The joke will also be a failure if the violation goes too far. Where exactly this sweet spot is located depends upon the listener. You need to know your audience.

Memory loss among the elderly is a tragic threat. It would seem to be no laughing matter. Yet it is by far the most common topic of humor among the seniors I know. A while back, I was told the following story:

Two couples were walking along a garden path with the two ladies up front and the two gentlemen bringing up the rear. The two men had the following conversation. “My wife and I had a great dinner out the other night.” “Oh yeah? What was the name of the restaurant?” “Oh, wait a minute. What’s the name of that flower that smells good and grows on a vine with thorns?” “A rose?” “Thank you. Hey Rose, what was the name of that restaurant we ate in the other night?”

“I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.” — Bob Hope