Laughing Cures All, But Can Cut As Well

laughingcuresallIt’s a funny thing: Laughter eases stress–and helps fight all kinds of ailments. Another funny thing: The way you laugh–and what sets you off–can be very revealing.

Things were going well–too well, I thought, as I nervously picked at my salad. Normally, when I went on a blind date (this was before I was married), I made sure I knew all the bad news up front. But my friend Kate had only enthused about my date’s good points. So far, she’d been fight: I was having dinner with a rakishly handsome, impeccably groomed, obviously intelligent man. By the time we got to the main course, I was praying he liked me.

And then he laughed.

It was not like any laugh I’d ever heard. It was more like a severe asthma attack, followed by what sounded like a station wagon full of barking seals. I looked behind me, hoping that perhaps some evil ventriloquist had planted this sound in Mr. Perfect’s mouth. No such luck. I noticed a few startled glances from nearby diners. Thinking quickly, I resolved to say nothing funny for the rest of the evening. But it was as if I had metamorphosed into Jerry Seinfeld: Judging by this guy’s reaction, I was the single most entertaining person he’d ever known, lie kept wheeze-barking, and by the end of the meal, I was covered with a thin film of perspiration, nattering on about mortgage refinancing and the Cuban Missile Crisis in the hope that that noise would not come out of his mouth again.

“Well, yeah, the laugh is an issue,” Kate admitted later. “I didn’t think it would bother you.” Perhaps Kate had forgotten I had this bodily sense called hearing. Forget any merits of the man: This was not a sound I could grow old with.

So call me shallow. But a person’s laugh is as much a distinguishing feature as his voice-and just like a voice, it can amuse, endear, repel, or even scare us. Think Simon Legree, or the Wicked Witch of the West.

It’s still not clear whether the sound of our laughter is genetically determined or environmentally nurtured; researchers speculate that it’s a bit of both. We can change our laughs, just as we can change our voices–but only with considerable effort: The laugh you have as a kid is generally the laugh you’ll have asa grown-up. While vocal cords may determine the loudness or timbre of a person’s laugh, most of us still remember trying on different laugh styles as teenagers. Notes my friend Jan, who has a friendly, infectious chortle, “I can still remember seeing All About Eve, then standing in front of a mirror, tossing my head back, and belting out Bette Davis’s scornful Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ about four hundred times until my mother begged me to shut up.”

Babies first make the distinct vocal responses we identify as laughter at around 3 or 4 months old, long before they begin talking. Mothers who laugh more than average usually have babies who are big laughers, too, say researchers. Baby laughter reflects pleasure, not necessarily a sense of humor, as any parent knows who’s evoked chuckles from her 4-month-oki by reading, in a high-pitched squeal, the fine print tiff her bank statement. Not until a child is around 1 1/2 to 2 docs he develop tree humor appreciation, notes Eva Nwokah, Ph.D., director of the Richardson Development Center for Children in Dallas, who has studied laughter and humor in children. Of course, this “appreciation” may amount to repeated use of the word poo; it takes a little longer to savor, say, the satire of Jonathan Swift.

Giggling as a bonding experience

Less than 20 percent of adult laughter occurs in response to jokes or funny situations; the rest is just a kind of conversational spackle that helps chat go smoothly, says Robert Provine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the author of Quest for Laugher. After eavesdropping on about 2,000 conversations at parties, in shopping malls, and tin sidewalks, Provine found that “people smile six times more when in the presence of another person, and laugh thirty times more. When you’re laughing with someone, it’s an expression of kinship, of social bonding.”

I myself laugh when I know people are trying to be amusing, whether or not they actually are; many of us do. You can call it insincere. You can also call it generous. Just think of any time someone is telling an entertaining story and all the listeners are guffawing appreciatively–except one, who is staring in stone-faced silence. What message is that person sending? Disapproval, indifference to the group’s goodwill, even aggression.

Apparently laughter is another indicator of women’s tendency to do heavy bonding. Women laugh more than men do on a daily basis, and they laugh more when they’re in the company of other women than with men. To research her book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men in the Workplace, Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., asked people to tape-record meetings in their offices. “Meetings that were all women had much, much more laughter than meetings of all men, or men and women together,” Tannen observes. “It was solidarity-building laughter. The women would laugh at all kinds of things as a way of smoothing conversational gears.”

Humor and power

The flip side of bonding is kowtowing, which is why you often see a powerful person–the boss, for instance–getting lots of laughs from people who are in his or her employ; laughter in this situation is a show of submission. Those laughing demonstrate that they recognize the other person’s dominance and are saying, in effect, “Please don’t hurt us.”

Because men continue to have a stranglehold on lots of positions of power in society and business, you still see more women laughing at more men than the other way around. Provine stresses that this is less gender-linked than power-linked, and expects that powerful females–Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton–have their staffs in stitches just as often as powerful men.

Stress and the sexes

“We all laugh at things that affect our lives,” observes Caroline Hirsch, owner of Carolines Comedy Club in New York City, who has watched a lot of audiences yuk it up. “Men react better to jokes that are physical, slapstick, even violent, like hitting someone, and women laugh more at relationship stuff.” (Another difference I’ve observed: Women do not laugh at fart jokes.)

Men and women not only laugh at different things, but they actually use humor to achieve different results. In a 1997 study in Journal of Research in Personality, psychologist Herbert Lefcourt of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, measured the blood pressure of men and women who used humor to cope with stressful situations. Stress makes everyone’s blood pressure go up, but for the men in this group, blood pressure was even higher than for “nonlaughing” men. For “laughing” women, pressure was lower than for the “nonlaughing” women. Lefcourt speculates this is because these men used hostile wit to aggressively control others, while the women used self-deprecating humor to mitigate tension.

It’s so sad I could…laugh

In Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8, Solomon dishes up some pretty good advice: “There is…a time to weep and a time to laugh.” But how many of us are always able to keep those times straight? Almost everyone has been subject to inappropriate fits of laughter, often initiated when someone’s grief is wildly disproportionate (at least, in your mind) to the actual sadness of the event. Last week, a friend poured out her heart about the disappearance of her child’s pet salamander, which, while being played with, had rather unwisely taken a dive into the air-conditioning unit. She was distraught; “Sammy” had become a part of the family. I nodded sympathetically, but I was struggling to stifle my giggles. This week Sammy (RIP) is making his presence known; my friend’s house reeks of deceased amphibian. I just received a third frantic phone call about how to get rid of the smell. I cackled away while I let my answering machine pick up.

Recently another friend was telling me about his aunt, who had attempted suicide–again. She was, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), not particularly adept at the task. “She put her head in the oven and turned on the gas, but she mistakenly left one of the kitchen windows open, so that didn’t do much good,” Jack explained. I tried to murmur words of comfort, but I could feel myself beginning to titter, and I bit my lip. “Then she jumped out a window, but because she was (only on the second floor, she just broke her legs.” Jack sighed, and I dug any fingernails into my thigh to keep from guffawing. “Finally,” he said, “she climbed into her car and set herself on fire. When the EMS people pulled her out just in the nick of time, she screamed at them, `What does a person have to do to get off this planet?’ ”

That was it. I lost it. It was an appalling story, and I was laughing like a hyena. I felt like Mary Richards in what was perhaps the most famous episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the one in which the entire staff of WJM-TV dissolves into fits of giggles at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.

Laughing at a seemingly sad event happens frequently, notes Karen O’Quin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Buffalo State College in New York who studies the role of humor in social interaction. “When you’re experiencing grief, all emotions are closer to the surface.” Laughter and crying, suggests Provine, spring from similar physiological sources. “Sometimes, people ,say they’re so happy they weep. People probably pay less attention to the weeping at a Miss America Pageant than to the laughing at a funeral, but it’s really the same phenomenon.”

Adds Loretta LaRoche, who has just written Relax–you may only have a few minutes left, “Humor and laughter are coping mechanisms. They provide distance. Sometimes you laugh at the ‘wrong’ times because it keeps you from being too invested emotionally.” In other words, the human condition is inherently grim, and being able to see the humor even in sad events gets us through the day.

Laughter really is the best medicine

Laughter is not only essential to our emotional well-being, it also plays a surprisingly important role in our physical health as well. Nearly 20 years ago, the writer Norman Cousins explained how watching funny movies helped him recover from a degenerative auto-immune disease; he called laughter “internal jogging.” Since then, dozens of scientists have shown that his recovery was, in fact, no accident. In fact, today there is an organization called The American Association for Therapeutic Humor, consisting of more than 600 doctors and health-care professionals who study the effects of humor on our bodies. Two of these experts, Stanley Tan, M.D., Ph.D., and line Berk of Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California, have shown that laughter decreases the amount of stress hormones in the body and increases the activity of natural killer cells that go after tumor cells. Laughter has also been shown to activate the cells that boost the immune system and to increase levels of the immune system hormone that fights viruses.

According to LaRoche, upwards of 60 percent of all office visits to primary-care physicians are stress-related. “Our minds are so cluttered with things we have to do, we don’t witness our own comedy,” she says. In her lectures to Fortune 500 companies and government agencies (including the IRS), she uses what she calls exaggeration therapy to help clients see the humor in the daily aggravations of life. The point, says LaRoche, is to find something amusing in the annoying, and give yourself a laugh rather than a headache.

This is sometimes easier said than done. But I couldn’t help thinking about her words last week, as I stood on line at the grocery store. There were throngs of people; it was as if the store were giving the food away. One woman was apparently paying her entire $75 grocery bill in 20-cent coupons; another was cooing the Barney theme song–“I love you, you love me”–to her shrieking infant, over and over and over. I could feel a vein in my forehead begin to throb. Then my husband turned to me and said very quietly, “Don’t you wish cannibalism were back in vogue?”

Sometimes, the choice is homicide or laughter. Try to choose laughter.

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