I went to a performance the other night of a talented clown who billed himself as a “certified lunatic”. He expertly performed all kinds of schtick, much of which I’d seen before. I smiled and admired his skill, but didn’t really laugh much. Then he went out into the audience to grab someone for the dreaded “audience participation” section of the show. He brought up a large man, well over six feet tall, with a brawny, lumberjack build. After making a few jokes about the man’s size in comparison to him, the certified lunatic asked “Joe” his profession. “I’m a psychiatrist,” Joe answered.
I exploded into laughter, and for a few minutes the entire audience was convulsed in a blast of hilarious community. The answer was so unexpected, so refreshing, that we laughed till our ribs and cheeks ached. But it was a good ache. Everyone was so cheerful and friendly as we exited the theater.
I have been interested in the relationship of the experience of wellbeing and laughter. We have so many clichés : Laughter is good for the soul, laughter is the best medicine, laugh and the world laughs with you. Why do we feel better after we laugh?
A recent study linked the action of laughter with the production of endorphins. We are literally more able to endure pain after a good laugh. Norman Cousins claimed to have cured himself of cancer watching Marx Brothers movies. If this is true, what are we taking pills for? We should have clowns as doctors. Actually, the “Clown Care Unit” of the Big Apple Circus has been providing healing laughter in hospitals for almost twenty years, and has spawned branches as far away as Germany. Thing is, clowns don’t always make us laugh. But according to this study, we don’t need the joke. Simply by “pretending” to laugh, you can improve both your mood and your health. Scientists have theorized that our “ha-ha-ha” is the equivalent of animals “pant-pant-pant” when playing.
When we play, we are in the moment – whether kicking a ball, doing somersaults or pretending we are on a jungle adventure. Stepping away from the task at hand and just playing can actually lead to discoveries and solutions about our day to day challenges. I teach Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement classes. Each class is one hour of playing: exploring movement, breathing and discovering new, and sometimes hilarious ways of being in the moment. Often the class erupts in laughter. And this non-goal oriented playing usually results in an experience of wellbeing.
But if you can’t get to a class, put a big smile on your face and pant, pant, pant. Better yet, do it around others. Studies have also shown (as if you didn’t know) that laughter is contagious. Even if you don’t get the joke, even if the joke is in a foreign language, if people are laughing, you’ll want to laugh. Go ahead, it’s good for your health!