The Common Good
August 2011

Is Laughter Really the Best Medicine?

by Jep Hostetler | August 2011

How humor can help sustain the work of social justice.

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

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-- Proverbs 17:22

How can one have a cheerful heart in this time of global climate change, natural disasters, and violence on every hand in nearly every land? How can we speak of humor, levity, jesting, and laughter when our world is in such pain?

Having a cheerful heart, as the author of Proverbs put it, does not mean that we avoid engagement in serious peacemaking work. What it means is that humor can provide interludes in many of the deepest reaches of seemingly desperate situations.

There is a time and place for humor. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance." Humor -- like art, music, and dance -- is essential for the well-being of the human spirit.

Healthy humor is inviting and forgiving, never hurtful, and often involves some kind of pleasant, incongruent surprise. For example, I recently heard a 4-year-old (whose parents live in Ohio and grandparents in Iowa) ask his mother if he was a Buckeye or a Hawkeye. His mother wisely replied, "Ivan, you can be anything you want to be," to which the boy replied, "Good, then I want to be Chinese!" We have all heard comedy routines, at stand-up clubs or on TV sitcoms, that are sarcastic, acerbic, and hurtful to one population or another. This is not healthy humor.

It is well documented that stress has negative effects on our immune systems and our general health. While there have been few studies on the positive effects of healthy humor, and the scientific evidence is still unfolding, available information strongly suggests that humor, with its inherent laughter, has many benefits:

  • The "laugher’s high." Laughter can increase positive elements of the immune system and decrease stress hormone levels. Dr. Lee Berk, who with Dr. Stanley Tan pioneered research into the benefits of laughter, recently told Ira Flatow on NPR that the research is becoming clearer: Laughter does suppress stress hormones, especially cortisol. It also can increase natural opioids in our systems. These natural opioids are called endorphins. They are the same chemicals that give us the "runner's high." The amount of endorphins produced varies from individual to individual. Additionally, hearty laughter exercises the abdominal musculature, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes the body.
     
  •  To keep from crying. By acting as a coping mechanism, laughter allows one to relax, if even for a short period. In this sense, laughter and crying are emotional cousins. We often hear the expression, "If I weren't laughing, I'd be crying." Humor provides that healthy "time out," so one can go back to work on the matters at hand. In this sense, humor becomes a stress reliever.
     
  • Drop kick me, Jesus. Recently several of my friends went to hear an internationally known peace advocate, writer, and activist. To their delight and surprise, he opened his session by gently inviting everyone to stand and join him in singing the country music song "Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)." By the end of the exercise, the crowd was standing, swaying, singing, and smiling. This is not what they expected to hear from this scholarly mediation expert, but it certainly opened the lines of communication for the evening. Lighthearted humor puts people at ease. Similarly, when physicians use humor with patients it often puts both parties at ease in a way that formal communication cannot. When I do presentations on nonviolent lifestyle to high school seniors, I always start my sessions with humor and magic. In the evaluations afterward, participants nearly always comment on how the sessions were fun, as well as educational and thought-provoking. Humor, in this situation, truly helps to open up the lines of communication.
     
  • So funny I nearly laughed. There are two sides to the laughter coin. On one side is the ability (or lack thereof) to tell jokes or stories, or otherwise invite folks into the laughter. On the other side is the ability (or lack thereof) to laugh or participate in the laughter. We each have our own understanding of humor, and we each have our spectrum of willingness to participate in humor events.

Our ability to enjoy humor is based on at least two primary factors: our formative years and our genetic makeup. We are influenced by family dynamics. Family and household dynamics can range from a sullen or even abusive environment, where humor is largely absent, to a convivial family setting in which jokes, stories, harmless pranks, and laughter are commonplace. In addition to this nurture side of our humor understanding, each of us has a specific genetic makeup. One researcher suggests that we have a genetic predisposition either to being light-hearted and resilient or to being more sedate and less flexible. Some people are simply more spontaneous and upbeat than others. This is not cast in stone, but it does suggest that some people are more inclined toward laughter, both from permission granted during childhood and from a genetic predisposition.

It is possible to change the way one responds to humor. I had one rather dour- looking gentleman tell me after an evening presentation, "That was so funny, I nearly laughed out loud." He was serious, and I acknowledged his progress from hardly ever smiling to nearly laughing. We all have our own understanding of what humor means.

When it comes to humor, we have some good role models. Writer Jim Forest tells the story of the time in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, when Thomas Merton was forbidden by his religious superiors to publish anything about war and peace. "Like so many of his Russian literary counterparts of that era," Forest wrote, "Merton managed to do an end-run around his censors," and kept writing -- using pseudonyms such as Benedict Monk and Marco J. Frisbee. "[I]n case you had any doubts," Forest wrote, "Thomas Merton had a wild sense of humor."

Another peace-minded guru, the Dalai Lama, has a quick wit and a generous dose of healthy humor. For instance, he told an interviewer in the 1990s why he has more than one robe: "I have to have two," he said. "Even the Dalai Lama does laundry." The interviewer noted his exercise machine, and commented that he seemed to be in pretty good shape. "I think I might be pregnant," the Dalai Lama responded, rubbing his round belly. He continued, "I pray for Tibet every day. But, also, I pray for China. I’m optimistic." Then, the interviewer wrote, a mischievous grin appeared: "Of course, I’ve been optimistic for 37 years now!" 

In my international travels, I have observed that peace workers often become so involved with the pain in our world that humor gets lost. People who are active in peacemaking and in justice work need a sense of humor. People with a healthy sense of humor are often much more comfortable with change, unusual circumstances, and alteration of plans, attributes that are especially important when tackling some of the most difficult tasks, such as walking in solidarity with the oppressed, speaking the truth to power, and standing between angry enemies.

Phil Hart is a friend of mine and a Christian Peacemaker Team delegate to Colombia. He recently told me a story regarding a breakdown in their motorcycle travels in Colombia. One of the group members went for help, while those left behind tried to find some shade in the sweltering heat. While waiting for the repairs, the conversation turned to each man’s nickname. One Colombian had the nickname of Condorcita (little condor), because when he was a little boy his uncle saw him running around with his arms spread out, imitating an airplane. As the men told elaborate stories of how their nicknames came about, boisterous laughter broke out. That evening around a meager meal, the stories were retold, and again the entire group was caught up in laughter. All this on the eve of a critical meeting with state officials to seek the return of stolen farmland. Humor helped to release some of the tension as they faced the serious task before them.

We need to take our work seriously, but ourselves lightly, especially when times are difficult. Nurturing our sense of humor is not only good for our health; it also helps us to continue our mission with greater joy -- and a cheerful heart.

Jep Hostetler, associate professor emeritus at The Ohio State University, School of Public Health, is a public speaker and the author, most recently, of The Joy Factor (Herald Press).

Just for the fun

of it...

Mark Twain once said that humor is tragedy plus time. When a man is falling down the stairs, it's not funny. But when he gets up, brushes himself off and declares "I meant to do that," then you laugh. Mark Twain also said "sanity and happiness are an impossible combination," a reminder that mirth is one of life’s most under-appreciated gifts. Another way to put it: You can never get enough jokes.

  • A man walks into a doctor's office with a cucumber up his nose, a carrot in his left ear, and a banana in his right ear. "What's the matter with me, doc?" Doctor: "You’re not eating properly."
     
  • A little girl became restless as the preacher's sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, "Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?"
     
  • A guy failed his driver's test because when the examiner asked, "What do you do at a red light?" he said, "I don't know ... look around, listen to the radio ..."
     
  • The CEO of a large HMO dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter shows him to a lovely villa with wonderful music, great views, a full staff of servants, and gourmet meals. The HMO executive says, "This is terrific!" "But don't get too comfortable," St. Peter replies, "you’re only approved for a three-day stay."
     
  • A guy shows up late for work. The boss yells "You should have been here at 8:30!" The man replies, "Why? What happened at 8:30?"

And a final thought from Mark Twain: "Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most."

A social worker walks into a bar...

Two social workers were walking through a rough part of the city in the evening. They heard moans and muted cries for help from a back lane. Upon investigation, they found a semi-conscious man in a pool of blood. "Help me, I've been mugged and viciously beaten," he pleaded. The two social workers turned and walked away. One remarked to her colleague, "You know, the person that did this really needs help."

A man went to a social worker and told him he wanted help because he thought he was a dog. When the social worker asked him how long he had been thinking he was a dog, he replied, "Ever since I was a puppy." The social worker said, "Okay, lie down on the couch." The man said, "I'm not allowed on the couch."

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