Laughter: Fake it till you make it 0

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In early 2002, I was walking in a Lithgow street, feeling blue. I was on my lunch break from my hospital social work job, of which I’d had enough, but if I could not afford to leave it I wished that at least I could cheer myself up.

I remembered an article from that morning relating to research on laughter. It said that the brain cannot tell if a laughter is put on or genuine and it will cheer up even in response to faked laughter. It was recommended to try and laugh at nothing at all to cheer oneself up. ‘Fake it till you make it’.

Though I doubted I could laugh without finding something funny, I decided to have a go, just in case it would lift my mood. I forced a smile on my face and began to giggle.

Faking laughter I walked among the people and thought they could be forgiven for thinking I was mad. I began to laugh more at the absurdity of the situation. “Gee, maybe you are mad!” I admonished myself. That made me laugh even more.

“And what will you do if you run into one of your colleagues?” came the even more indignant warning from my mind.

As I pictured this possibility I was in stitches with laughter. My feeling blue was completely gone. I was quite surprised at how wonderful it was to continue laughing in spite of the urging of my ‘sensible mind’ to stop it, as if I was rebelling against the dictatorship of gloom.

Later I came across Oscar Wilde’s witty saying: ‘Life is too important to take it seriously’.

So seriousness can be a killjoy. But if I could match every serious thought with a laugh, what fun that could be! Just to be able to laugh at nothing at all. For the sake of laughter itself and as an antidote to anxiety and depression. I could not stay anxious or depressed too long if I kept on laughing.

“This is ridiculous. Grow up, you’re not a giggly child anymore!” retorted my cerebral side.

Where has the fun gone from my life? How did I come to believe that to laugh, something must be funny? How about just lighthearted fun without funniness? Children can giggle a lot without anyone telling them a joke!

I remember one of the first times in my childhood when my smile froze on my face. I was at a church sermon and the man beside me nodded off, dropping his jaw. I found this funny. I elbowed my mother and pointed to the man. She frowned on me, squinting and squeezing her lips, implying that I should stop laughing.

Then at school, where we were not supposed to laugh during class even if your schoolmates, taking cover as they sat behind you, took the mickey out of the teacher. I remember how desperately I was waiting for the teachers to say anything that was remotely funny, so that I could burst out laughing. Then the teachers were surprised at my vehement laughter, wondering if they really were that entertaining.

One day the students hiding behind my back were particularly funny in sending up the teacher giving the lecture. I became so tortured with the repressed urge to laugh that I fell out of my bench and rolled with laughter on the floor. I was severely reprimanded and was sent out of the classroom.

Experiences like these gradually reduced my spontaneity to laugh publicly, unless such laughter was expected in response to a joke.

In fact, it could be argued — as a sage did — that life itself is a joke. For life begins in one second and in one second it ends.

If we got the joke, would we not laugh through life?

Faced with the tragicomedy of existence, to what extent do we find light relief through its comedy as distinct from being overwhelmed by its tragedy? Our gloominess does not necessarily stem from tragedy. According to Woody Allen, the more tragic a situation is the more potentially comic it is too. Perhaps what worsens tragedy is being cut off from feelings and not being able to express them. For once we can laugh or cry, life feels less painful, as they both release our innate natural pain killer: endorphins.

As I started to experiment with laughter, I became very interested in the relationship between laughter and humour. Humour is mostly associated with funniness, particularly jokes. Laughter is regarded as ‘normal’ in adults when it is done in response to something funny. But to see the funny side of things calls for a sense of humour. To sense humour in a situation tends to require lightheartedness; some freedom from anxiety, so that one is not self-absorbed in gloom and can see the funny side of things.

Yet the greatest need for laughter to cheer one up is when one feels tense and gloomy.

Of course, having access to comedy can be one answer. The laughter elicited by comedies can not only cheer one up, but may also help to overcome disease. Whatever physical basis there is for an illness, an important component of it is the lack of ease; dis-ease. Laughter turns psychological dis-ease into ease and may also reduce physical pain; both, through eliciting endorphins. These are the body’s own mood lifting and pain killing hormones which, in the case of beta endorphins, elicited by laughter, are many times more powerful than morphine!

Health research on laughter started in earnest in the late 1970s when Norman Cousin recovered from a life threatening collagen disease mainly through watching comedies daily, after doctors declared he had no chance of recovery. In its effects, laughter goes well beyond funny jokes. In fact, some comedians, such as Tony Hancock, may have committed suicide because although they were able to make other people laugh, in their own lives, they were deeply depressed. I found through my own experience that the habit of laughter is a definite mood lifter.

Many a time I found, since I began my experiments with laughter 14 years ago, that if I had the presence of mind to respond to my self-put-downs, anger or depression by a good belly laugh, I would always become more cheerful. The big difference between joke induced laughter and laughter without a joke is that the former comes from cerebral humour and is a proportional reaction to the extent of funniness one perceives in a joke, whereas in the latter case one can laugh without anything being found funny at all.

In fact, such ‘unconditional laughter’, just as ‘unconditional love’, tends to come from a deeper place, less conscious, more emotional and spiritual. Whenever I engage in such laughter, I remember that perhaps life itself is indeed a joke. Laughter based on such conviction can short-circuit my usual tendency of taking life’s events too seriously. It is a reminder, that frustrations and joys in life come and go. Everything changes; nothing lasts. And as I let go of my over-attachment to an uplifting experience when I wish so much that it should last, a smile of recognition can blend into laughter. Similarly, I experience some relief when I can stop hating a negative experience and can laugh with wonder at the recognition of how I got trapped again in life’s continuous ups and downs. As if for a moment I saw through the game that life is playing with me, as it tries to suck me into experiencing it as the only reality; when in fact so much of it is constructed by my imagination; like an ever changing dream. And maybe observing the dream there is a witnessing consciousness which if I can tune into and access its wit I can burst out laughing.

What makes you laugh? Have you ever started laughing for seemingly no reason at all?

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Andris Heks

Andris is a former journalist, working on 'This Day Tonight' and 'Four Corners' -- ABC television's top rating current affairs programs. He has been a social worker, psychodramatist and yoga therapist, and enjoys singing and playing music, especially Hungarian Gypsy Music. He also enjoys swimming, cycling and writing. Andris is currently working on his memoirs. He welcomes feedback and comments on the opinion pieces published at Starts at 60.