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The Power of Humor

An old legend once said that shortly after Adam was created, he complained: “O Lord! You have given the lion fierce teeth and claws, and the elephant formidable tusks; you have given the deer swiftness of legs, and the turtle a protective shell; you have given the birds of flight wings, but you have left me altogether defenseless.” And the Lord said unto Adam, “I shall give you an invisible weapon that will serve you and your children better than any weapons of fight or flight, a power that will save you from even yourself. I shall give you the sense of humor.” (Wilson, 1996).

Humor is defined as the quality or content of something such as a story, performance, or joke that elicits amusement and laughter. This unique characteristic has been known to affect the mind, body, and soul for thousands of years.
What makes us laugh? There are three traditional theories about what we find humorous. The incongruity theory states that humor occurs when logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together. This means that a joke becomes funny when you expect an outcome and end up with an entirely different one. Now we have two sets of different thoughts that are occurring simultaneously and this incongruity between them are found to be humorous. The second is the superiority theory. This theory comes into play when we laugh because of someone else’s mistakes. It causes us to feel superior to this person and therefore presents laughter. The final theory is the relief theory. Movie-makers tend to have this theory down to a science. The act of building tension and then breaking it with a side comment, comic relief, is an example of the relief theory. We again have the two sets of different thoughts occurring simultaneously, and laughter is our body’s way of breaking that tension. (Marshall).

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So what exactly happens when you laugh? As you already know, your body is an amazing invention and your brain, an even greater one. Researchers believe that your brain goes through a series of steps before your body produces laughter. First, the left side of the cortex analyzes the words and structure of the joke. Next, the frontal lobe, which is associated with social emotional responses, becomes very active and the right side of the cortex carries out the intellectual analysis to “get” the joke. And finally, brainwave activity spreads to the sensory processing area before the simulation of the motor sections evoke physical responses to the joke. (Phinney, 2006).

While your brain is inducing laughter, it affects your body in a variety of ways. During the side-splitting commotion, your heart-rate and blood pressure increase (like they do in exercise) and then decrease down to levels below normal. This causes you to breathe deeper and send more oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Your body’s production of endorphins, t-cells, and b-cells increases. Your thymus enlarges creating more secretion of the hormones used to stimulate the production of infection fighting cells and eases muscle tension and psychological stress. (Wilson, 1996)

Humor not only helps us stay physically healthy, but emotionally healthy as well. Being able to laugh at oneself and one’s life is a way to accept and respect oneself. Because this is a positive attribute, lack of a sense of humor is directly affiliated with a low self-esteem. Mental health benefits of laughter consist of a change in behavior for the best, increased energy throughout the day, a replacement of distressing emotions with happy thoughts and feelings, and a great path to unraveling stress by assisting us to view the world with perspective. However, a lack of sense of humor can be detrimental to your

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mental health. Because humor helps pull us out of emotional stress, a lack of humor would remove a healthy way for one to feel better. (Marshall).

There is no hard physical evidence to support the claim that humor is the best medicine. However, humor is like gravity. You cannot sense humor with any of the five senses just as you cannot with gravity. Whether you believe in it or not, it works. Just as you don’t have to believe in gravity, if you step of a roof, it works! Similarly, you don’t have to believe in the power of humor, but just start laughing and your body gets a healthy boost. (Wilson, 1996).

What do we find humorous? There are many factors that cause everyone to find humor in an assortment of places. Experts say the most significant seems to be age. Infants and young children are constantly learning new and exciting things in the world around them. All of these new and surprising discoveries register to them as funny. Jokes that involve cruelty, which boosts their self-assertiveness, are also very appealing to them. As children grow into their pre-teen and teenage years, they tend to laugh more at jokes related to sex, food, authority figures, and anything that is not morally right to do. As teens mature into adults, our sense of humor also matures. The adult sense of humor is more subtle and less judgmental on differences in people. For the most part, adults laugh at and about what stress them out. Another factor in finding humor is the culture or community we are from. There are issues related with every country that may be joked about but might only be understood by those from that country. If this is the case and we are not familiar with the situation being joked about, our brain doesn’t “get” the joke and the laughter response is not triggered. If a joke is registered in the brain and the response

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is, “that’s not funny,” it suggests that the joke was either offensive or the person lacked an experience that tied the joke and the punch line together. (Marshall).
Although there is no way to prove the old saying “humor is the best medicine,” there are many stories and reports that tie the two together. At the trauma center, Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA, a man walks around dressed as Dr. Seuss leading chants and humoring patients, staff, and visitors. Therapeutic laughter originated in India not long ago and has unintentionally made its way into this hospital. In the summer of 2000, Tita Begashaw invited posted flyers encouraging a laugh session in front of the hospital. Six years later, Harborview Medical Center’s laugh classes are part of a weekly routine. (Phinney, 2006)

A 41-year old man named Tom, after suffering two mild heart attacks, needed to go through the surgical procedure of an angioplasty before he could get back to his normal life. As Tom and the team discussed the procedure, they agreed on using a positive outlook and a sense of humor. Unaware of Tom’s secret humor weapon, the time came and the team wheeled him to the operating room. On the way, Tom pulled out a fuzzy pair of “groucho glasses” and put them on. One of the nurses played it out as if they were regular glasses, took them and insured they would be right there after the procedure. This little bit of humor stuck with them as a way for Tom to show his belief and support in his team. After the outstanding success of the operation, Tom later told of how big a role humor had played in getting him through this frightening experience. (Wilson, 1996).

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There is an international clearinghouse for news, information, and ideas about therapeutic laughter. This worldwide organization is called the World Laughter Tour. Its goal is to lead the world to health, happiness, and peace through laughter. Although this is probably the largest laughter club, there are many others in every state. The WLT offers a training program on “How to Create Therapeutic Laughter and Laughter Clubs.” The program prepares you to be a qualified leader for laughter clubs and other therapeutic laughter activities by teaching you everything from the science of laughter to the group dynamics of a laughter group. This is a very helpful program in the ways it helps people lower their stress, take life a little more lightly and most importantly, switch on the power of healing. (Wilson, 2008). The saying goes, “Angels can fly because they take life so lightly.”-Anonymous.
The observation of humor’s effects on the mind and body has been greatly increased over the past decade. No one knows its true outcomes, or if it really is the “best medicine.” but we do know how it affects the body. If you are ever find yourself in an overly-stressed situation, try to find something humorous in it. Now that you have a new prospective on the situation, you might find that you are more relaxed and less stressed.

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Marshall, Brian. How Laughter Works.
Phinney, Susan. (2006). Humor has fans in medical circles.
Sultanoff, Steven M. (1995). What is Humor?
Wilson, Steve. (1996). Humor and healing: The invisible weapon.
Wilson, Steve. (2008). World Laughter Tour History.