©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

Laughter is a smile that has taken on life.

articles200408Caught red-handed trying to transplant a frog from his pocket into a girl’s locker, Rex now sat in the school nurse's office, dejectedly gazing at the floor. Thirteen, pug-nosed, and freckled-faced, this wasn't the first time he'd run afoul of a faculty member. Usually a frog was involved. Running his hands through unruly auburn hair, Rex said, "I wish teachers had a sense of humor."

Suppressing a chuckle (Jerilyn remembered some of his other amphibian antics), she started to explain the difference between possessing a sense of humor and choosing to exhibit it in relation to a specific incident—his most recent prank, for instance. Rex interrupted to persist, “But where does it go in adulthood?”

“It doesn’t go anywhere,” Jerilyn replied. “A sense of humor is a mental faculty thought to be located in the right cerebral hemisphere. It's something every normal brain is born with although not every individual chooses to hone that ability." I need to stay focused, thought Jerilyn, otherwise I'll think about the frog and burst out laughing. I'll bet it was more frightened than the girl!

“My teacher's brain is missing that piece,” said Rex, sighing heavily. “She didn’t crack a smile. She never does. But she must have laughed in childhood!”

“Laughter is a separate concept from a sense of humor," explained the school nurse. "Laughter is a sound that comes from Broca’s area in the left frontal lobe, the same part of the brain that allows use to talk aloud. What people choose to laugh about is very subjective, however. Even if your teacher thought what you did was funny, she probably would have suppressed her mirth."

Although laughter is a behavior evident by the third or fourth month of life, one of the most common admonitions to children is stop laughing! No wonder human beings are often conditioned to repress it.

Rex sighed. Heavily. "I probably should have left the frog home but school is so boring and a scream or two livens things up a bit." Jerilyn's own laughter bubbled up at his description. Her chuckles brought a wry smile to his face.

Reportedly it requires twice as many muscles to frown as it does to smile. Why would anyone expend the extra energy to perpetually frown? Dr. John Diamond, author of Your Body Doesn't Lie, wrote thatsmiling can strengthen the thymus gland—a primary immune system organ, as smile muscles (zygomaticus major) and the thymus gland are closely linked. Smiling or even looking at a smile, boosts life energy.

Laughter is an important coping tool that some fail to use because of erroneous belief systems. Comedian Victor Borge described laughter as the shortest distance between two people. It can be immensely helpful when people are dealing with illnesses. Sharing a chuckle is a reminder that although someone may be seriously ill, human beings are more than their diseases and cannot allow their ailments to crowd out all else.

Are you in a high-stress job? According to Dr. Samuel Shem, humor is one of the most effective ways to deal with a high-stress situation that you cannot escape. By making fun of it, humor can help give you power in what often appears to be a powerless situation.

"So where is the frog now?" asked Jerilyln.

"In the garbage can by my teacher's desk," said Rex. "I've got to get it out of there."

"Let's go get it," said Jerilyn, getting to her feet. Rex jumped up with alacrity, dejection disappearing dramatically. "On one condition," she continued. "Bring your frogs to see me and keep them out of the lockers. I can't promise I'll scream, however."

Rex actually started laughing. "Deal," he said as they walked down the hall together.

In his book Who Gets Sick, Justice Blair wrote “If we assume a facial expression of happiness we can increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate release of favorable neurotransmitters.” When your face shapes a smile—even more so when you’re engaged in mirthful laughter—your immune system is boosted. The level of the antibody Immunoglobulin A (IgA), designed to provide localized protection on mucous membranes, increases.

Laughter can turn almost any disadvantage into an advantage. When you look for humor in your misfortunes, they do not necessarily go away but you tend to perceive them from a different perspective. The seat of humor and the home of new options are believed to reside very close to each other in the brain. When you develop and use a healthy sense of humor, you can disengage from your predicaments to some degree and can marshal your resources to recognize opportunities more easily. Humor helps you to maintain perspective, and avoid getting caught up in your own melodramas. As Charles Schulz, creator of the cartoon character PEANUTS, said, “If I were given the opportunity to present a gift to the next generation, it would be the ability for each individual to learn to laugh at himself.”

Sir William Osler referred to laughter as the music of life and believed that a patient with a well-developed sense of humor had a better chance of recovery than a stolid individual who seldom laughed. In his book Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins described how laughter helped him heal from a life-threatening auto-immune disease. Where injections of morphine had failed, he reported the joyous discovery that “ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” No doubt, since laughter stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s own natural pain-killers which are 200 times more powerful than morphine.

Author Allen Klein wrote in The Healing Power of Humor, “After a fallen tree has landed on your car, putting a sign on it that reads COMPACT CAR may not make the car whole again, but it will help you see your misfortune a little differently.”

The frog was a good sized speciman. No wonder the girl had screamed, thought Jerilyn. She watched Rex leave to take the creature off campus. Back in her office she shut the door and had a good laugh herself. That frog had brightened up an otherwise routine day, she thought. At least for me.

Psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the mind-body connection, is tracing the effect of one’s thoughts on neurotransmitter ratios in the brain as well as on immune system function. Unmanaged grief is associated with lowered activity of the body’s T-cells (a type of white blood cell that attacks foreign invaders). Positive thinking styles are associated with higher levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has an antidepressant action. Anxiety and muscle relaxation cannot really coexist. The relaxation response after a good laugh has been measured as lasting as long as forty-five minutes.

Evidence is accumulating to support the old axiom that a cheerful heart is good medicine. A positive mental attitude, along with choosing to smile and laugh frequently, can improve your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

Go ahead. Make that choice. Take on life. Laugh!