Laughing in the face of adversity

Everybody loves to laugh. Urban myth believes children do it 300 times a day, and given that humans are the only species with the ability to laugh, it’s no wonder we want to do it so much. 

Mark Twain once said: “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand” — epitomising perfectly the peculiar power of laughter. 

Humour permeates a plethora of, what could be considered, unlikely circumstances; employed by those suffering mental illness, grief and cancer and enjoyed even by those restricted to only sign language use. 

It seems that in choosing between whether to laugh, or cry, when faced with adversity, people are opting for the former. Some even do it professionally.

Benefits of laughter

Gelotology is the study of laughter and its effects on the body. Since its establishment in the 1960s, research has found abundant advantages of laughter for both physical and mental health.

A study in Norway found life-lengthening effects of laughter: people with a strong sense of humour outlived those who don’t laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer. Famous comedy actress Gilda Radner spoke of the disease that eventually took her life: 

‘Cancer is probably the most unfunny thing in the world, but I’m a comedian, and even cancer couldn’t stop me from seeing the humour in what I went through.’

Laughter is also proven to burn calories. Research finds that that laughing for 10-15 mins a day can burn approximately 40 calories. In fact, pioneer of Gelotology William Fry asserted about laughter: “muscles are activated, heart rate is increased, respiration is simplified with increase in oxygen exchange -all similar to the desirable effects of athletic exercise’. 

Furthermore, laughter triggers endorphin release – the body’s natural feel-good chemicals – explaining why the phenomenon of laughter therapy is gaining popularity among both patients and experts in the field of mental health.

In his viral Ted Talk, Antony McCarten speculates that ‘sometimes only humour can break down entrenched positions and rigid ideology’. He elaborates Mark Twain’s earlier observation that humour transcends barriers of political, racial and ideological differences in order to bring different communities together to find humour in the same punchline. 

The connection between laughter and mental illness

The death of beloved comedy actor Robin Williams in 2014 shone a spotlight on the connection between comedy and depression. To many, it seemed paradoxical that a man who elicited so much laughter was so deeply and privately unhappy. Yet, his experience is not unique in the world of comedy. 

Stephen Fry, best known for presenting British comedy show QI, admitted to attempting suicide in 2012. Celebrated for his contribution to British comedy, Fry revealed: “There are times when I’m doing QI and I’m going, ‘ha ha, yeah, yeah’ and inside I’m going, ‘I want to die.'”

A 1975 study focused on 55 full-time, highly successful comedians. They had national news coverage and had a salary well over six figures. Despite their enormous success, and thus a (perhaps optimistically perceived) sense of accomplishment, fulfilment and pride, the study found, 80% of them had sought some kind of therapy.

Making other people laugh reinforces a person’s self-worth — perhaps those who practice this professionally do so because they need this reminder the most.

Good grief?

Humour also alleviates feelings of grief. It has been suggested that laughter has the power to block negative emotions — a person can’t feel angry, distressed or sad while they are laughing. 

This explains why humour is often incorporated into eulogies. A website guiding its readers on how to write a eulogy advises to ‘consider using humour’.

It argues that comedy can act as a pivot point in a funeral, swiftly changing the mood from sombre to slapstick. Often, the best jokes are delivered when the receiver is caught off guard — what better way to prime an audience than a funeral?

Award-winning British sitcom Fleabag deals implicitly with grief. The show follows the title protagonist as she tries to navigate life after the death of first her mother, then her best friend. Grief permeates the program – so why did it win the 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series?

To put it simply, the show is funny. It uses humour to deviate from the insufferable mourning the main character feels after the death of her loved ones. In moments of laughter (of which there are many), viewers forget the grief that pervades the program – a relief both for audience and main character.

Comedy in the deaf community

Like many aspects of comedy, one of my favourite jokes relies on vocal expression and accent to be funny:

Q: How do you think the unthinkable?

A: With an itheburg (iceberg said with lisp)

Such a joke wouldn’t survive in the deaf community as it wouldn’t be funny when translated into British Sign Language (BSL). Consider then, in what form does comedy manifest itself within the deaf community?

A 2012 paper details how sign language comedy is more sophisticated than spoken comedy. It finds that, whereas Western literacy expects a punchline, traditional Deaf Humour is satisfied by the scenes and characters created by the signer. In this community, facial expressions are exaggerated and caricatured to form a valued part of humour.

Additionally, these jokes only work in sign language and not in spoken language because of the gestures that elicit laughter. A famous example is the BSL Giant joke:

The huge character holds his lover in the palm of his hand and tells her he wishes to marry her. In both British and American Sign Language this leads to disaster: 

In ASL- signing ‘marry’ involves the giant clasping their hands together so that the lover is crushed in the giant’s hands.

In BSL- signing ‘marry’ requires the giant to act out placing a ring on the finger of their opposite hand, so that the lover falls when the hand is turned over. 

In both languages the jokes relies on the linguistic form of the signs and so does not work when translated into English. Without the ability to verbally deliver jokes, the deaf community has developed a highly sophisticated form of wit instead.

May 6th marks the International Day of Laughter but this mentally, physically and socially advantageous phenomenon should be celebrated every day. As Ricky Gervais once said, “If you can laugh in the face of adversity, you’re bullet-proof.”

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