Laughter has been around a long time; some researchers even think it predates humor, being an aspect of social control before it was a response to a joke or a surprise. Hippocrates took note of the salutary effects of laughter. Egyptian hieroglyphs show entertainments that suggest clowns, and even some cave paintings might have been jokes!
The study of laughter, humor, and the process of comedic activities and response has a name for itself: gelatology. Within the name, researchers are trying to find the history, both social and physiological, as well as the even more mysterious reason for this activity's longevity. What exactly is there about laughter that made it necessary, or at least helpful, for species survival?
Sociologists and psychologists are looking at groups and individuals, respectively. And recently the medical professions are tracking health benefits tied directly to both a sense of humor (or lack of it) and laughter.
Dr. Clifford Kuhn, author of The Fun Factor, lists many ways that laboratory studies have shown that laughter is good for human health. It reduces the level of stress hormones, perks up the immune system, relaxes muscles, clears the respiratory tract, increases circulation and eases perceived pain. After a good laugh, it has been shown that endorphins -- the feel-good hormones -- increase, blood pressure settles down to below the norm, and increased oxygen to the brain revs up creativity.
Lee Berk, Doctor of Public Health, and associate professor of pathology at Loma Linda University in California, says that laughter both stimulates and soothes, which is why people feel enlivened, refreshed and clear-headed, much in the same way as they do after an aerobic workout.
William Fry, M.D., professor emeritus as Stanford University, has been researching mirth for more than 40 years and is considered the grandfather of the field. He calls laughter a total body experience -- one in which the benefits build when one laughs often and regularly. As with any exercise, conditioning requires repetition.
Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, notes: "laughter...seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely." He calls it the 'Ha-ha to aha!' effect.
One of the most interesting findings about laughter is that it works best in a group. Laughter is a social phenomenon, both historically and physiologically. We laugh at the antics of the other monkeys, and we are less likely to laugh at our own when we are alone.
It is interesting to note that religions differ on the subject and the practice of laughter, not only among differing creeds, but within the same religion over time. One wonders if the health of a religious community -- even as mental health professionals measure an individual's health -- can be measured by how much it laughs, and how much it encourages this form expression of happiness.
Both Testaments of the Bible make reference to laughter. In Psalm 15: "the cheerful heart hath a continual feast." In Proverbs 17:22: "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine." Or in another translation of that verse seen on a billboard: "a cheerful disposition is good for your health; gloom and doom leave you bone-tired."
Such health-giving effects are echoed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in a compilation of quotes from the Bahá'í Writings called, The Divine Art of Living: "Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener... But when sadness visits us our strength leaves us." (p. 55)
Early followers of Christ, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh share a commonality in their joyous laughter, often in the face of incredible persecution. Were they delusional? Or had they discovered a universal religious truth? Perhaps those who laugh even when surrounded by calamity have learned an important aspect of life -- that whatever happens, one has free will to choose how to respond. As Saranne Rothberg, founder of the Comedy Cures Foundation, explains, "Choosing to laugh puts you in control."
More research is needed, but Dr. Lee Berk advises, "Why wait for science? Go ahead and laugh now. If you do this often, you let fresh air into your mind and sunshine into your soul. You may even fix what's broken."
"If we are not happy and joyous at this season, for what other season shall we wait and for what other time shall we look?" -- 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, p. 351