“Everybody needs a laughing place . . . .”

So claims a famous story-teller from the old movie, “Song of the South.” Is the claim true? Does everyone need a laughing place?
Our answer reflects our beliefs about the role of humor in healthy living. Personally, I believe strongly in the benefits of positive humor. Therefore, I need—and I want—“a laughing place.”  My laughing place is not a hole in the side of a tree, as in the movie, but I do have one, safely kept within the boundaries of my mind (perhaps in the “hole in my head”). My laughing place is safe because, as long as it stays inside of me, it’s never at risk; no one can steal it or destroy it. My laughing place is very special and important to me. Frankly, I need it in my daily survival, and I consider it to be necessary to my continuing personal growth. My laughing place is my constant companion as I travel daily on my highway of life. It’s a key ingredient in all of my relationship journeys.
How about you? What is your belief about humor? What role does it play in your life? If humor does play a key role in your life, what are you doing to cultivate the growth of humor in your daily activities? How does humor affect or influence your relationships with others? These questions are certainly worth pondering.
The human laugh is probably much easier to experience than to describe. I like the description given by Carollyn James in her article entitled, “Laughter’s Healing Power.”
"The neural circuits in your brain begin to reverberate. Chemical and electrical impulses start flowing rapidly through your body. Your pituitary gland is stimulated; hormones and endorphins race through your blood stream. Your body temperature rises half a degree, your pulse and blood pressure increase, your arteries and thoracic muscles contract, your vocal cords quiver, and your face contorts. Pressure builds in your lungs. Your lower jaw suddenly becomes uncontrollable, and breath bursts from your mouth at nearly seventy miles an hour. This is no laughing matter. Or it is? It is. In fact, it is a clinical description of the body in a burst of laughter. It sounds dreadful, but we all know it feels wonderful.”
                          --James, Carollyn (1984). “Laughter’s Healing Power.”  (National Business, 72:7; July, 1984)
Helping with Humor

Most people enjoy laughter and value its effect. In fact, over the past few decades a great deal of research has been done regarding humor and health. The general conclusion is what you might expect:  positive humor promotes and sustains good health. An exploration, even a brief one, of this correlation in three key areas will certainly encourage us to include and increase humor in our day-to-day activities.
(1) Humor and physical health . . .

In his book, Anatomy of an Illness, published in 1979, Norman Cousins* describes his battle with a connective tissue disease that threatened to end his life. In his life-and-death struggle with this illness Cousins hypothesized that, if negative emotions can decrease and hinder one’s health, then positive emotions can increase and help one’s health. He put his idea to the test by exposing himself to positive humor through reading funny materials and by viewing humorous movies. His experience with humor improved his attitude and outlook. He even found that a good “belly laugh” allowed him to delay his pain medication for several hours. In his book he credits his recovery largely to the healing benefits of positive humor.
Scientific research continues to support Cousin’s conclusion. Studies reflect the beneficial effects that laughter has upon the body’s immune system, along with laughter’s power to decrease harmful “stress hormones.” Furthermore, laughter is aerobic in that it becomes a natural workout for the diaphragm and lungs. A good “belly laugh” provides a good cardiac exercise. Most people discover that laughter helps reduce their suffering in regard to pain, or at least it provides a wonderful distraction from the pain. People find that a good laugh helps their bodies to relax; thus, laughter is a great relaxation technique. In 1998 I saw a sign outside of a church building in Houston, Texas that said, “Laughter is a tranquilizer with no side-effects.” I’ve read about hospitals in which nurses encouraged the use of humor among patients as a way to promote healing and recovery. Some nurses reportedly wore buttons that read, “Humor may be hazardous to your illness.”
As the research continues to mount, our confidence in the benefits of positive laughter will also continue to grow. It makes sense:  more good humor . . . more good health! The wise man Solomon had it right when he wrote in Proverbs 17:22, “A cheerful heart is a good medicine.”

(2) Humor and emotional health . . .

Our emotional health is also improved by positive humor and the endorphins that are generated. Most of us can recall times during which we felt emotionally “down.” We thought about or heard about something that was genuinely funny, and we began to laugh, perhaps in private or maybe with another person. Following the laughter we felt better emotionally. Our spirits were lifted; we felt a little more “up” than we did earlier. Our emotional health impacts our physical health, so being “up” emotionally will usually help us feel better physically which in turn reinforces better emotional health. This circularity of benefit is a welcomed friend, especially when we’re desperate to feel better emotionally and physically!
Our emotional health is certainly at risk during times of hardship. Thankfully, positive humor can help us get through tough times. Over the years I’ve talked with many people about their hardships, specifically in regard to how they managed to survive their “bumps along the highway of life.” A frequently-used survival skill involved positive humor. The words may vary, but the core response is, “I try to see the humor in a difficult situation. Laughing at the problem helps more than just crying all the time.” We recall and understand the words of the wise man Solomon that there is a “time to laugh and a time to weep” (Eccl. 3:4). We’ve all experienced situations in which crying is certainly appropriate and helpful. But there is also a time and place for positive humor.  I value the wise use of humor and laughter as they help me bear the loads of life. Traveling with periodic laughter beats a journey of constant tears!
Many examples could be given to illustrate the beneficial impact of positive humor on a person’s emotional health. I recall one fellow in particular who reported a long struggle with depression. He had felt “down” most of the time for many years. Clearly, he had slipped down into a serious depression. We began to work on ways to improve his health. On the third or fourth session I teased him about something on the way from the waiting room to my personal office. Surprisingly, he teased back. That response indicated that he was ready for an introduction to “humor therapy.” I explained the potential benefits of humor for his mood, and he agreed to try a few things. For one thing, he agreed to read his wife’s latest Reader’s Digest magazine, find two or three funny stories, and report back to me in two weeks. At the next session he pulled out a piece of paper to which he had stapled several humorous stories and several cartoons that he had “borrowed” from his wife’s magazine. (I think he did get her permission before mutilating her magazine!) He shared the selections with me, and the two of us laughed. In fact, I can still recall one of the funny stories.
The story was that two friends, Joe and George, were camping together somewhere in the mountains. While sitting at their campfire one evening Joe heard a loud noise. He looked up, pointed, and yelled. A huge bear was barreling down the hillside straight for their campsite. So George immediately leaned over and put on his sneakers. Joe responded, “George, are you crazy? You can’t outrun that bear!” But as he ran off George yelled back at his friend, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!”
Somehow that story “tickled our funnybone” and we had a great laugh together. The depressed man acknowledged that he felt better, and he committed to a daily prescription of “humor therapy.” He kept his promise, and over the following weeks his mood continued to improve. Wisely, he practiced several mood-management solutions that contributed to his progress, but, clearly, one of those strategies was “humor therapy.” His example underscores the truth that research has uncovered: humor is definitely helpful in promoting good emotional health.
(3) Humor and relationship health . . .

We also know from experience that positive humor has power to enrich and nurture human relationships. Laughter brings people closer to each other; it promotes connection. Our use of good humor cheers up people around us and increases their desire to spend time with us. It eases social tension and encourages communication. It breaks down interpersonal walls and thus builds up feelings of unity.
Most people value family reunions and special get-togethers for a variety of reasons. We enjoy reconnecting with some people we haven’t seen in years. The “walk down memory lane” increases the enjoyment of the occasion as good times from the past are shared. Many of these memories bring heartfelt laughter. Thankfully, we reap humor benefit from recalling laughter that occurred originally years ago. I love those residual effects of past humor. Whether the laughter is “first-hand” or “second-hand” (original or relived) the positive benefits are obvious. A “good story” can provide great humor at the first time it’s told, and it can continue to yield interest for years to come. 
Conversely, negative humor can hurt relationship health. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve seen firsthand the damage that negative humor can cause. For most people the use of sarcasm, put-downs, belittling remarks, inappropriate language, disrespectful stories, etc., will almost always hurt a relationship. A husband makes an extremely negative remark about his wife, and then he smiles while saying to her, “You know that I’m just teasing.” Sadly, he appears oblivious to her tears, or, tragically, he appears triumphant that he was able to get in a hurtful hit. He scores a hit but he loses the game. A wife tells the story of something that the husband has done. The story seems to be funny but is very embarrassing to her husband. She ignores his obvious discomfort as she proceeds to describe his mess-up. Likewise, she scores a hit, but she loses the game. Such negative behavior discourages a sense of emotional safety and personal closeness. Who wants to be around someone who uses the mouth for verbal pollution, a weapon for relationship destruction?  If you had the opportunity of friendship with a person who uses positive humor or with a person who uses negative humor, which person would you choose as a friend? In terms of humor, your choice is probably a “no-brainer.” We’re attracted to positive humor, and we’re repelled by negative humor.  Positive humor enriches relationships; negative humor erodes relationships.

Harnessing our Humor

Since positive humor possesses great potential for better physical, emotional, and relationship health, how can we increase our “laugh life?” What can we do to grow in our ability to see and to experience humor? How can we harness this wonderful power? Harnessing our humor involves three important actions.
First, we access our permission. For many people the first step is literally, “Give yourself permission to laugh.” Unfortunately, they may have grown up in a family or setting in which laughter was not allowed or encouraged. They grew up believing that “laughter is not appropriate or the right thing to do.” Too often a person’s religious experiences reinforce this unhealthy belief. I recall hearing about one mother who sternly told her young child, “Wipe that smile off your face! You’re in church!” Admittedly, being “in church” involves some solemn elements, but if church is not a place where we can feel joyful and be allowed to smile, where do we go to smile? A college professor of mine once described some gloomy people as “being born in the objective case in the kickative mood.” For those of us who fit this category a sense of permission is necessary. “I hereby give myself permission to laugh. It’s okay to enjoy laughter.”

Secondly, we adjust our perception. We start looking for positive humor, and we enjoy it when we find it. We open our eyes and try to see the humor in everyday occurrences. We allow ourselves to be human, and we learn to laugh at ourselves (in a healthy way, of course). In a sense all of can grieve over countless examples of lost humor—gone simply because we just didn’t see it, even though it was right in front of us.

Thirdly, we acquire good practices. In other words, we learn to laugh. Through effort and repetition we work our way through the “laughter progression”:  the smile, the “twinkle of the eye,” the clown face, the giggle or chuckle, the belly laugh, the moving and striking, and the crying. The full progression gets us to the point where we can say with joy, “Wow! I laughed so hard that I cried!” Also, we listen for laughter, and we join right in, assuming that the situation or the story is appropriate and acceptable to our personal value system. Finally, we “load our library” through the purchase of good humor materials (books, periodicals, videos, CD’s, etc.). Then, when we hit a “down” period in our lives, we can access our personal library and always find something there that is humorous or funny. We might even think of our “humor library” as our “laughing place.”

Concluding Thoughts

How’s your laugh life? The question is personal and powerful. Humor itself is personal and powerful. Because of its efficacy to improve health positive humor needs to be an important part of our growth and development. Adding humor to life is like injecting a powerful medicine into the human mind and body. The intervention of therapeutic humor can significantly improve our quality of life.
I like the concept of therapeutic humor developed by AATH (Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor). This organization’s official definition of “therapeutic humor” is:
     “Any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations. This intervention may enhance health or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social or spiritual.”
As we travel daily down the “rocky road” of life, we’re going to step on and perhaps stumble over many “rocks” along the way. When we do, let’s look for the humor in the rocks. Let’s challenge ourselves to use therapeutic humor as much as possible for ourselves and in our relationships. Positive humor may not get us to our destination any faster, but it will make the trip more enjoyable. And, we’ll probably feel much better along the way! 
So, how’s your laugh life? I hope it’s growing day by day.

I wish you the best in all of your relationship travels.

*Cousins, Norman (1979). Anatomy of an Illness. New York: Norton.

For additional readings about humor, please refer to the “Humor and Health” section by going to the Home/Resources/Categories/Miscellaneous Topics page, or just click here.  


To visit the website for the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH) click on the logo to the right or use the following link.  

Another helpful humor resource is the website for The Humor Project. To visit the site click on the logo or use the following link.

To view a short video featuring a televsion with Dr. Baker in which he discusses the value of positive humor to health, click here or just click on the image to the right.


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