There is a new report much discussed in the newspapers this week about how laughter, real side-splitting, this hurts, I think I might throw up laughter (as compared to polite titter laughter), tails off after the age of 23. It is based on research in 166 countries and involved 1.4 million people. How depressing. Laughter is important. Not laughing at people, but laughing with people.
Laughter soothes tension, improves mood, boosts the immune system. Laughter increase blood flow and regulates blood pressure. It helps individuals to connect with other people and difficult situations. There was a worrying decision by some schools recently to send children home if they made jokes about the COVID situation. Automatic temporary exclusion for kids making poor taste jokes. But laughter is one way that we manage frightening and uncomfortable feelings. The gallows humour displayed by people in the emergency services who routinely deal with distressing situations is a means of defence of their own mental health, a safety-valve if you like, not a mark of disrespect. I suspect that, similarly, kids who joke about catching a virus or passing on a virus that might kill their loved ones, are doing so because they are scared and need an outlet to release negative feelings. Sending them home from school as a punishment is not going to help. Laughing at the Nazis during the war was recognised by the authorities as being a powerful way of lessening a threat and soothing popular fears. Making your enemy look ridiculous lessens their power to scare.
Of course intense laughter can also have negative effects on the body. It can trigger an asthma attack, a fainting fit, jaw dislocation, arrhythmia. It may cause incontinence or, if you are eating, make one inhale something accidentally. I am not sure if you can crack a rib from laughing hard, but it certainly feels that I have come close on some memorable occasions. However, on balance, the benefits of a good laugh far outweigh the risks.
If, therefore, laughter tails off in our adult years, shouldn’t we be concerned? Are we all so absorbed in work and bringing up families that we have no time for laughter? Or is there little reason to laugh as we juggle competing demands and worry about how it will all work out? Does laughter become somehow inappropriate during this “sensible adult stage” of life?
The good news is that once you retire, laughter, with all its physical and mental health benefits, creeps back into your life. If you are not yet old/rich enough to retire, I recommend joining a group of ringers. Sometimes we laugh so hard that there is a danger to health. Laughter releases dopamine, which rewards the brain and plays a pivotal role in motivation. Perhaps that is why some of us keep coming back for more. It is not delight in the bells themselves, but delight in laughing. You should have seen us a few days ago – four middle aged ladies, laughing so hard that we were positively snorting. That would have made even the grumpiest of people smile.