“Laughter is the best medicine.”
Most of us have heard this phrase, said it ourselves, or smiled and rolled our eyes over its truth. Yet, do we live its wisdom?
“Laughter is the best medicine,” has been attributed to people from American humorist Bennett Cerf to a paraphrase from the King James version of the Bible. Its true origin may predate all of these mentions. “Laughter is the best medicine,” may be considered a quote from the human condition itself.
In modern, western culture, humor often is viewed as entertainment, and even frivolous. Comedy is a booming industry through stand-up, cartoons and comics, TV shows, movies and more.
So, why do some people watch humorous late night talk shows to get their news, something that’s serious?
Humans were never meant to handle a barrage of bad news, 24/7, about the whole world at once. We originally lived collectively in small groups, hearing some news about other groups when travelers passed through. We’ve widened our channels since then, with many of us having a global world view. We also each have a numb-out point, after which we can’t handle the deluge of stress brought on by constant terrible news. Then, we disconnect.
What helps reconnect us? First to ourselves, and our bandwidth, and second, to the world, with renewed compassion?
Humor's Healing Power
Humor is a go-to. Late night shows mix news with humor, making it easier to digest, for the overwhelmed heart and mind. Every laugh makes a little more space inside. A little more space brings a little more presence. A little more presence brings a little more ability to take action for good.
Even while we’re using humorous TV as a vitamin, laughing about difficult experiences still can be seen as inappropriate or insensitive, and actively discouraged. Whether social issues or our personal lives, things like war, illness, death and loss will never be funny, right?
Not quite. Everything that needs to heal finds humor eventually. It may not be in our lifetime. It may be future generations that receive the healing through humor.
I’ve been told genuinely funny stories, as part of my “It’s Funny Now,” story-sharing library, about the deaths of parents, almost drowning as a child, finding out parents were war survivors, a spouse’s brain cancer surgery and much more.
When I say to people, “humor is sanity,” immediately I get nods of approval, knowing looks and hear deep sighs of relief. We all know it’s true that humor is powerful, and restores our wellness.
It’s a mixed message. Laugh and don’t laugh. It’s a paradox. Yet, one that has an answer.
Laughter that heals arises naturally, and we can help it along. The original situation is rarely funny. Something along the journey from there finds humor. As soon as we laugh for the first time, however small that chuckle may be, and even if the healing journey still will be a long one - with the first laugh, the heart has new hope.
I call this moment, “The First Laugh.” Before The First Laugh, the situation owns us emotionally. It is, as they say in the comedy industry, “too soon” for laughter. With The First Laugh, we put space around the pain. We know that healing is finally underway. All humans laugh with our situations to find emotional freedom.
Humor is the harbinger of healing.
Leaving humor on the entertainment shelf has serious consequences. We need to put humor back in the medicine cabinet.
Our world is experiencing unprecedented levels of mental and emotional stress. The pandemic, the war, the violence close to home. It can be hard to think there’s anything to laugh about.
And yet, we must laugh. Now, and in every language.
“How do I balance my mental health,” was searched on Google more in 2021 than ever before. People are searching for emotional relief online, worldwide, all day and night.
The Need for Humor is an Ancient Human Trait
When was the last time you laughed, until you cried?
Cried, until you laughed?
Laughter and tears come from the same place - both cathartic releases to bring us relief in hard times, celebration in joyful moments, and always reconnection, whether to each other or ourselves.
Throughout all human history, we share now-funny stories about what used to feel beyond laughter, as a way to bond and persevere. As soon as it’s funny, we feel an inner urge to tell our tale to someone else. We subconsciously know that our humorous story will help someone who is reaching out from their own struggle towards what’s possible. It’s time to put this awareness back in our conscious minds. It’s time for families, partnerships and communities worldwide to have regular humor practices.
People around the world have different humor styles. Traveling comedians and clowns report that what’s funny with one audience is flat with another. Yet, there are universal rules and uses for humor.
Humor helps us see what’s hard to see and talk about what’s stressful, partly because it helps us lower our defenses. Humor helps us take a breath, reframe and grow.
Humans also can use humor to hurt each other, to polarize a situation and to get revenge. There’s a difference between positive and negative humor. It’s, “with," vs, “at.” Going for laughing, “with” vs, “at,” someone or something is the path.
Communities can practice moving from meanness - “They laughed at me.” - to compassion - “They laughed with me.”
It’s important to note that the best-intended humor fails, too. If we know we’re trying for the good stuff, and we fall, we also can laugh with the failure.
Positive humor leaves people feeling seen, heard and celebrated, most of the time. “Celebrated” is the key. It’s possible to be seen, heard and rejected, which is devastating to the human spirit. Seen and heard are not enough.
I posit that some of the violence among our youth may stem from being seen, heard and rejected. Positive humor may help. What if a stressed out teen can experience a humor intervention? Other youth and adults find something humorous to share in together, to help release the young person’s stress. What if it’s possible to share a laugh, to be known and feel connected, right before the young person was about to make a bad decision?
Humor has this transformational power. I also suggest that positive humor be taught as a communication tool in schools, in families, in communities and workplaces - anywhere people cooperate, or would cooperate more effectively if they could laugh all together about their ups and downs.
Humans are designed with ancient stress-relief systems. Humor is one of them.
For families who are feeling divided over politics, it’s worth it to find laughter to share - with and not at each other, so the family doesn’t split. Humor can bring listening because it can diffuse some of our defenses, even habitual ones.
If you have a lonely or hurting friend, helping them get to their First Laugh is vital to their wellbeing and sense of connection in their life. Yes, you can bring someone a casserole after a trauma. You also can help them find their first laughter, when and if they’re ready. Humor helps reframe the past. It rejuvenates us all.
For colleagues who are struggling at work, remember that people want to work with others who feel like friends. The dictum to only be serious at work actually impedes business. Employ laughing with each other about situations, failures, successes, habits and dreams at work to reinvigorate your teams. Use humor to build relationships. If someone on the team is the butt of the joke or left out, it’s not positive humor.
Positive humor is an art, a science and a human right. Life is meant to be celebrated together. This world is not set up for some people to be able to laugh, or to thrive. That is unconscionable. I vote we build laughter systems, in every country and town. Let’s make laughter practices the new normal for future generations.
Laughter is the best medicine. To be well, laugh with others every day. Spin negative humor you encounter back onto the positive humor track. Take on positive humor as a daily practice and see your radiant ripple effect grow exponentially.
Rev. Barbara Ann Michaels, Jester of the Peace, is a clown theater artist and an Ordained Interfaith Minister. She founded and leads House of Holy Humor, the non-religious congregation for humor for wellness. She has a Lean Left bias. Email her.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Henry A. Brechter, AllSides Managing Editor (Center bias).