One thing my family of origin did really well was—and is—laugh. Growing up, our family system had all kinds of garden variety dysfunction, and perhaps some incidents of our wanton laughter even qualify as dysfunctional, but I don’t care. Because I love it.
One time, my little brother brought a super ball to church. Christopher drove a hard bargain to come with us as a family to Trinity Church, where one of our closest friends was the first ordained female minister in New Jersey. (Meaning, attending her services as a family was important.) This particular day, the conciliation from negotiating with my parents was that Christopher got to bring his neon green super ball. But my dad, a lawyer, imposed specific conditions: Christopher was to handle the super ball discreetly, and only in our pew. You can guess what happened. Synthetic rubber against marble floor caused too zealous a bounce, and the super ball banked off a Book of Common Prayer, zinging into the aisle. My memory of what happened next is most likely inaccurate, because I see the neon green ball ricocheting all the way up to the pulpit, landing in the basket of communion wafers—which is probably too slapstick to be true. But what did happen, for sure, is the ball escaped our pew and took on a life of its own, as super balls tend to do, gathering momentum. Our family was laughing so hard that snorts emitted from my parents’ noses, which they pretended were coughing fits, and we were all stifling giggles so vigorous that our pew was squeaking.
I love that. I loved it then and love it now. And I am thankful, because I think laughing is a skill, in fact, that has saved me from certain aspects of my personality that could otherwise get the better of me.
Do you remember Norman Cousins’ experiment in 1964 that made the news? Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis and given a matter of months to live, he rejected the verdict and checked himself into a hotel instead of the hospital, watching funny movie after funny movie, following his intuition that laughter would be his cure. Which, along with high doses of Vitamin C, it was. Subsequent studies on laughter have shown that laughing lowers stress hormones, increases infection-fighting antibodies, and boosts overall immune function. Laughing releases endorphins, thereby increasing one’s sense of wellbeing, which, along with the fact that laughter relaxes the musculature of the body, in many instances can temporarily relieve pain. It’s good for the heart, too, because laughing increases blood flow, improving blood vessel function. And in addition to helping the cardio-vascular functions of the physical heart, laughter heals the emotional heart as well. Studies show that nothing diffuses the toxic burden of stored-up anger more than laughter. And sharing a laugh with someone—particularly someone with whom you’re in conflict—is some of the best medicine around.
When was the last time you laughed your head off? And would it be possible to make belly-laughing a daily practice?