Laughter is the best medicine. We have all heard the idiom, but what does it mean? A hearty chuckle will not cure a cold or banish the flu, but I propose laughter has more healing properties than we consider.
In my opinion, some of the best writing for TV and movies comes from productions that bring me to tears, and I find that the best way to make me cry is to make me laugh first. A character in a TV show whose actions provoke giggles is typically more relatable. I’ve noticed when I spend an hour feeling connected to a fictional character through laughter and something bad happens to them, I have stronger sadness as well.
Laughing and crying are not as different as we think. Have you ever laughed so hard you cried? Or noticed that the sound of deep belly laughs is not dissimilar from heartfelt weeping? Have you ever cried or laughed so hard it hurt? Or found yourself laughing or crying simply at the sight of someone doing the same? The similarities between laughing and crying are not an accident, nor are they the result of the human body’s limiting design. These two seemingly opposite reactions arise from the same place within us for a reason. Humor is an intimate part of a person’s personality and when we open up to others about our sense of humor, however odd, dry, or quirky it is, we show our selves. Authentic laughter is an act of vulnerability, allowing us to reveal the underbellies of our psyches. It encourages empathy, connection, communication, and promotes safety between individuals. (1)(2)
Most of us hide our true selves behind emotional walls in an effort to keep others out and protect us from harm. Vulnerability is scary and is often equated to weakness, running the risk of rejection, shame, and misunderstanding. Genuine laughter shatters those walls, emitting happiness and a sense of comfort. Joy is as deep an emotion as sadness, and when we can access one, we can access the other.
How do we differentiate between authentic laughter and defensive laughter? Defensive laughter strengthens walls, keeping us apart from others. Humor derived from discomfort or judgment and insults to the self or others is not genuine and is not vulnerable. It protects us from vulnerability. However, someone else’s defensiveness does not have to impede empathy for that person. We are also not obligated to laugh along and if we do, we can be aware this laughter does not serve the same purpose. It does not foster vulnerability or promote the healthy delving into deep emotion.
If laughing and crying are two sides of the same coin, why do we stigmatize one so much more than the other? What makes laughter better received than tears? Though both can be relieving and allow us to be authentic, sad tears tend to make other people and ourselves more uncomfortable. The reason is reflective of our childhoods.
When we laugh with real, heartfelt mirth, it exposes our pasts, illuminating the bright places of our childhoods where we felt safe, warm, and loved. Even if the subject of laughter is mature, the state of mind is the same: unadulterated bliss. But sadness is the opposite. When we are sad, we expose shadows of our pasts. The unhealed wounds rooted deep within our childhoods, yet to be healed, or still tender even after years of mending. It is uncomfortable to imagine children unhappy and hurt, instigating unconscious reminders of when we were unhappy and hurt as kids. When we witness the modernized reflection of childhood pain in adults, we empathize and it does not feel good. (3)(4)
Enduring joy and sorrow encourage healing. Both standing witness and being seen during intense states of emotion fosters growth, reinforcing the places in our past where we were safe, and correcting the moments we felt helpless and alone. Equal balances in these healing opportunities are required.
Be real. Be authentic. The reckless abandon of both untamed laughter and heavy-hearted tears permit release when they occur with authenticity. Let’s make safe spaces for our emotions with one another. Let’s heal.
For more reading on the healing properties of laughter and crying on the brain, as well as the effects childhood emotion as adults:
- Why grown-ups cry by Efran and Spangler. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF00994161?LI=true
- The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity by Bennet, Zeller, Rosenberg and McCann. http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1008&context=nurs_fac_pub
- The Role of Childhood Trauma in the Neurobiology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Preclinical and Clinical Studies by Heim and Nemeroff https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Charles_Nemeroff/publication/11909727_The_role_of_childhood_trauma_in_the_neurobiology_of_mood_and_anxiety_disorders_Preclinical_and_clinical_studies/links/02bfe50f180210c406000000.pdf
- Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix