Laughter is the Best Medicine – Dr Paul Mercer

Laughter best med

It’s a serious philosophical question with a twist of humour: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Here I was in the middle of Turkey travelling to Cappadocia with a bus load of Aussie doctors. Corny jokes weren’t especially at the centre of conversations, but all of a sudden it happened: about a hundred metres ahead of our bus a chicken darted out onto the road and then just as quickly retreated. After three or four attempts, it made a final dash across the road, escaping within an inch of its life as our bus journeyed on. We were now all in a state of delirious laughter. All, that is, except for our driver and Turkish tour guide. They wanted to showcase a strange landscape and take us ballooning. Our spontaneous activation of the ‘funny bone’ was an example of culture-generated humour. We Aussies are a laconic, quirky lot. A group belly laugh has bonding potential. The driver and tour guide simply scratched their heads. Aussies, whoah! “Why did the chewing gum cross the road?” “Because it was stuck to the chicken!” Got ya! Of all the animals, chickens included, human beings are the only species who have a sense of humour and enjoy a good laugh. More than this, my experience is that in general practice, the consultation is a “special space” where people of all shapes, sizes and age groups feel comfortable to share the latest joke going around. I sense that the doctor-patient relationship, when it is going well, is sealed by the telling of a joke. Here, laughter becomes the best medicine. Buckle up for the ride!

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche1 is an unlikely source for material on humour. He observed, “the sorriest animal on earth invented laughter”. Was Nietzsche simply reflecting the tragedy of his own emotional breakdown? Perhaps. However, a quick survey of the history of humour may have predetermined his views.

.   .   .

A Short History of Humour

Karl-Josef Kuschel2 tells the story of laughter in a 1993 work entitled “Laughter – a Theological Reflection”. Kuschel takes his readers from Greek comedy and tragedy through to our post-modern times. Plato3 was a philosopher who “was reluctant to laugh”. There were three components to this reluctance:

  1. The philosopher discovers the laughable element in other human beings, but rather than deride, it is his fundamental task to enlighten those around him of people’s self-deceptions.

  2. For Plato, philosophers need to be “moderate in all things” and so avoid “comical pleasure” in their reaction to the “laughable”.

  3. Plato also noted that ignorance often resulted in misplaced laughter at the truth, and so his theory of laughter incorporated the dialectic of laughing and being laughed at whenever someone is concerned with the truth.

Aristotle4 broke ranks with his teacher Plato over the meaning of laughter. Kuschel helpfully summarises Aristotle’s thinking this way:

  1. Laughter is characteristic of human beings, and indeed distinguishes them from animals.

  2. In principle, laughter is not morally reprehensible, but can serve to refresh, to attract and relax.

  3. Laughter is not inferior but a legitimate way to conduct oneself. Nevertheless, human beings should strive for an ideal mean between no sense of humour and buffoonery.

  4. Laughter has its own art form – comedy – and can be tamed in that.

  5. What is ridiculous in a comedy is what is ugly by virtue of some defect, without this causing pain or corruption.

It is a fact of history that the early church, and so western intellectual enterprise, was influenced much more strongly by Plato.  Indeed, it took till the middle ages for theologians to ‘rediscover’ Aristotle. With Plato’s modesty around laughter, the early church fathers also adopted a humourless outlook. John Chrysostom5 noted that in the gospels, “Christ never laughs”. Perhaps in the struggle for the church to emerge from within a sceptical and sometimes hostile cultural context, mixed with a rising interest in asceticism, it was seen that humour was somewhat of an indulgence. Humour, it was feared, could lead to doubt and a weak faith.

As Islamic6 and Byzantine7 scholarship began to influence the western intellectual tradition in the middle ages, Aristotle’s more humour-affirming logic began to have an impact.

At the Reformation, Calvin and Luther both “returned to the sources” of Christianity in the texts of scripture and the theology of the church fathers. They both affirmed that the Bible lacked any sense of humour, and thus faith was mostly a serious matter. Luther8, however, apparently advised friends who battled with depression to surround themselves with friends who could joke and make them laugh.

Before the Reformation, two figures stand out in the history of laughter. The little poor man, St Francis9, was determined to reform the Church which was, in every way, in a state of disrepair. The simple joys of life were seen as a great strength for the gospel for Francis. He developed nativity scenes, passion plays, and so on, which brought laughter quite naturally back into the Church. His legacy has resulted in our singing many joyful Christmas carols, perhaps highlighted in the “ Ho, Ho, Ho” of “Jingle Bells”. Without Christ, Christmas is becoming for many, the silly season – anti-humour around a shell of meaning.

 

“I sense that the doctor-patient relationship, when it is going well, is sealed by the telling of a joke.”

 

Dante Alighieri’s famous poem, “Divine Comedy,”10 also deserves an honourable mention. This 14,000+ line poem caricatures a corrupt Catholic Church, the politically-dysfunctional city of Florence around 1300AD and also the tradition of epic poems in Greco-Roman culture and beyond. The poem narrates Dante’s journey into hell, through purgatory, and then through heaven itself. The “sin of Simony”, or using one’s position in the Church to gain wealth, is a sample taster from the poem.

Simon Magus was the subject of a story in Acts 8. He had tried to buy the power of the gift of the Holy Spirit and Peter rightly gave him short shrift. An apocryphal story circulated in the early church that Simon had subsequently obtained demonic powers and deliberately set about to disturb the Church, and Peter’s evangelistic efforts in particular. The story goes that as Peter approached Rome, Simon appeared in the air flying about and taunting him. In exasperation, Peter pleaded for God to intervene. All of a sudden, Simon nosedived head-first into the ground and died with his legs flopping about. Dante then describes a scene in hell of bishops, well known for their corruption, buried head first with their feet on fire.

The Holy Spirit inversion is an added touch of humour to this laughing stock punishment.

Since the Reformation, better Biblical texts and translations and improved literature scholarship have opened up the world of Biblical humour. Humour helps sustain the oral transmission of these texts as it both engages the listener as well as reinforcing many important messages in the text. For instance, the scene described on Mt Hermon between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 is a pulsating, tense challenge of faith. The NIV translates Elijah’s taunt as, “Shout louder, surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy or travelling.” Now this is funny enough, but the text is actually suggesting that God has been sitting on the toilet and can’t be distracted11. Prophets rarely mince words. There are some very Australian terms to describe Elijah’s inuendo here. As we have awoken to the texts of scripture, Christian authors such as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, and now many others, have helped us see the theological importance of humour. Chesterton12 is quoted as saying, “I’ve often thought that the gigantic secret of God is mirth”. One of his insights reflecting on the rise of the secular modern world, was that in the future, “We shall have no Priest, for we have no religion. The best we can deserve or expect is a fool who shall be free, and who shall deliver us with laughter.”13

 

.   .   .

Forms of Humour14

Chesterton’s wit is but one form of humour. What are the forms of humour that generate the possibility that laughter is the best medicine? I have listed them here:

  1. The most common type of humour is the unexpected discovery of incongruity. One day, our grandchildren were happily playing in the backyard when a possum with her little one appeared on the edge of the shed roof. The children gathered below with excited interest in their observers. All of a sudden, the oldest boy Dessie cried out, “Stand back! Stand back!” All eyes were now on Dessie, who then shrieked, “I remember now – possums wee on you!” With yelps and giggles, all of the children rushed off, leaving behind two very perplexed possums.
  2. The humour of repetition. The “jiberty jiberty jiberty” of Bugs Bunny.
  3. The humour of justice – this can be quite salty because it is the laughter that accompanies the vindications of truth over falsehood. (Long joke alert!)

 

A politician died and was met by St Peter at the pearly gates. Peter was rubbing his hands together and quipped to an angel, “We can have some fun today.” After the usual welcome, the politician expressed some surprise at finding himself at the pearly gates. Peter responded, “OK! For you today, I have a proposition. I’m offering a week in heaven, followed by a week in hell, and then you can choose your final destination.”

With a deal on the table, our friend came to life, “OK, I’ll give it a go,” he said.

“You are already in heaven,” St Peter said, “So I will show you around.”

The week was very pleasant – lots of kindness and singing, but our politician was a little lonely – it seemed that few friends were around.

At the end of the week, Peter checked in, “Are you ready to try hell?”

“Yes, I am inquisitive at least,” was the reply. Soon he found himself in the middle of a great party; there were plenty of high fives with old friends, his favourite drinks, plenty of stunning babes, and great music. What else could you want?

The week flew by, and this time as Peter checked in, our politician friend was ready to decide. “I think I will choose hell,” he stated, “It seems more like my type of place.”

“Are you sure?” probed Peter.

“Yes, sure,” came the reply.

All of a sudden, our politician is in outer darkness. There is screaming, wailing, biting, spitting! “Help, help!” cries out the politician to his friends. In desperation he pleads, “Where are we?”

“We’re in hell, mate,” is the reply.

“Hell?!! Then where were we last week?” the politician gasps.

“Last week – last week?  Oh, that was the campaign!”

 

“We are likely to laugh 30 times more in groups than when alone.”

 

  1. The humour of misunderstanding. In my earlier years in medicine, my son Matthew and I often shared a high-energy time of “world championship everything” at the end of each day. One evening we were interrupted by a call for me to complete a death certificate at the local hospital. After I drove off, the phone rang again. Matty picked up the receiver only to hear heavy breathing sounds. We were experiencing prank calls at the time. These were very upsetting for my wife, Katrina. After a few moments, my son, who was around 4 years old at the time, called out, “Mummy, the dead man is on the phone.” The caller hung up and the following day called the surgery and apologised. The prank calls stopped. Matthew was a superhero for the day.
  2. The humour of exaggeration.

I was going to tell a great joke here! Oh well. I heard this one at the golf course:

How do you know when you are growing old?

Answer: You mustn’t walk past a toilet, you shouldn’t waste an erection, and you can’t trust a fart.

Who said only kids like toilet humour?

 

  1. The humour of irony. Politicians specialize in ironic humour. Who could forget Paul Keating’s caricature of John Hewson as “a shiver looking for a spine”? Or Jim Killen in the middle of the uproar at the end of Gough Whitlam’s prime ministership, resuming his speech with, “Mr Speaker, when you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, only the mongrels growl.” Pandemonium ensured.
  2. This list could extend on in many more ways, including flippancy and Aristotle’s buffoonery.

 

Beyond these forms of humour are the many types and contexts for humour – slapstick, stand up, comedy festivals, cartoons, comedy channels on TV, and then our devotion to Monty Python, Mr Bean, Seinfeld, and so many more. What are your favourite comedy moments? I used to race home to catch “The Goodies” on the ABC. I had a serious belly laugh watching “Johnny English” save the world at the movies last year. My two standout memories are a black and white anti-Western called “Evil Roy Slade” and then “Aunty Danielle”, a French subtitled movie with the slogan “She hasn’t met you but she hates you already.” It’s a complete spoof on personality disorder – “Mother and Son” on steroids!

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Opportunity.” “Opportunity who?” “Opportunity knocks!”

Humour, more often than not, is context specific. CS Lewis15 famously observed that God must have a sense of humour if he invented sex. Male-female relationships, old age, doctors and lawyers, and so on. You know the jokes.

 

.   .   .

Laughter and Health

What about laughter and health? It was our first day at medical school and great expectation griped us. The first sentence was spoken in a strange, choking voice. Professor Cross introduced his subject of human physiology with the words, “Human beings are a series of chemical reactions taking place in an aqueous solution”. We nearly erupted in delirious laughter. Some of us had to wipe away the tears.

Laughter is a component of human well-being and, according to Sauter16, is a “universal sign of joy”. It is part of a basic tool kit of emotions that help make us human. Laughter is considered to be a complex right brain function which leads to the release of oxytocin17, a feel-good neurotransmitter, and reductions in cortisol, a hormone released when we are stressed18. Serotonin and dopamine are also in the mix19.

While the history of humour in medicine goes back to ancient Greek physicians20 who encouraged its complimentary use to the healing process, it is William Fry21 who is credited as the modern pioneer of humour research. In the mid 1930’s, he chose the word “gelotology” to describe this new science. In his formative work “Anatomy of an Illness22”, published in 1970, Norman Cousins helped the progress of humour science when his symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis resolved with good doses of Vitamin C and “deep belly laughter”.

The 2013 December edition23 of the British Medical Journal, published a “research” article designed to explore the beneficial and harmful effects of laughter. The authors Ferner and Aronson bemoaned the fact that this prestigious journal had not dealt seriously with laughter since 1899! Their conclusion noted that “the benefit-harm balance is probably favourable”. Furthermore, “it remains to be seen whether sick jokes make you ill or jokes in bad taste cause dysgeusia, and whether our views on comedians stand up to further scrutiny!”

Jokes aside, the benefits of laughter identified were reduced anger, anxiety, depression, stress and tension (psychological and cardiovascular); and increased pain thresholds; fewer acute coronary events; improved lung function and diabetes control24.

More recent research25 suggests laughter therapy in aged care settings reduces the sense of loneliness and death anxiety in older adults. There are many preliminary studies26 that hint towards a role for humour in treating serious mental health conditions. A 2009 review paper by Gelkopft27 issues caution about the quality and methodological shortcomings of most studies to that point. A 2016 review of the literature by Yim28 was more optimistic, noting that, “Laughter therapy as a non-pharmacological alternative treatment does not require technological support, is not expensive, and is accessible, as it is not time or place dependent.”

Another hiccup is that while studies show that people with a greater sense of humour feel better about their health and well-being, their overall health status may actually be worse in that such people may be more likely to be obese and heavier smokers29.

The British take their humour very seriously, as evidenced by the existence of “the school of eccentricity” at Oxford University.  Recent systematic reviews of the research literature include30:

  1. Humour and laughter therapy for people with dementia

  2. The use of humour in palliative care, and

  3. The effects of laughter yoga on mental health.

Apparently the guru Dr Madan Katria, who linked yoga to laughter, ran out of jokes to tell so he encouraged spontaneous group laughter31. Being infectious, rib tickling laughter gets us all in, as humans readily mimic each other. Groups of female friends tend to laugh more than groups of male friends or mixed groups. We are likely to laugh 30 times more in groups than when alone32.

Laughter is the basis of one of the greatest medical gifts to humanity33 – anaesthesia. Nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is affectionately known, was initially used as a party drug at ‘entertainment parties’ in the early 19th century. The gas was originally discovered in 1772. One day in 1844, a dentist named Horace Wells volunteered to sniff nitrous oxide at a party. As he returned to his seat, he struck his knee hard enough to create a bruise. He continued laughing and to be affected by the gas as he went home. He put two and two together when he later recognised that he had no awareness of pain at the time he struck his knee. He quickly arranged for a patient to inhale nitrous oxide before the first ever painless tooth extraction. Praise God for Scottish Presbyterians, who after much theological agony, declared anaesthesia to be a technology that had God’s full blessing.

 

“Humour has potential positive outcomes in terms of patient satisfaction, reduced malpractice complaints, and better patient uptake of treatments.”

 

People with extroverted temperaments are more likely to be humorous, but researchers have shown the benefits of laughter interventions is uniform across all temperament types34. So, it looks promising! Laughter just could be the best medicine.

I am about to give a definition of laughter35 that should bring at least a smile to our dial.

“Laughter is characterized by neuromechanical oscillations involving rhythmic laryngeal and supralaryngeal activity. It often features a series of bursts.”

Some of us nail laughter so well it is humorous in itself. Kerry O’Keefe, the former cricketer and commentator, developed a substantial following simply because he exercised his zygomatic and orbicularis oculi muscles. Who said cricket was boring?

Phillips and colleagues36 studied the impact of humour on communication in the health setting. Interpersonal and communication skills are core competencies for doctors. Humour lightens  an often tense or difficult context, and is initiated equally by doctors and patients. Humour has the potential to decrease power imbalance and so open up communication. Humour has potential positive outcomes in terms of patient satisfaction, reduced malpractice complaints, and better patient uptake of treatments.

There is a growing literature which demonstrates that humour creates an environment to promote learning37. This should be good news for future students. I often use humour to drive home an important health message.

Our quest to discover “Laughter is the Best Medicine” has been inviting our attention toward the doctor-patient relationship, the ritual of medical care. Placebo has long been regarded as a medical prank – a prescription of the inert to keep the worried well moving on. More recent research has precipitated a coming of age for placebo. Indeed, placebos are not inert. It can be demonstrated that placebo administration stimulates a treatment ritual that has the potential to trigger a host of endogenous mechanisms – what could be called “placebo effects”38. These effects can relieve symptoms across many conditions. My hunch is that humour is the icing on the cake of placebo. Laughter becomes the best medicine at this point of the healing ritual.

When reflecting on the patient’s story, I often use the tools of humour to facilitate healing. Reframe, exaggeration, one down, feigned confusion, etc., all help lighten what may be a distressing context. I once had a patient who was complaining bitterly about her marriage, “When we have sex, I just want to kill him,” she almost screamed. With tongue-in-cheek I responded, “Whoa, that would be the greatest stiff of all time.” We both laughed and laughed. Her marriage survives.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that laughter can also be unhealthy or sinister. Laughter can trigger a medical condition such as asthma39. At the wrong moment, laughter can precipitate an accident. A sort of “boink” moment. (I just have to throw in this question: “What is forty feet long and smells of urine?” Answer: “Line dancing at a nursing home!” Incontinence and laughter are off subject indeed! That has to be a deadpan joke!) If you think about it, laughing your head off isn’t such a great idea either.

An article in “Current Biology” 201740 recognized that some children are “unmoved by the giggles and humour” of others. Research in this area demonstrates a link between humourlessness and antisocial behaviours. It is hoped that understanding this disordered humour processing might be a key to unlocking effective treatment interventions.

The sinister laughter of cruelty and abuse carry a lifetime of torment and disordered stress response for many such victim survivors. Bullying also carries a terrible consequence for many younger people.  Drunken laughter is arguably the worst of all dark humour. Ten percent of Australians are alcohol dependent, and another 25% drink to dangerous levels41 for health and social well-being. It is easy to picture the caricature of a drunken father terrorizing his family in an intoxicated haze. Screams echo through the night. Drinking culture is often the focus for humour.

I once had a patient who went on a South Pacific cruise. Remember the advert “I can feel a four X (XXXX) coming on”? Back in Brisbane, he rang the surgery and asked for a special home visit. I obliged. The story was that his prostate had “packed it in” and he had been catheterized on the ship. What next? He was sitting on the back veranda sipping a stubbie of XXXX beer. I then spotted the catheter. It was draining into an empty stubbie.

Oh dear, I can feel a XXX coming on!

Laughter best med 2

.   .   .

The Laughter of Hope

Australians often soothe each other in difficult times with sentiments like, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy,” or, “There’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.” Underneath a great canopy of suffering and struggle, humour is a regular source to spark the energy of hope. The Irish have been a trampled, brutalized people for extended generations but are better known for their humour culture:

Paddy asked his mate, “Can you check to see if my indicator lights are working?” “Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no,” said Mick.

Did you hear about the Irish surgeon? He was advertising to do haemorrhoid transplants.

Jokes aside, it often seems easier to feel hopeless about our world than hopeful. We live in a brutal world. Recent figures show we spend 21 billion dollars annually on the problem of domestic violence in Australia42. Our world bears witness to the Holocaust, to Pol Pot’s killing fields and to the Rwandan genocide.  African American slaves developed the “cakewalk” jazz genre to poke fun at their ruthless masters. They held competitions to exaggerate their swagger and reduce their despair. White racist landowners loved ‘cakewalk’, and willingly embraced their own ridicule43.

It is ironic that in his suffering, Job cries out, “If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice.” (Job 9:14-16).

 

There are four ways the Biblical writers link humour and hope:

 

  1. They speak of God’s threatening laughter.A number of psalms pick up a poetic response by God to injustice and calculating sin. Psalm 2:4 reads, “The one enthroned in heaven laughs and the Lord scoffs at them,” and again in Psalm 37:13, “But the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.”
  1. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s infertility is rich with humour.Infertility is a profoundly hopeless context for many couples. Sarah laughs to herself in Genesis 18 when she overhears the messenger reaffirming God’s promise of fruitfulness to her husband, Abraham. When put on the spot, Sarah squirms and denies her cynicism. Earlier in this story, Abraham had been chatting with God about his plan to make Abe the father of a great nation. In 17:17 we read, “Abraham fell face down, he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man 100 years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of 90?’” When a child is born he is called Isaac, which finishes the story’s plot in a crescendo of laughter: Isaac means “God laughs”. God laughs with us in hope against suffering44.
  2. The Old Testament book of Jonah has long held the attraction of humour.Being swallowed by a whale, the prophet wanted to die after the repentance of everyone to whom he preached fire and brimstone. The irony is that the only thing which dies is the plant Jonah is sulking under. All this smacks of a tongue-in-cheek story – Jonah seems ridiculous complaining about God’s grace toward Nineveh.The text of Jonah is generated against the background of Assyrian and Babylonian rape and brutal destruction of Jewish communities. The city of Nineveh, with its 120,000 inhabitants and their animals, has been pencilled in for destruction by the prophet Nahum. Nineveh would be the source of anxiety and traumatic nightmares for Jonah and his neighbours. Yet God taps him on the shoulder to do something no Israelite prophet has ever done: to go and prophecy beyond the boundary of the nation. The humour of the text comes in this context: Here is the tragic laughter of hope45. The only way the prophet can speak in this situation establishes a humour of hope when grace subverts judgement.Roy Eckart46 commenting on the text says, “The underdogs, the fools, the clowns, the jesters, the children keep dancing and singing and making jokes against every congruity and against every mystery. There is no other ending, there is no ending at all. There is present only, blessedly, and openness to the future.”

     

  1. Kuschel47 takes us to the humour in the crucifixion story.The cross and resurrection are profound symbols of Christian hope. In these gospel stories, Jesus is mocked by Herod as a fool and is delivered over to the cross by the Jewish elite as a rebel. “At the end of the story of Jesus, we do not have the image of a laughing God or a laughing saviour, but the image of a laughed-at fool, who stands for God.” In these crucifixion texts, “Son of God” is paired with, “Save yourself”, “King of Israel” is paired with, “Come down from the cross if you can”, and “Trust in God” is connected to, “Let him (God) help him (Jesus) now”. Kuschel48 concludes, “In no comparable text of the great religious traditions does one find such a combination of faith and mockery, confession and laughter”. One of the aspects of hope to emerge is that Christians should take the side of the victims of mockery, in solidarity with those who are laughed at and trampled on. The joke is certainly on us when we fail to do so.

.   .   .

The Laughter of Love

Enid Welsford49 has asserted, “In the perception of faith, comedy is more profound than tragedy.” This is a startling proposition. Could it be true?

 

“Humour brings laughter and the best laughter of all comes from knowing that we are loved.”

 

laughter best med 3The story of Isaac goes to another level when God, poker-faced, asks Abraham to take his son up to Mount Moriah and prepare to sacrifice him. He can’t, he dare not, tell Sarah. Neighbours who worshiped the god Moloch practiced child sacrifice as a fertility rite. All the laughter at the birth of this only son was now stretched to the limits of faith. As Abraham raises his arm to thrust the blade into his son’s heart, God intervenes. The two men had walked slowly up the mountain with only thoughts of tragedy. A workplace health and safety plan was never drawn up. As Earl Palmer50 puts it, “something frightening and wonderfully good, even humorously good happened to and for them!”

We have been laughing together and exploring the proposition that “Laughter is the best medicine”. Palmer51 again states, “Humour brings laughter and the best laughter of all comes from knowing that we are loved.” We can pick up on this when we are with friends, or with the person we are intimately linked with. How do you hear laughter?

Kuschel52 makes this observation, “Christians who laugh express their feeling that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter, though this world need not to be despised. Christians who laugh are taking part in God’s laughter at his creation and his creatures, and this laughter is a laughter of mercy and friendliness. Christians who laugh are expressing resistance to a post-modern ideology in which everything is optional; to an aesthetic of indifference; to a fanatical mania about the truth; and the use of violent terrorism to defend the truth. Christians who laugh are insisting that the stories of the world’s sufferings do not have the last word”. We can add that the laughter of grace also makes us laugh with the laughter of joy. Patch Adams and the clown doctor movement capture53 the echoes of grace and joy.

Palmer54 is a theologian who demonstrates that Jesus uses all the forms of humour; irony, repetition, misunderstanding, and so on. Remember Jesus’ description of the Pharisees as “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24). In the language Jesus spoke55, Aramaic, the word for gnat is “galma” while the word for camel is “gamla”. This adds the humour of word play to the humour of exaggeration. I like the encounter with Nathaniel in John 1:47: Nathaniel complains, “What good can come out of Nazareth (that tinpot town)?” Jesus takes him on with a rejoinder, “Here is an Israelite (a cunning supplanter) in whom there is no guile”. The off-guard critic tries to come back with a question, “How could you know me like that?” With allusions to the Jonah story, Jesus quips about seeing him under a tree, and a lasting friendship is established.

The wisdom writers have always known that a cheerful heart is good medicine (Prov 17:22a): “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”

Palmer56 says that Jesus is the greatest humourist of all time because:

  1. He has breadth of knowledge about reality.

  2. He is good to the core, and the greatest, I might add, the most healing humour, always had its source in the good surprise of grace.

  3. Surprisingly to us, Jesus is the most normal man we will ever meet.

Now we can go full circle against Plato and John Chrysostom and assert that laughter and Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ message, and Jesus’ activity belong together. His was a laughter of joy, a laughter of healing, a laughter of transformed hearts, a laughter against cosmic and psychological darkness. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the love of God (often interpreted as foolish) penetrates into the world. The power of love seeks us out to the point of laughter. Luke’s gospel records Jesus telling a story about a lost sheep which is found. “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 16:7).

Jesus is God’s “big thing”57 for love. His nail scarred hands offer us all the power of love. Because of Jesus, even death itself is no longer beyond a joke.

So, can it be, can it be, that we can say “Laughter is the best medicine” when we have danced to the end of love in this way? Rather than medicine, love becomes the dance of life itself.

The Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s58 wonderful song, “Listen for the Laugh”, contains the following lines. Let us imagine the laughter of love as a song as we complete our inquiry.

“It’s not the laughter of a child with toys,
It’s not the laughter of the president’s boys,
It’s not the laughter of the media king,
This laughter doesn’t sell you anything.
It’s the wind in the wings of a diving dove,
You better listen for the laugh of love.
Whatever else you might be thinking of,
You better listen for the laughter of love.”

.   .   .

Paul MercerDr Paul Mercer is a GP principal at Manly in Queensland. He is the editor of Luke’s Journal and among other things is part of the “Theology on Tap” team in Brisbane and has been a member of the CMDFA ethics working group.

Return to issue: Laughter

 

YouTube videos recommended:

  1. Two Ronnies
  2. “Remember Song” by Tom Rush 2003
  3. “Moms” by Trey Kennedy

 

References:

  1. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD. Ref 29 chapter 1.
  2. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD.
  3. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD. Page 10.
  4. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD. Page 21.
  5. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD. Page 26.
  6. Gearon, E. 2016. Turning Points in Middle Eastern History: Course Guidebook. United States: The Great Courses. Page 76.
  7. Harl, K.H. 2001. World of Byzantine: Course Guidebook.  United Stated: The Great Courses. Page 104.
  8. Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthia, R.R., & Dicarlo, S.E. 2017. Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health. Staying Current, 341-347.
  9. Cook, W.R. and Herzman, R.B. 2000. Francis of Assisi: Course Guidebook. United States: The Great Courses. Page 26.
  10. Cook, W.R. and Herzman, R.B. 2001. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Course Guidebook. United States: The Great Courses. Page 28.
  11. Soderlund, S. 2018. Where did you say Baal was? The Regent World, 130(2).
  12. Eames, M. Quoted in GK Chesterton on the Fool as Saviour on the Modern Soul. 2018. The Regent World, 130(2).
  13. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing.
  14. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing. Following his schema.
  15. Lewis, C.S. 1952. Mere Christianity. United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles.
  16. Gonot-Schoupinsky, F.N., & Garip, G. 2018. Laughter and Humour Interventions for well-being in older adults: A systematic review and intervention classification. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 38, 85-91. See reference 5.
  17. McGilchrist, Iain. 2009. The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press.
  18. Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthia, R.R., & Dicarlo, S.E. 2017. Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health. Staying Current, 341-347.
  19. Yim, J. Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. 239, 243-249.
  20. Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthia, R.R., & Dicarlo, S.E. 2017. Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health. Staying Current, 341-347.
  21. Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthia, R.R., & Dicarlo, S.E. 2017. Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health. Staying Current, 341-347.
  22. Bast, E.S., & Berry, E.M. Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humour in the Control of Stress-Induced Emotional Eating. New Insights in Clinical Medicine, 5 (1), 1-12.
  23. Ferner, R.E., & Aronson, J.K. 2013. Laughter and Mirth: narrative synthesis. Food For Thought, 1-6.
  24. Noureldein, M.H., & Eid, A. A. 2017. Homeostatic effect of laughter on diabetic cardiovascular complications: The myth turned to fact. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 111-119.
  25. Alici, N.K., Bahceli, P.Z. and Emiroglu, O.N. 2017. The preliminary effects of laughter therapy on loneliness and death anxiety among older adults living in nursing homes: A non-randomised pilot study. International Journal of Older People Nursing. 1-9.
  26. Rudnick, A., Kohn, P.M., Edwards, K.R., Podnar, D., Carid, S., & Martin, R. 2014. Humour-Related Interventions for People with Mental Illness. 737-742.
  27. Gelkopf, M. 2009. The Use of Humor in Serious Mental Illness. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011, 1-8.
  28. Yim, J. Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. 239, 243-249.
  29. Bast, E.S., & Berry, E.M. Laugh Away the Fat? Therapeutic Humour in the Control of Stress-Induced Emotional Eating. New Insights in Clinical Medicine, 5 (1), 1-12.
  30. Gonot-Schoupinsky, F.N., & Garip, G. 2018. Laughter and Humour Interventions for well-being in older adults: A systematic review and intervention classification. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 38, 85-91. See reference 5.
  31. Bryant, G.A., Fessler, D.M.T, Fusaroli, R., & et al. 2016. Detecting Affiliation in Colaughter Across 24 Societies. PNAS, 113 (17). 4682-4687.
  32. Bryant, G.A., Fessler, D.M.T, Fusaroli, R., & et al. 2016. Detecting Affiliation in Colaughter Across 24 Societies. PNAS, 113 (17). 4682-4687.
  33. Nuland, S.B. 2005. Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography. United States: The Great Courses. Chapter 8.
  34. Wellenzohn, S., Proyer, R.T., & Ruch, W. 2018. Who Benefits From Humor-Based Positive Psychology Interventions? The Moderating Effects of Personality Traits and Sense of Humor. Frontiers in Psychology, 9 (821). 1-10.
  35. Bryant, G.A., Fessler, D.M.T, Fusaroli, R., & et al. 2016. Detecting Affiliation in Colaughter Across 24 Societies. PNAS, 113 (17). 4682-4687.
  36. Phillips, K.A., Singh, O.N, Rodriguez-Gutierrez, & et al. 2018. Humour During Clinical Practice: Analysis of Recorded Clinical Encounters.

Leary, M. 2018. Why You Are Who You Are: Investigations into Human Personality. United States: The Great Courses.

  1. Savage, B.M., Lujan, H.L., Thipparthia, R.R., & Dicarlo, S.E. 2017. Humor, Laughter, Learning, and Health. Staying Current, 341-347.
  2. Sanders, D. & Finniss, D. 2018. Clinical Use of Placebo in Pain Management. Pain Management Today, 5 (1), 23-26.
  3. Ferner, R.E., & Aronson, J.K. 2013. Laughter and Mirth: narrative synthesis. Food For Thought, 1-6.
  4. Current Biology. 2017.
  5. National Health and Medical Research Council. 2001. Australian Alcohol Guidelines: Health Risks and Benefits. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
  6. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4906.0.55.003
  7. Messenger, B. 1995. Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion. United States: Great Courses.
  8. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD.
  9. Claassens, J. 2015. Rethinking Humour in the Book of Jonah: Tragic Laughter as Resistance in the Context of Trauma. Rethinking Humour, 28(3), 655-673.
  10. Claassens, J. 2015. Rethinking Humour in the Book of Jonah: Tragic Laughter as Resistance in the Context of Trauma. Rethinking Humour, 28(3), 655-673. Citing Roy Eckart in Theology Today. 1992.
  11. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD.
  12. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD.
  13. E Welsford
  14. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing.
  15. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing.
  16. Kuschel, K-J. 1994. Laughter: A Theological Reflection. London: SCM Press LTD.
  17. Gelkopf, M. 2009. The Use of Humor in Serious Mental Illness. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011, 1-8. https://www.humourfoundation.org.au/
  18. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing.
  19. Burge, G.M. 2009. Jesus, The Middle Eastern Storyteller. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  20. Palmer, E.F. 2001. The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible. Canada: Regent College Publishing.
  21. Fee, G.D. and Stuart, D. 2002. How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Page 303.
  22. Cockburn, B. 1994. Dart to the Heart. [CD]. Sony Music.

 

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