“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”: The Importance of Laughter and Humour in Daily Family Life

by Dr Angel Adams, Dr Patricia Papciak

Time spent laughing is time spent with the Gods.

– Japanese Proverb

Image: A laughing kitten

Would you like to laugh more with your children and spend less time fussing and arguing? In this article we want to tell you the important reasons to add more humour into your interactions, encourage your child to develop a sense of humour and explain why it is crucial for you to increase your own entertaining repertoire. We will start first with some definitions. Humour is what makes something funny, whereas a sense of humour is the ability to recognise it. Thus, an individual with a strong sense of humour has the ability to not only identify what’s funny but can entertain as well! What is laughter? Laughter is the physiological response to humour. Here is a humorous scientific description:

Under certain conditions, our body performs “rhythmic, vocalised, expiratory, and involuntary actions” [Brittanica 1999]. Fifteen facial muscles contract and there is electrical stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle in particular. The respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing, so that air intake occurs in irregular gasps, rather than calm breaths. The tear ducts can be activated. Noises often accompany this odd behaviour “ranging from controlled snickers, escaped chortles, and spontaneous giggles, to ridiculous cackles, noisy hoots, and uproarious guffaws.” [Wooten, P., 1996, pg. 3]

In terms of the brain, emotional responses appear to be confined to specific areas of the brain (e.g. limbic system), while laughter seems to be produced via a circuit that runs through many regions of the brain. The brain has a “detector” that responds to laughter by triggering other neural circuits in the brain, which, in turn, generates more laughter. This explains why laughter is contagious! We dare you to watch this video and see if you don’t find laughter contagious! http://www.petplace.com/dog-videos.aspx?p=56

Are you aware of the many social and psychological benefits of using humour and enjoying the experience of laughter? There’s nothing like a little humour to get the day started off on a good note. Just about everyone enjoys people who are humorous, films that are funny, cartoons that give us a belly laugh or a pet doing its silly behaviour over and over. A sense of humour can lighten and brighten the family environment. Laughing together is a way to be connected. It breaks down barriers and lightens our mood. A good sense of humour has the capacity to make children and adults smarter, better liked by their peers, healthier, and much more resilient. It can help people to not take themselves too seriously. Humour can change one’s perspective and hence the quality of one’s life. Laughing is a cathartic release which purifies those old stuck emotions. Laughing invokes feelings of happiness and joy. Laughing is uplifting and takes you to new heights where you can gain some new insights. Joy and laughter can promote creative thinking and enhance problem solving skills.

What about the physiological benefits? Laughter reduces the levels of certain stress hormones and boosts the immune system. Research has found that when a person is in a joyous state of hilarity, natural killer cells that destroy tumours and viruses increase, as do Gamma-interferon (a disease fighting protein), T-cells, which are a vital part of the immune response, as well as B-cells, which make disease-destroying antibodies. It also increases the concentration of salivary immunoglobulin A, which defends against the entry of infectious organisms through the respiratory tract. Laughter basically brings balance to all the components of the immune system. Norman Cousins, the long time editor of Saturday Review, wrote a well-known book called Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins thought that if you could begin to have problems and illness as a result of negative emotions in your body, why couldn’t you have an opposite effect by treating your body to positive emotions? And that’s exactly what he did. He watched funny movies, he read funny books and he laughed for many hours throughout the day. Doctors generally believe that he helped prepare his body to be cured. His book is considered to be an important book in promoting the idea that you have to be at least partially responsible for healing yourself when you have problems, and laughter might be the best medicine.

Studies have also found that the use of humour leads to an increase in pain tolerance. Laughter causes the release of special neurotransmitter substances in the brain called endorphins that are the brain’s natural morphine. Other studies found that neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones decreased during episodes of laughter. We all know about the feelings of calmness that come with humour and that the chemistry of our bodies is such that our adrenaline systems enjoy the feelings of relaxation that accompany humour.

What is the effect of humour on the heart? Blood pressure is lowered, and there is an increase in vascular blood flow when we laugh. An increase in oxygenation of the blood also assists healing. Furthermore, laughter helps to reduce anger and fear which are two common emotions that can lead to heart attacks. Laughter also gives your diaphragm and abdominal, respiratory and facial, and leg and back muscles a workout. This explains why we often feel tired after an episode of contagious laughing because we virtually have experienced an aerobic workout.

Did you ever think to yourself that you just naturally do not have a sense of humour and wished you had that gift to make others howl with laughter? You may have assumed that people were just born with a wicked sense of humour. Actually, there is no research that shows that humour is part of our genetic make-up, as is IQ, height and the colour of our eyes. Humour is not genetically transmitted, but it is a learned trait that can develop early or later in life because it is environmentally determined. Research indicates that a sense of humour is basically derived from one’s environment such as parents, teachers, classmates, culture, religion, and family upbringing.

7 Tips:

  1. Laugh at yourself. There is a saying, Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone. Laugh at your own silly mistakes and point them out to your children both so that they can laugh and so that they can laugh at their own mistakes.
  2. Remind your children of funny things that have happened. Children love to reminisce about the past, especially the funny parts. Think about those things and bring them up so that if your child isn’t feeling happy, he/she can remember about a happier time or funny incident.
  3. Encourage and reinforce your child’s attempts at humour. This could be reading jokes from a book or drawing “funny” pictures. Laugh uproariously when they attempt to be funny as humour is one of life’s great pleasures.
  4. Point out how silly your pet is acting. It’s easy to laugh at animal behaviour. You might even want to take your child to the zoo to watch how the animals behave. Here are some great videos to watch with your child and laugh your head off!

    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/yt-qXo3NFqkaRM/husky_dog_talking_i_love_you/

  5. Watch funny movies. Annie was one of my daughter’s favourite movies when she was young. It’s a great movie for kids because Annie is such a positive character. A great song in the film from this movie is called You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Here are some more suggestions for funny movies.These are funny movies for kids and teens (with parental approval):
    • Toy Story
    • Wallace and Gromit movies
    • Young Frankenstein
    • When Harry Met Sally
    • Charlie Chaplin movies
    • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
    • Laurel and Hardy
    • Bringing up Baby
    • Top secret (1984)
    • Austin Powers 2
    • Airplane
    • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
    • Mrs Doubtfire
    • City Slickers

    These are funny movies for adults:

    • Used Cars
    • Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964)
    • My cousin Vinnie
    • Marx Brothers
    • It Happened
    • Some Like it Hot
    • It happened one night
    • Ruthless People
    • Annie Hall
    • Take the money and run
    • Hannah and her sisters
  6. Become more aware and receptive to the many opportunities your child or teen gives you to laugh. Be spontaneous, playful, and aware of what your child finds funny at different ages.
  7. Also be smart enough to laugh at your child’s jokes so they don’t don’t fall flat and spontaneously follow it up with another joke. It’s good to practice yourself… What else can you do to encourage your child’s sense of humour?

In some families there is often someone who always seems to wake up with a smile on his/her face, a humorous story to tell, or an endearing word that makes the rest of the family relax and enjoy a feeling of warmth in the home. They tell the family about their silly mistakes that make everyone laugh. For example they put ointment on their toothbrush instead of toothpaste because they weren’t quite awake or just when they thought they were ready for work they noticed their shirt was on inside out. They are comfortable with themselves and it’s easy to laugh at themselves and share their laughter with others when they make mistakes.

What makes you laugh and what makes your children laugh? When children are babies, we spend a great deal of time trying to make them smile and laugh. We tickle them, we say silly things, and we spend an inordinate amount of time contorting our faces into animated expressions all in an effort to make that sweet little thing giggle. Then we giggle in response to the child’s pleasure.

Studies have also shown that children laugh 200-400 times a day, where as adults laugh 15-18 times a day if they’re lucky. So let’s make sure that we start laughing more ourselves and encourage our children to keep laughing. It’s never too early to start developing a child’s sense of humour. When you’re playful and humorous with your child, taking pleasure in being silly and laughing, you help him or her develop a playful and humorous attitude about life.

There is a British child psychologist named Dr Livingstone who has emphasised the importance of play and laughter when spending time with children. Her team found the amount of time children are allowed to roam out of their parents’ sight has dropped by 90 per cent over the past 20 years. “This is an extraordinary change and it says a lot about our fear of modern life, paedophilia, etc. Children learn two things from this – strangers are fearsome and dangerous; and it’s dangerous to go outside,” she explains.

But the fact is that children who are allowed to play and explore outside are likely to be more adventurous, self- motivated and better able to understand risk when they grow up, according to Dr Livingstone. They also laugh more! On the other hand, children who spend a lot of time on the computer tend to spend a lot of time alone, away from reality. Her advice is the same that we have written about on many occasions. That is to let your children find their own activities and play with other children and reduce screen time (TV and video games).

Image: A skateboarding dog

http://www.modernpooch.com/

It is important to be aware of the way you use humour as it can be a powerful tool that can hurt people as well. You have heard people say, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you”. To some people it doesn’t feel like that because they feel teased and thus we encourage all to practice that sensitivity to how others respond to the humour you create. Make it a habit to create warmth and laughter in your home. Positive, joyful humour is your goal! We hope your day is full of joy and laughter.

“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face!” Victor Hugo

References

Berk, L. (1989) Neuro-endocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. American Journal of Medical Sciences, 298(6), 390-396.

Cousins, N. (1979). Anatomy of an illness. New York: W.W. Norton.

Fahlman, C. (1996). Laughing nine to five. Portland, OR: Steelhead Press.

Fry, W. (1977). The respiratory components of mirthful laughter. Journal of Biological Psychology, 19(2), 39-50.

Fry, W. (1979). Mirth and the human cardiovascular system. In H. Mindess & J. Turek (Eds.), The study of humor (pp. 56-61). Antioch University Press.

Fry, W., & Salameh, W. (Eds.). (1987). Handbook of humor and psychotherapy: Advances in the clinical use of humor. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resources. Exchange, Inc.

Greenwald, H. (1987). The humor decision. In W. Fry & W. Salameh (Eds.), Handbook of humor and psychotherapy: Advances in the clinical use of humor (pp. 41-54). Sarasota, FL: Professional Resources

Livingstone., L. (2008) A child of our time.U.K.: Bantam Press.


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