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Laughter, Love, and Longevity

Strong willed.

Strong willed.

My mother was a strong-willed woman. My older sister is a strong-willed woman. My wife is a strong-willed woman. I have a very good sense of humor.

Are these phenomena related? I think they are. Psychologists classify humor as a Level 4 defense mechanism. Like other Level 4 mechanisms (altruism, gratitude, tolerance, mercy, etc.), humor is “…found among emotionally healthy adults … and [has] been adapted through the years to optimize success in human relationships and society”. More specifically, humor “is an overt expression of ideas and feelings … that give pleasure to others”.

So, if you find yourself surrounded by powerful people, humor is a good way to express your feelings, give pleasure to others, and build successful relationships. It may even help you get your way.

But wait, there’s more. According to the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, laughter may signal that an apparently dangerous situation isn’t really so awful. He writes, “…laughter evolved to inform our kin … : don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm”.  Nervous laughter may be a signal to ourselves that what we’re experiencing is not as terrible as it seems. That would explain audience laughter during Quentin Tarrantino movies (which seem like pumped up, colorized, vaguely delusional versions of The Three Stooges).

Laughter may also help us endure traumas, both physical and psychological. How long can you hold your hand in a bucket of ice cold water? Not long. As Scott Weems points out, however, if someone makes you laugh before you submerge your hand, you can keep it there longer. Laughter, in other words, can help us endure. By laughing at our trauma, we show ourselves that it’s really not so bad. We survived, didn’t we?

I wonder if this is why we tell grim jokes about tragic events. When the Challenger exploded in 1986, I remember hearing jokes within just a few days. I was shocked and numbed by the disaster, but I laughed out loud at the jokes. I was surprised at my own fecklessness but, apparently, my laughter was a “soothing balm”.

Weems notes that laughter – like chocolate – releases dopamine in our brains. It makes us feel good. It’s not just a feeling. Laughter can also lower our blood pressure, improve blood flow, and stimulate the immune system. Apparently, it can even help us recover from surgery. Indeed, Weems claims that, “Humor is also a form of exercise, keeping your minds healthy the same way that physical exertion helps our bodies.”

With all its health benefits, you might assume that people with a good sense of humor would live longer. But you’d be wrong. Weems cites two different studies that suggest that humor can make you healthier and happier but not older. In fact, the reverse may be true.

One longitudinal study sought to correlate personality traits, health, and longevity. The personality trait that promoted longevity best was conscientiousness, which “reflects how prudent and thoughtful a person is when dealing with others….”

Unlike conscientiousness, humor was negatively correlated with longevity. Why? No one really knows, but it may be that humorous people don’t take very good care of themselves. They’d rather be laughing than dieting or exercising. In fact, as we’ve seen before, people who are laughing just want to go on laughing. That’s not a bad thing unless you’re trying to motivate them to action.

Humor can help lubricate social mechanisms. It can help soothe and smooth. It can help us defend our interests and build successful relationships. It may not help us live longer but it helps us live better. If applied conscientiously, it can even help you live with talented, intelligent, strong-willed women.

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