Despite what you may have heard, man’s best friend is not a dog. Man’s best friend is the laugh. Laughter doesn’t need to go for walks, it doesn’t need expensive vaccinations and it won’t get you in trouble for choking a neighbor’s sheep (I speak from experience here). Think about it: how many times has a laugh-free first date gotten you a goodnight kiss? Giggling, chuckling, bellowing, cackling—they all come from the same place. I’ve used laughter all my life, in different situations all around the world.
I was an extremely scatterbrained kid, always doing things like leaving my homework on top of the car. On Career Day in middle school, after tagging along with my dad for the day, I remember hearing a heavy clunk just as he accelerated onto the highway.
Dad jumped at the noise, “What was that?” he asked.
I leaned towards the side mirror and smirked: my notes for the day were scattered to the winds, dispersed across four lanes of rush-hour traffic.
I can still hear my mom’s voice, ringing in my ears, after I pulled some boneheaded act or another: “Oh, Ryan!” What are we going to do with you?” So famous were my exploits that now, when one of my parents or my sister, say, programs the wrong address into a GPS and drives fifty miles in the wrong direction, they call it “pulling a Ryan.”
You might think this would give me a complex, but I don’t take offense because I’ve discovered that mistakes go down easier with laughter. That’s not to say I ignore my errors; I hang my head, call myself an idiot, and I dig deep to avoid making the same mistake, but only after I laugh at myself.
So laugh at yourself, lighten things up, and pat yourself on the back before you kick yourself in the ass.
Laughter helps you cope during uncertain times, too—like when you’re traveling through faraway countries during a revolution, for instance. When my wife, Lori, and I were on a two-week trek through Nepal in 2005, a nationwide strike brought the country to a standstill. The king had dissolved Nepal’s parliament earlier that year and the people were angry; they wanted democracy restored. Arriving at the small village that marked the end of our trek, we were greeted by burning tires and protests, a marked difference from the peaceful, self-sufficient villages where we had spent the past weeks. The busses—our rides back to Kathmandu–sat idle. Nobody would risk driving back amid this turmoil.
Later, our guide informed us in his broken English, “Okay—No bus. Maybe truck will come morning or maybe we walk. Okay?”
Okay? A truck? What kind of truck? Walk? Isn’t Kathmandu seventy miles away?
We left the next day, and I cackled madly as we rumbled past burning cars, angry demonstrators and marching troops. Not because anything was funny, really, but because it was the only thing I could do. A nationwide all-hours curfew was in effect but tourists were allowed to move around the country. Our ride, a broken-down stock truck, donned a hand-lettered cardboard sign reading “Tourist Bus.” The truck stalled often but it was easy to restart. German, Israeli, American and Nepali hands lined up to push. Initial grunts started the truck moving, multilingual expletives kept it moving, and a roaring group-laugh facilitated the final heave. As black smoke spewed from the exhaust, we laughed and climbed back onto the truck for another few miles before repeating the process.
Laughter has its place even in the loss of friends and family. My brother died when I was seventeen years old. Although I didn’t laugh at his bedside or at his funeral, I still laugh every time I think of the Bubble Episode. I can picture it perfectly: my family cruising through the white-capped mountains of Colorado for the first time—my sister, brother and I stuffed in the backseat. As we crested a steep mountain pass, my brother’s kid-face began to disappear behind a growing bubble-gum bubble. Somehow, that bubble kept growing, eclipsing his entire face, and our hysterics grew with it, filling the car with peals of laughter. That is just one of the beautiful memories I have of my brother; the death of a loved one hurts so much because of the laughter you shared with them. Laughter never dies.
Although laughter technically doesn’t have mass, it holds and comforts you, keeps you company when you’re lonely. How many times have you found yourself alone at home, in a hotel room, in the car, or feeling transparent in a crowded elevator? Your heart is heavy, down in your stomach instead of in your chest, but then a hearty chortle or a soft chuckle saves you. At home your cat rounds the corner chasing ghosts, in the hotel room you bust out dancing in your underwear, in the car you belt out cheesy love songs at the top of your lungs, and in the elevator you notice a man in a very expensive suit with more nose hairs on the outside of his nose than inside. Suddenly, because of your laughter, you feel whole again, and happy to be alive.
This resonance not only feels good—it is good. A Google search of “laughter is good for you” turned up almost five million results. Studies by real doctors, ones with the debt and the white overcoats to prove it, have found that laughter has many benefits. It boosts the immune system, reduces stress by releasing endorphins, prevents heart disease, and burns calories. One study at the University of Maryland Medical Center showed that people with heart disease responded with less humor to everyday life situations and displayed more anger and hostility than their healthier peers did. Instead of prescribing the latest and greatest pills, maybe doctors should direct their high-risk patients to make a funny face in the mirror three times a day.
Another study at Vanderbilt Univeristy showed that individuals burned up to fifty calories for every fifteen minutes of laughing. Not much, but it’s something to consider: a jolly night with good friends offsets that extra side of bacon the next morning. Or if you prefer longer horizons, that equals four pounds a year or, cumulatively, a dozen buckets of ice cream in a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to keep off forty pounds per decade just by laughing?
So with all that said, here’s an alternative definition of laughter, one you won’t find in a dictionary: a highly combustible accelerant for all social bonds. It has many uses, it never dies, it’s good for you, and best of all—it’s free.
photo: Flickr/Alan Cleaver