I love to laugh. Some say that I have a great sense of humor. But what does that mean? Is humor a ‘sense’ like vision or hearing? Is it a trait like having dark eyes or being tall? Are we born with it, or can it be developed like a muscle? My sense has always been that laughter is beneficial, but how did I get this way? It got me thinking.
My mother, who descended from hardworking German stock, found little time for humor. She might even have labelled it nonsense, but my father, Irish and quick to smile made her laugh, almost unwillingly. His sense of humor countered and complimented her ‘I have no time for nonsense’ persona. From my father I learned to use humor to diffuse stress. He could release mom’s tension with a smile, a wink, a comment, or a joke. From my mother, I learned that a sense of humor is a perception filter, defining, and assigning meaning to the moment. My mother’s sense was to find joy in work. My father’s sense found joy in laughter. Their filtered perceptions defined my responses to life’s daily trials and events. In their shadows I learned that humor’s sense works as ‘a funny filter’ bending and shaping observations like a funhouse mirror. Humor is permission to laugh at life.
Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford University professor claims that the effects of laughter can exceed the benefits of exercise, meditation and sex combined. Endorphins are secreted and tension is released when we laugh. In her book, ‘Harnessing Humor as a Secret Weapon,’ she goes on to say that the average four year old laughs 300 times a day, but the average forty year old takes more than two months to equal that number. So, my inner four year old wanted to know, why do adults deprive themselves of joyful opportunities daily?
Joyful opportunities can be masked by uncomfortable realities. Recently, after complaining of pain for two days my wife suggested that a visit to the doctor might be wise. After a brief examination, my doctor suggested that a visit to the emergency room might be wise. In the waiting room I learned that a lesson in patience might be wise, but after five hours, a blood test, and a CAT scan, the doctor walked in. She delivered my diagnoses, and then noticing a large box in the corner of the room with a giant tube protruding and exiting the wall, she commented to the nurse. “I never noticed that before. Why is that here?”
My turn to be wise, I thought. “Perhaps hamsters need medical care too!” I said.
I thought my comment would elicit a smile. The doctor thought it was peculiar. The nurse thought it was funny. My wife? She thought it unwise.
My sense was to relieve the tension, even if it was my own. But the doctor’s sense was that I wouldn’t be making jokes if I were in pain. Regardless, my instinct was to use humor, to open with a joke, to treat the doctor as an audience. But she treated me as a patient. I inserted humor. She removed my appendix.
I never lost a child’s need to laugh. But what exactly is humor? E.B. White is supposed to have said, “Defining humor is like dissecting a frog. You can do it, but you kill it in the process.” The perfect metaphor, I thought, humor is a frog.
It appeals to my storytelling sensibility to think that humor hops about, teasing curiosity, and demanding attention. Like the storied princess, distracted by responsibilities, my doctor ignored the healing power of laughter. Too often adults cannot be bothered to acknowledge life’s frogs. They are found in strangest places and it awakens my inner four year old to acknowledge their need to be noticed.
Aldi, a local grocery store chain, requires a deposit of a quarter to use a shopping cart which is refunded when the cart is returned. This ensures that Aldi need not have an employee retrieve carts from the parking lot. I grabbed a cart recently and noticed that the previous person had not locked it to the others. Great, I thought, someone was thoughtful enough to leave this for me. Free! I grabbed the cart and put the quarter back in my pocket.
While shopping I began laughing to myself at Aldi’s Pavlovian joke. People leave their carts willy nilly at other stores and drive away, feeling no responsibility to return them. Aldi, by implementing a ‘quarter-back’ deposit has trained customers to return their carts. Now, thinking that they are being nice to the next customer, people return the cart without retrieving the quarter. Aldi is the beneficiary. The joke is on us.
Don’t ask, “What is humor?” Don’t kill the frog. Acknowledge it. Sit by an imagined pond and listen. Open the senses of your four year old self and you will find life’s uninvited frogs, swimming, crawling, and hopping here and there throughout your day without purpose or invitation, warty and belching. Embrace the frog’s daily demand to be kissed and you will discover that laughter is a prince. Mike@MikePerry.Biz