You’ve Got to Laugh

What’s so funny? We humans laugh all the time, often during inappropriate situations or dark times or just for the fun of it. It’s common across our social species and it might just save your life.

Children laugh easily, giggling at prat falls or silly faces. From our twenties onward, though, we lose that ability. Maturity brings with it a barrier to simple joys as we plod through life getting stuff done and being grown up. But laughter really is the best medicine. It lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, while increasing blood flow, relaxing muscles and triggering happy hormones. It’s good to laugh – our bodies and minds respond well to it.

And so do our relationships. Research shows that people laugh up to 30% more at an amusing clip when in company. Watching funny films or TV shows together can deepen our relationships as we share a bonding exercise like no other. It’s contagious too. So often I’ve laughed simply because someone nearby was doing it, even though I didn’t know the joke – it was funny anyway.

Best of all is humour’s ability to be dark. I love black humour, it never fails to hit my funny bone. Maybe the Northern Irish are particularly good at this given our painful history and natural inclination to shrug off badness with good humour. “If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry”, as my Granny used to say. Use dark humour with caution though – the old axiom states that tragedy + time =  comedy. It may be too soon to make a joke about something, so timing is everything.

Even those who are bereaved show less anger and distress when they can remember their loved one with warmth. This week is the anniversary of my brother’s death. Stephen was very funny, a wizard of sarcasm, and even six years on I still smile when I picture his comedic frown. On the day family and friends gathered to scatter his ashes in the sea at a local park we all stopped short when we rounded the corner to find that the tide was out. A moment passed before we all shared the most meaningful giggle in the world. Stephen would have found it hilarious and it was a precious comedic moment in an otherwise dark time.

Laughter is healing. We’ve lost sight of it recently but it is available all the time if we seek it out. I’m off now to watch an episode of Father Ted – truly the best medicine.

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Fear itself

Are you frightened? There’s so much going on in the world right now and I, for one, am feeling it. We humans have all sorts of emotions, and they rattle around competing for control of our bodies and behaviours as we make our way in the world. Fear is strong. It can result in illness, life-limiting phobias, broken relationships, inability to thrive. And we run and hide in an attempt to stay safe.

We fear death, rejection, failure. These things happen all the time and so we feel justified. In the midst of a second wave of a global pandemic I am fearful about my health and the health of my loved ones. I’m fearful about the future of democracy. I’m fearful about financial insecurity. I’m fearful that the planet won’t survive. All big things wouldn’t you agree? The list could overwhelm. But what if we looked at those fears – really looked – and decided to sit with them and talk to them? Would they change their shape?

In 1920 a now infamous study took place in the US. The ‘Little Albert’ experiment sought to show conditioning by inducing fear through loud noise. A white rat was introduced to little Albert (aged 11 months) who initially remained calm, he was simply interested in something he’d never seen before. But following several more meetings with said rat, including loud bangs each time, he grew frightened. And his fear remained. (Look this up on YouTube if you want to see what scientists used to get away with – how far we’ve come!)

Aside from the countless ethical issues this is a sad outcome. Perhaps we are born naturally curious and fear is learned after all. Our ancient lizard brain processes it instantly as information arrives in the amygdala without time to think or plan our response. This stood us in good stead when dangers involved being eaten by predators but in modern life all sorts of different kinds of triggers can still provoke that primal response – immediate, frightening, requiring fight or flight. Run first, ask questions later.

But those physiological responses such as nausea or a quickening heart rate can also invoke tingly butterflies, excitement, even awe, but only when we pause to look and ask questions. Curiosity seeks information and information leads to knowledge and knowledge is power.

Fear and curiosity cannot co-exist. Be curious. Ask questions. And maybe, just maybe, your fears will recede.

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Greener Grasses

Looking over the hedge at our neighbour’s lawn is common practice. Their full-blooming roses, well-painted fences and that greener than green grass. It’s not fair, we fume, looking back at our own drooping blooms, faded fences and patchy grass.

When did we get so good at comparing? And why do we only tend to compare upwards?

Life under capitalism brings inevitable behaviours like this. But I sense that it’s a bit deeper than that, and with a longer history. Humans look around them and then look within, perhaps our species always has. Did our Neanderthal ancestors compare bison kills with the cave next door (the cave that was slightly bigger and always tidier)? Seems likely. 

Many years ago when I stood on the podium (having won a silver medal in the Northern Irish schools’ 100-metres sprint competition) where did I look? You guessed it – up at the girl who stood on the winning level, gold medal around her neck. She was faster, more successful, just better than me. I was furious (competitiveness in athletics is a given but I could’ve been nicer that day). I don’t even remember the girl who stood below me with a bronze medal. Perhaps she looked upwards that day too? Or maybe she was delighted with her achievement and grateful for her medal, no matter the colour.

When we use a scale of measurement like this, be it medals or some other measure of success, we fall into the trap of comparison. And this trap is clenched tightly around our hopes, fears, self-esteem, even our very identity. If I looked like her, we think, or if I had success like him – then I’d be happy. Then I’d know who I was.

But if we move towards outward vision, turn comparison into compassion, the world tilts on its axis. Suddenly we feel content. Suddenly we see that others might need our help. And those seemingly perfect lives, those greener grasses, are not so green after all. And gratitude is the inevitable result. 

Moving from comparison towards gratitude is a journey and often takes many small steps. But it’s a worthy destination and along the way we find compassion and contentment in equal measure.

Look down, look out. You have a part to play in this world. You are enough.

Do you hear that?

You don’t have to listen, but you’ll hear me

Do you raise your voice often? Is your natural speaking voice rather quiet? Do you ever want to shout something from the rooftops?

Our voices are inherently ourselves, inextricably linked with our personalities. I don’t think I’ve ever met an extrovert who talks quietly (and vice versa). But surely we all want to be heard. Western culture still tends to reward the loud and rebuke the quiet; speak up in school or in the board room, talk over other people to make your point, and for crying out loud don’t stay silent.

I have a quiet, low voice. I’m also small in stature. So in board meetings I tend to create a whole new persona; sitting up tall, raising my voice (often to an uncomfortable level) in an attempt to be heard. This has worked well enough over the years but I’m becoming weary of pretending. The best meetings I’ve been part of have been led by an excellent chairperson who gave time to each person present, even if that meant a shake of the head in response to the request to participate. Quiet people aren’t necessarily shy, or afraid to take part, they often simply don’t have anything to say. And that’s okay.

What’s not okay is that when the time comes they are often not given the opportunity to speak. Imagine a classroom where the quiet pupil is welcome to participate or to stay silent. Or a business meeting where the quiet colleague feels heard through writing or gesture.

The animal kingdom will continue to roar loudly and survive accordingly. Surely humans can move beyond such evolutionary markers to adopt and adapt to one another instead? Introverts are not necessarily shy. Or boring. They can be happy, funny, clever, lonely, sad, fearful. But if no-one asks, how will we ever know?

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.”

Stephen Hawking

Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things. Lean in, listen, a whisper can shout after all.