This is a saying that came to mind this weekend as I was helping some friends move. It was hot. The work was monotonous. There were lots of stairs. But I had one of the best days ever. The company was light, the chatter was congenial, and the laughs were many. So I thought about smiling, laughing and the mind and how a cheery grin may change the future…
Laughter is the Best Medicine?
Whether you might have experienced this or not, I can tell you that one of the best results of laughter is a good yet mild workout. I know I’ve had to recover (just as I would after a run) after a great and long guffaw. And science agrees – laughing works out muscles in your face and body, raises heart rate and breathing – I’ve even read that you need 10 minutes on the rowing machine to get your body as elevated as a minute of good laughing!
In the Anatomy of an Illness Norman Cousins apparently was relieve from the pain of anklylosing spondylitis (a painful spine condition) for two hours with ten minutes of watching comedies. Should we rename them the Dr. Marx Brothers?
Another study compared the photos of baseball players in 1952. The ones who smiled tended to live an additional 7 years compared to their non-smiling counterparts.
The list goes on with advantages of increased blood flow, positive immune responses to laughter, possibly lowering or settle blood sugar levels, more air to the lungs for better respiration, cardiac protection, and muscle relaxation, so there are a lot of physical bonuses to chuckling and smiling. But how do we include this in our often serious, sometimes negative day?
The answer often comes with the right questions. What makes me laugh – slapstick, standup, rom-coms, kids? Who makes me laugh – is there a person or group of people who can put a smile on your face? While it may seem like one more thing to do in a day, look for these situations and people who make you laugh – your return on investment is extremely high (and you’ll have fun doing it!)
The Laughing Mind?
The study of laughter even has its own name – gelotology. Apparently, the parts of the mind that are ‘lit up’ during experiments (with EEG) are far more widespread for laughter than are other emotions. When a joke includes a pun, language centres of the brain are engaged more than other jokes that don’t include a play on words, because they need to be processed. So the brain is activated, but what about the mind?
Because the mind and brain may or may not be the same thing, let’s focus on the strengths and rules of the subconscious mind for a little while to see how laughter and smiling fits.
- The subconscious mind tends to hold on to one idea until it latches on to another – we tend to only be able to focus on one thing at a time. So when we’re laughing or smiling, we aren’t doing a number of other things that may be less restorative.
- The subconscious mind works closely with the unconscious/body – when we laugh or smile, we positively affect the body, and when our body is positively affected, it positively affects the mind again. So it’s a virtuous spiral.
- The subconscious mind works by association – we link similar experiences, emotions and events together. When we smile or laugh (like a positive yet old song on the radio) our mind tends to associate the current experience with other positive experiences of the past.
- We tend to believe what we say about ourselves – this is a rule of the mind that we can create even by implying something. So when we laugh and smile, it says something about ourselves to ourselves. “I have a sense of humour”, “I can have fun”, “I have good friends/family I can laugh with” etc., so these messages affect our self concept in a positive way.
- Finally, the subconscious is the feeling mind – whether sensations or emotions, we access the subconscious mind most readily when feelings are touched. When people are genuinely smiling or laughing is a great time to plant some positive suggestions to yourself or someone else.
Smile is Your Umbrella?
Now I don’t profess that a grin or chuckle have super powers, but the more I look into it, the more they ‘seem’ to have them. As you’ve seen with the rules of the mind, we tend to focus on one thing over another at a time. Adding this to another rule of the mind – what we tend to focus on, expands, means that when we get the smirks and giggles, we tend to look at life with more humour. And there’s no better armour for a bad day than a sense of humour.
There is research that says you can get greater leniency for breaking the rules if we smile, which is a protector of sorts, but I like to focus on the way our face can lead us to a more positive place. The subconscious mind is the childlike, pretending mind, so sometimes, even if we don’t feel it quite yet, we can smile or laugh to ‘turn the frown upside-down’. As William Shakespeare wrote, “if you lack the virtue, act the virtue.” That doesn’t mean to have to ‘fake’ it all the time, but looking at the rules of the mind can help us tune in better to our own personal, positive defenses.
For example, have a store of personally funny experiences or jokes (they don’t have to be funny for anyone else). Just thought of an ‘eel’ joke that instantly made me smile while I was writing, and I’m starting to feel even better than a few moments ago. When you have your bag of laughs ready, you’re more likely to access them when you’re down or feeling a bit blue.
And there’s additional reason for having smiles up our sleeves. Not only do we feel better when we do it (which can defend us against the ups and downs of life), but allows us to perform better. While nervousness narrows our focus, smiling tends to increase our ability to think holistically, increase flexibility, gain insight and notice ideas on the edge of consciousness (from our powerful subconscious).
How the World Sees You
Have you ever watched the lines on people’s faces, no matter what age? Even if they aren’t deeply set, you can often see the development of them because of the range of expressions they take. Over the years I’ve developed more lines than moisturiser can undo, and there are some I wear quite proudly. There are the worry lines on my forehead that I’d rather let go of.
Then there are my ‘crow’s feet’ by my eyes – which I prefer to call laugh lines. I know they are (even though they look like crow’s feet) because when I’m smiling and laughing, my eyes tend to disappear and are replaced by lines fanning from the corners of my eyelids (imagine a Japanese anime laughing, and you’ve got it). Which makes sense because real smiling involves the eyes. If you’ve ever been faced with a fake smile, you know what I mean – the mouth moves but the eyes stay where they are.
Imagine meeting someone with a stone-cold stare and grimace looking at you. Imagine someone with gentle eyes and a genuine smile. Who would you rather chat with (hiring serious body guards excepted). On the whole a welcoming or connecting smile will build interpersonal bridges a lot better than a scowl. At least it’s a ticket to admission… it’s a start.
In fact studies have shown that people tend to trust others more (about 10% more) if they are smiling, compared to those who are not.
I know that I tend to gravitate to people with a positive look on their faces – it suggests an openness and willingness to relate. And remember how powerful suggestions can be…
Laughing with… laughing at…
There’s a difference. While this is the month with Fool’s Day in it, we aren’t talking about making others the butt or our jokes. Because we don’t feel better when we make others feel worse – we may try, but it doesn’t seem to work.
While self- or other-depreciating humour is a genre in the comedy world, I’ve found that it is often a thinly masked shield for those who have either learned this as the only form of humour, believe that sarcasm shows intelligence, or as a defense against self-doubts, but often comes out as cruel and may show some personal insecurities.
I think that we can look at the flubs of ourselves and others with a smile which can help us to put things in perspective, but intention is critical (as it seems to be with any focus or shift we make from the inside out). Over the years I’ve found that being mean directly or indirectly to others tends to not only make most people feel badly at the moment, but the reputation we get from doing so often means exclusion or mistrust.
I personally find it much funnier when I go along with this crazy ride we call life. It’s better than comedies in the movies!
And what about the Crying Part?
There’s another part to the saying. We’ve dealt with “Laugh and the world laughs with you,” but need to mention the second part, “cry and you cry alone”. Unfortunately this is often the case when people are distressed, unhappy, or feeling ‘bad’ – many people are embarrassed about showing tears, for fear they may be seen as weak, inappropriate, or vulnerable.
Studies have shown that emotional tears actually tend to be constructed differently – they tend to hold more ‘stress chemicals’ in them, so it seems that tears are a good outlet for negative chemical responses. So letting them flow, letting them go, is probably a good idea. Feelings, for the most part, are temporary unless we hold on to them, so understanding the meaning, expressing our feelings and letting them go tends to allow us to move past the situation and continue with greater energy and ability. There’s a place for crying, just as there is for smiling and laughing.
The more we understand that feelings are important, allow them to exist, get lessons or insight from them, the faster we can learn and grow. So when you next shed a tear, remember you are not alone.
PS And if you were wondering if the world really does smile with you – researchers found that about 50% of those studied reciprocate a smile sent directly to them. I’d suggest you do your own smiling study and see if you can up the norm!