Laughter in the Fast Lane
One summer evening long ago, my wife and I were sitting in traffic on the freeway, not moving an inch and late for a dinner engagement in San Francisco, feeling frustrated and angry. Both of us were busy telling ourselves a story: the freeway would not be at a standstill if they hadn’t turned the breakdown lanes into traffic lanes, which results in no place to move A damaged vehicle out of the flow of traffic! This was before cell phones, so we had no way of calling our friends to tell them why we weren’t there, and this added to our emotional distress. Suddenly, the passenger in the next car leaned out the window and spoke to us, imitating a well-known TV commercial for mustard at the time with a very proper British accent: “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?” We cracked up, of course, and his humor served as a wake-up call to presence. It allowed us to realize that cognitive fusion with our thinking was causing us to suffer. We had become entangled with our brain secretions, with thoughts of assigning blame for our plight, and were missing everything about the present moment, including the possibility of laughter.
You don’t need to wait to see or hear something funny to have an opportunity to laugh. “Laughing clubs” originated in India and can now be found around the world. People get together and start laughing artificially, and very soon, their laughter becomes genuine. I offered this in workshops and skill-building groups that I used to lead. With a very serious expression, I directed participants to try repeating after me: hee, hee, hee, ha, ha, ha, ho, ho, ho. Then, I would say, again unsmiling: “Make sure you don’t make a mistake. Okay, are we ready to start?” At that point, the laughter usually became quite genuine and infectious. In these groups, I always set an intention to look for opportunities for people to laugh. I have never done stand-up comedy, but I’ve found that setting an intention to take thoughts lightly is a very powerful mindfulness practice that is quite life-enhancing.
I venture to say that no person is in good health unless he can laugh at himself, quietly and privately. —Gordon Allport
Never underestimate the unimportance of everything. —Steve Allen Jr.
He who laughs last, lasts. —Steve Allen Jr.
Suggestions for Humor Practice
• Two questions can be helpful reminders to take your thoughts lightly when things appear to be going wrong, or not as planned. Ask yourself: Is anyone’s life in danger? Am I at risk of ending up homeless? This can help you put life’s more minor difficulties in perspective and make it possible to find humor in the situation.
• Follow Michael J. Fox’s example and learn to see your physical challenges as funny stories. You might even want to write about them as he did. In his book Always Looking Up, he describes how he brushes his teeth: “Grasping the toothpaste is nothing compared to the effort it takes to coordinate the two-handed task of wrangling the toothbrush and strangling out a line of paste onto the bristles. By now, my right hand has started up again, rotating at the wrist in a circular motion, perfect for what I’m about to do. My left hand guides my right hand up to my mouth, and once the back of the Oral-B touches the inside of my upper lip, I let go. It’s like releasing the tension on a slingshot and compares favorably to the most powerful state-of-the-art electric toothbrush on the market. With no off-switch, stopping means seizing my right wrist with my left hand, forcing it down to the sink basin, and shaking the brush loose as though disarming a knife-wielding attacker.”
• Live with conscious intention to (metaphorically) surf the big waves that come at you throughout life. The people who are most in control of their lives are not the ones who stay out of the surf; they’re the ones who learn to ride the waves. You don’t need to go looking for unnecessary challenges; instead learn how to ride the unavoidable ones that are part of life.
• Although my best recommendation is to take your thoughts lightly, and this results from cultivating life skills, it can also be very therapeutic to sit back and watch funny movies and read anything that makes you laugh, especially when you’re not feeling well.
• When you realize you’re entangled with unpleasant thoughts, experiment with smiling. Giving yourself this physical cue to take a lighter approach may be enough to help you disentangle. Part of why this is effective is that when the smile muscles are engaged—especially the orbicularis oculi, the facial muscle that causes the crow’s-feet squint beside the eye, which is only apparent in genuine smiles—the brain gets a message that results in the release of beta-endorphin, dopamine, and serotonin. In other words, although the smile may seem artificial at first, within seconds it often becomes genuine as a result of the brain being tricked into thinking something pleasant has occurred.