Growing up I had a friend who never laughed. When the rest of us laughed so hard we fell to the floor and couldn’t breathe she sat there, arms folded, with only a faint smile on her face. If someone commented on her serious demeanor she simply said:
“I’m laughing on the inside.”
Laughing on the inside? We had to take her word for it. But does invisible laughter even count?
My friend’s lack of a sense of humor used to annoy me. I felt judged. She didn’t think I was funny. Maybe funny enough for a slight upward bend at the corner of her mouth but not throw your head back and laugh funny.
She seemed content, maybe even happy. But when it came to adding that extra little touch, she just couldn’t do it. Maybe she was just cooler than the rest of us? Maybe something was wrong with us, who couldn’t stay serious if we tried?
As I look back I can’t help but feel sorry for her. I mean, where would I be without my ability to laugh? Even the worst experiences usually have a funny angle if you wait long enough or search hard enough. If not, there’s usually some hilarious attachment to even the saddest of stories.
Take my friend’s funeral for instance. The funeral itself was sad. But the Elvis impersonator I saw on the way to the funeral was funny. There he was standing by the side of the road dressed in a white rhinestone-studded jumpsuit next to his broken-down car.
And I had to laugh.
It was as though someone above was telling me everything would be okay. Like “Here’s an Elvis impersonator in front of a crappy, dirty, faded, dented car in the middle of suburbia to help you cope as you are on your way to celebrate the life of a departed friend”. It was exactly what I needed at that exact time.
I even laughed at my mother’s funeral. Not the whole time. That would be terrible. But right before. We were all standing outside the chapel waiting to go inside. The atmosphere was sad and tense. The way things usually are at funerals.
My heart was so very heavy. I could barely move as I greeted the rest of my family.
We hugged and spoke in quiet voices. And then there was silence. Because people don’t know what to say after the usual condolences are exchanged. Funeral small talk is the worst kind of small talk.
So I decided to ask my brother to show our dog-loving relative a picture of my new dog. I thought the image of our puppy would do her some good.
But instead of pulling up a picture of our precious pup, my brother searched for and found a picture of the most recent winner of The World’s Ugliest Dog Contest. The first place that year (like most years) went to one of those Chinese Crested cross-eyed dogs. Except for a long tuft of hair on top of his head, he was completely hairless. And his tongue — his tongue was hanging outside his mouth like an inflated airplane emergency slide.
I began to laugh. And I couldn’t stop. And the laughter spread. Then the doors opened and we walked inside to see my mother’s beautiful picture on top of her coffin.
Some, maybe even most, would look at us with disdain. But to our family, it was perfect timing. One minute we were laughing. The next we cried. To us, the two expressions are not opposite. To us, tears of joy and tears of sorrow more often than not intermingle.
In fact, there’s data that show one's sense of humor to run in families. A large study from the gene testing company 23 and Me even show a connection between DNA similarities and one’s own perceived sense of humor.
Another study, this one focusing on a person’s ability to laugh, shows those who have a difficult time laughing to be more likely to use self-deception. The authors of the study theorize that people who are more likely to lie to themselves might be able to reconstruct what is funny into something less amusing in order to preserve their own image. In other words, they quickly downplay the joke as a way to maintain control.
Those who laugh less than average might view laughing out loud as a weakness and as a negative behavior. To them laughing might be associated with a lack of control. Therefore it needs to be suppressed.
But to those of us who do laugh, on the other hand, humor is seen as an asset used to connect with others. To us, laughter is a great ice breaker and an equalizer. It cuts through economic, religious and cultural barricades. Laughter unifies.
And humans aren’t the only ones laughing. Animals do too. One study show rats giggle when tickled. At least the researchers interpreted the high pitched squeals of the rodents as being equivalent to a human laugh. I watched the clip and I’m not sure what to believe.
And apparently, Darwin’s work and plenty of studies after his, show monkeys laugh. So I’m in good company.
But just as humor eradicates walls, it also erects them. You can’t build a wall faster than the one separating a joke teller from someone who responds with total silence.
One step below the silent types are the ones who respond to a joke only with that dreaded phrase “that’s funny”. Combine that phrase with a stone-faced look and you have yourself an immediate mood or relationship killer.
Because it’s probably true what they say: those who laugh together stay together. And those who don’t…well, good luck to them.
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