27 November 2017

Humour and laughter

Humour did not begin its life meaning what we understand it to mean. The ancient Greeks believed that the body was made up of four 'humours' (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood). Keeping these in balance was essential to remaining 'good humoured' and the relative amounts of each inside a person explained that individual's temperament. This understanding was present during Shakespeare's times and many of his plays contain references to the humours which shape his characters. In Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, there are four main characters, each dominated by one of the humours and each having roughly the same number of lines. The modern meaning of humour as something amusing emerged around the late 1600s.

A documentary released last year, 'Perlstein's Last Laugh' examined a strange topic, exploring the link between the Holocaust and humour. Whilst humour can sometimes cross the line as to what is socially acceptable, the film makes the point that there is humour in even the darkest of places. People who survived the death camps spoke of the importance of humour and laughter in that world. They describe laughter (the physical reaction to humour) as a type of sustenance, almost the food of hope. It was a form of respite from the day-to-day horror. It was even a form of revenge, to be able to laugh in the face of such evil. On our recent visit to Auschwitz on the History Tour, as we walked through a display of photos of inmates, I was struck by one who was smiling back at the camera. To me, this was the ultimate act of rebellion.

Humour has the power to illuminate or console; it can be used as satire to mock the powerful, and as an exploder of vanity or stereotypes. True, it can sometimes be a reinforcement of stereotypes, but it is also a weapon for the weak and a way to combat arrogance and ego. Laughter in particular can act as a release and a reality check. And it creates a powerful bond between people.

Laughing at ourselves is also an important skill. It is a sign of self-awareness and an avenue for personal growth. We should encourage young people to laugh when they do something funny, or mildly embarrassing. A failure to laugh at ourselves suggests an unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes and to grow from that.

It turns out that laughter may actually be the best medicine. There is a growing body of science that shows laughter has positive effects on the human body. Laughing relieves tension and stress, it boosts our immune system, it triggers the release of endorphins, protects the heart and can even temporarily relieve pain. Perhaps even more importantly, at the same time it does all of this, laughter draws people together.

Most importantly, I believe that humour, and laughter in particular, is a powerful tool in our social-emotional toolkit for helping us to keep things in perspective; handy for those times when we take ourselves a little seriously, or a situation is in danger of swamping us and leaving us without hope. To me, laughter is the voice we give to hope. It can brighten up the darkest of circumstances. It is also the expression of joy. In this way, it can help to provide just a little balance. Even the greatest Shakespearian tragedies contained a comedic figure, to break the tension and ease the audience's burden as they watched the suffering of the protagonist. We all need this now and again.

The shortest distance between two people is a smile. And what starts as a smile can grow into a laugh, a shared experience and a connection, which in turn becomes a bond.

Mr James Hindle
Director of Student and Staff Wellbeing