Laughter is a survival skill

Originally appeared in Dermanities, Vol. 1, No. 2, June, 2003

Laughter is a survival skill

Catherine Lawrence

Darwin's Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859. His explorations, which led to the famous formulation "survival of the fittest," were to determine whether evolution has occurred (and he shows evidence which supports the reality of evolution), and to explain how it occurred. His revolutionary work examines the nature of life, the diversity of living things, and their marvelous adaptations.

In my opinion, one of those adaptations is the ability of human beings to laugh. My company, Survival of the Funniest, is based on the fact that humor is a natural instinct, and a facet of our lives today. A sense of humor is necessary to survive.

Applying evolutionary theory to humor in life is like having Darwin meet the Dalai Lama. Laughter is essential to inner tranquility. Darwin concluded that generations of species pass on to their offspring characteristics that enable the species to survive.

Darwin himself observed and recorded in his notebooks, "No living thing was created ready made." Development in nature is by evolution, and using Darwin's analysis, I believe we can imprint on our species a sense of humor. There is a seriousness epidemic around us today where a sense of fun seems to be slipping out of our lives. Recently, a mother told me that her son said to her, "Mom, you never laugh!"

So it's not hard to see that the world needs laughter now more than at any other time. With mad cow, SARS, and West Nile virus you may think there's nothing left in the world to laugh at. But Bill Cosby said that if you can find the humor in anything厃ou can survive it.

But survival is just the minimum. We don't want to just exist. We want to soar. Laughter reflects inner joy. It's the ultimate celebration of life. It's a jungle out there. Everyone has serious issues. Take your work seriously, yourself lightly. Philosophically, that's where we should be going. Humor is a natural resource. It's as vital as breathing, it's free, easy, and it's a choice we all make. Look for the rubber chicken!

Steve Wilson, president of the World Laughter Tour, Inc., headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, likes to say that regardless of the reason you laugh, its main purpose is to discharge tension and stress. Psychologically, laughter is about creating and maintaining relationships and morale.

Laughter clubs, which are just now getting started in Canada, create a place where people can go to laugh stress away. Like yoga, laughter is a way to balance and integrate mind, body, and spirit in a healthy way.

Dr. Madan Kataria is the Indian physician who first came up with the idea of laughter clubs, and proclaimed World Laughter Day in 1998 in Mumbai, India. The original idea was for people to come together in small groups and just have a laugh about ordinary things. The idea caught on, and there are now more than 1,500 laughter clubs worldwide. In North America the movement is spread via the World Laughter Tour, Inc., whose efforts have enlisted the help of Certified Laughter Leaders.

Understanding the value of laughter and harnessing your natural humor resource will immediately impact your energy and enthusiasm for work and life. But you don't have to join a laughter club to participate. Just look on the funny side of life.

I love the opportunity to work with and influence corporate executives. It's fun to demonstrate that humor can help in strategic decision-making. Other improvement programs in the workplace have value, but humor is a basic. It's not a Flavor of the Month.

It's no coincidence that when researchers canvas the qualities of successful business leaders, a sense of humor is almost always a major factor. It's a key ingredient in rising to the top. Good leaders know how to bring humor into play in times of stress. Arguably, individuals are "naturally selected" in the corporate world when they demonstrate they can take their work seriously and themselves lightly. Humor can collapse an organization chart if people have permission to laugh in the workplace and the humor is top down.

Laughter is also a critical survival skill for those who work in health care. In recent weeks you could literally see the tensions mounting in those doctors and nurses who have had to deal with the SARS outbreak in Toronto.

The virus itself is no laughing matter. But the way medical staff coped with the challenge involved a form of survival humor.

A recent article in the Toronto Star provides a good example. The medical team at Mt. Sinai Hospital was described as "find(ing) levity where they could - in talking about the "SARSdale Diet", for example. The masks make it hard to eat, so some staff lost weight."

The staff also developed a Top 10 List of reasons why they liked wearing a mask. "Dark humor," said the article, "united a unique group of people and reminded them why they went into health care in the first place."

One ICU nurse was quoted as saying: "I do this because I care. Our patients are quite sick. Just going into the room makes a difference. How you speak to them can bring them out of their depression and put a smile back on their faces. That's what you remember when you go home at the end of a tough day. And that's what makes me keep coming back."

One well-known family physician was able to look on the bright side, and laugh about it with his colleagues. "While the work was five times as stressful, I was only seeing 50 per cent of my normal patient volume."

I've had an opportunity recently to speak with some people about the valuable role laughter can play for people living with cancer. There's an old proverb that says soap is to the body what laughter is to the soul. And it was Victor Frankel who said that laughter is the currency of hope.

Laughter truly applies in all fields of life. Dr. Joel Goodman, founder of the Humor Project, tells the story of an elementary teacher who gave humor workshops recalling a confrontation with a disruptive classroom. When he told them to knock it off, the biggest of the group shot back, "Who's going to make us?" The teacher simply stepped up to the student, locked eyes with him, paused for effect, and said, "I think it's only fair to warn you I have a black belt in origami!"

Catherine Lawrence is a speaker and humorist living and working out of Toronto. A lawyer by trade, a mother of three, Catherine has appeared on a number of television shows including Balance TV and Breakfast Television.
She can be reached through
She has her own Laughter Club where she works to help people find their own Laugh Muscle.