Not long ago I wrote about the giddy pleasures of the tall-tale form in the wildly exaggerated physical courage of Pecos Bill. Today I want to say just a few words more about the trusty shield of cream pie to the face.
According to research cited in the New York Times, laughter produces endorphins. The physical act of laughing, like any vigorous exercise, triggers the release of this "feel-good" chemical in the brain. It just plain feels good to laugh. We relax, we find new friendships through humor, we lower our guard. In fact, the growing international movement known as "laughter yoga" is taking this powerful tool into schools, workplaces, leadership seminars, and community organizations all over the world as a way of combating stress and raising productivity. There doesn't even have to be a joke - it's not an intellectual process where we find something funny, and then we laugh. Just laughing (fake, forced laughing sustained for a few minutes) will lead to genuine laughter. You know you've succumbed to giggling fits, laughing for no reason until tears run down your face. Rather than a silly thing to do, it's actually a powerful tool for promoting well-being.
Now consider what happens with fear and stress. The chemicals released by the brain under the influence of fear and stress are adrenaline and cortisol. These are the life-saving fight-or-flight hormones that prepare us to snatch children from the path of oncoming cars or withstand pain during emergencies. All our defenses are on high-alert, and when running away from a tiger, that's a good thing. But chronic exposure, especially to cortisol, from daily stress and anxiety can have serious adverse effects on the body and on cognitive function.
Gallows humor has long been understood as a powerful antidote to danger, uncertainty and risk. Prisoners in concentration camps or POW camps, soldiers on the front lines, first-responders and emergency room personnel, and citizens of repressive regimes have always found comfort and respite in laughter. It is recognized as an element of resilience, a way to bolster courage despite dire circumstances. Rather than mocking or making light of a serious situation, gallows humor can offer the body a chance to recover its internal balance when the going gets rough.
So here's the good news for Lion's Whiskers readers. Children love to laugh. On the whole, children laugh way more than adults do every day, and that's a wonderful thing. They are naturally equipped to boost their courage with the help of laughter. Does this mean you have to be a stand-up comedian or have an endless supply of knock-knock jokes? No, but it is a reminder that sharing family stories with your kids, especially the "most embarrassing moments" ones, is a great way to let your guard down, strengthen family connection, and counteract the harmful effects of stress. Don't wait for an anxious vigil outside the doctor's office to tell a funny story - tell one to your kids today.
p.s. for anyone who wonders about the title of this post, it's the punchline to a joke - two lions have caught a clown, and are eating him. One says to the other, "Does this taste funny to you?"