David Servan-Schreiber | August 2009 issue
Jerry Seinfeld‘s father sold neon signs and often took his son from one local store to the next. His father loved funny stories, and he never failed to tell one to a potential client. Often as they got back into the truck, Seinfeld’s father would say, “We may not have sold anything to that guy, but we sure did have a good laugh. You see, that’s the beauty of my job. Whatever happens, there’s always a good laugh.”
Laughter is like a ray of sun that brightens our lives. If this brilliant light occasionally manages to lighten things up during the day, we’ll lie more gently at night, still bathed in its softness.
Laughter is a magnet. As children at the playground, we gravitated to the kids who seem to be having the most fun. (It’s said that children at the age of 5 giggle or laugh between 20 and 100 times a day.) In the college dining hall, we wanted to share meals with the friends who made us laugh the most. Later in life, in the office cafeteria, we often wished we were sitting with that other group hooting with joy instead of the taciturn co-workers we felt compelled to join.
Laughter creates bonds. A cologne advertisement in the 1980s showed Hollywood director Woody Allen saying, “My seduction technique is 1 percent the right cologne and 99 percent humor.” But laughter isn’t just seductive. When I was in college, I ran into a fellow student from Italy on the subway in New York. We laughed so much about what it was like to be foreigners who didn’t understand American social customs that I clearly remember his name to this day, though the long ride was all we shared. And I know that if we ran into each other again, this instant friendship would still be alive 30 years later.
Sometimes laughter forges a unique relationship. Pascale and Karl have been married for 15 years. They’re studious and dedicated by nature; neither is considered a jokester by their friends. But one day, Pascale told me a secret about their relationship: “People don’t consider us particularly funny, but we make each other laugh all the time. After all, that’s much better than the other way around.”
Laughter is contagious and uncontrollable. It’s like yawning, but more fun. All you have to do is start watching and listening to people laughing hysterically and you’ll start feeling a little tickle in your stomach that rhythmically contracts the diaphragm and takes control of your breathing, your voice and your facial muscles. Laughter has taken over, which is what pleasure is all about. It’s like good sex—feeling a release into another state of being, a state filled with lightness, with circulating energy, with joy. So simple, so accessible, yet so satisfying.
In our bodies, in our physiology, each episode of laughter facilitates the circulation of life. Numerous studies have shown that our blood pressure falls, blood and oxygen pass more easily through our coronary arteries, the two branches of our autonomous nervous system return to a better balance, and our immune cells become more active against viruses and cancer.
One day I was considering why I had abandoned a successful university career to dedicate myself to my work as a clinician and teacher. I understood I had made that choice in part because—compared to researchers and academicians—we clinicians don’t take ourselves as seriously and laugh a lot more. This is probably because of our constant contact with human beings immersed in life. I had left academia much like an animal that migrates south in the winter: I followed the sun of a vibration that generates happiness, connection and health. I’ve never regretted it.
David Servan-Schreiber is a French psychiatry professor and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac and Anticancer.