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Divine Humor: How Laughter Benefits Us Spiritually

A good belly laugh goes a long way toward making most of us feel better, but is there a spiritual benefit to it?
Divine Humor: How Laughter Benefits Us Spiritually

It was 45 minutes to my cousin’s wedding reception in Nashville, Tennessee, and my mom was driving. I had my cousin’s vanilla-frosted, two-tier wedding cake on my lap. My mom made a sharp left turn, and the box went flying. The cake was smashed against the dashboard. Frosting was smeared all over the inside of the rental car.

I glared at my mom, ready to let her have it. Then burst out laughing. Not just a few giggles. More like gut-busting laughter. Pretty soon, my mom was laughing too. Tears streamed down our cheeks; we couldn’t have stopped if we tried.

We made it to the reception and even managed to make the cake look somewhat presentable. Weeks later, though, I was still scratching my head over the incident. Why on earth had I laughed? The moment had been freeing, cathartic. Almost spiritual. As if the laughter was coming from deep within my soul. Could it be that my laughter wasn’t just a senseless reaction to a potential disaster? But, rather, some sort of gift from God?

Curious, I brought my questions to Father James Martin, a Catholic priest and best-selling author of My Life With the Saints. In 2011, Father Martin wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. Father Martin was dismayed that so many of the Christians he met assumed faith was strictly a solemn matter. Laughter is actually a tenet of faith, Father Martin told me. “The endpoint of the Christian life is joy,” he said. “Yet we don’t privilege joy as much as we do suffering.”

There is plenty of humor to be found in the Bible. When Nathanael in the Gospel of John hears about Jesus, he remarks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” According to Father Martin, Nathanael is throwing shade at Nazareth, a joke lost on many modern readers.

“A large part of the Gospels was written to explain the Passion narrative, so we tend to focus on those stories over the ones in which Jesus was more joyful,” Father Martin says. “But the Passion was only one week of Jesus’ life. Let’s not forget his first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding celebration!”

That doesn’t mean taking Jesus’ miracles or his messages lightly. But “if you think of Jesus as always serious, then your ability to relate to him as a person of joy is limited,” Father Martin says.

If even Jesus knew the importance of laughter, does that mean that God actually wants us to laugh more? Yes, says Susan Sparks, author of Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor. Sparks is a former trial lawyer turned minister and standup comedian. She says laughter is uniquely human. “We are the only creatures that really laugh,” she says. “And since we’re made in the image of the divine, that must mean God laughs too.”

Ergo, laughter is innately spiritual.

“There’s something fundamentally holy about it,” Sparks says. “If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. If you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others too.”

Laughter can even heal. Sparks recalls her battle with breast cancer 10 years ago. She credits laughing with speeding up the recovery process. “Being able to laugh in a place of pain was the most powerful thing I could do to take my life back,” she says. “I’m not sure how I was able to laugh in the middle of all that. But it was something I tapped into within myself that helped me survive.”

Indeed, the health benefits of humor are well-documented. Norman Cousins, author of the groundbreaking Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration, was one of the first to popularize the idea of laughter as medicine, in 1979. Cousins had overcome a painful battle with connective tissue disease by prescribing himself laughter. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he wrote.

Recent scientific findings support Cousins’s “joyous discovery.” According to a 2011 study from the University of Oxford, laughter triggers the release of mood-boosting endorphins and increases an individual’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. In 2005, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that laughter increased blood flow by about 22 percent. It’s no wonder that Dr. Michael Miller, the study’s principal investigator, recommended “15 minutes of laughter on a daily basis.” Hey, can I get a prescription for that?

Still, most evidence of laughter’s deep-rooted benefits is anecdotal. Take Debra Hart, a nurse, lay minister and member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. In 1997, Debra found herself alone in a church parking lot, contemplating suicide. She was overwhelmed with grief after the death of a close friend. In the midst of her pain, something remarkable happened. “As I was thinking about ending my life, a joke popped into my head.” It was a joke she’d heard at church about a man sitting on top of his roof during a flood. A group in a rowboat comes by and offers to help him, but the man replies, “God’s going to save me.” A motorboat arrives, followed by a helicopter. The man’s response is the same. Finally, the waters rise and the man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “I sent a rowboat, a motorboat and a helicopter!”

Something inside Hart clicked. Laughter bubbled out, releasing her pain and sorrow. “I kept thinking that I didn’t want to die and hear God say, ‘I sent you a motorboat!’” Hart says with a laugh. She called a psychiatrist and entered counseling. In the 20 years since, Hart has made “mirth-filled laughter” the focus of her work.

“It’s the kind of authentic laughter that makes your stomach ache,” Hart says. “Several studies suggest that this specific type of laughter can raise your good cholesterol and even lower your blood sugar.” That’s one reason many people have started to practice laughter therapy, which teaches them how to use laughter to release tension.

“If you can laugh, then you’re breathing,” Hart says. “When you take that breath, you’re reconnecting with the world. And with God.”

I thought back to my cousin’s wedding cake. How I knew, on some level, that things would be okay as long as I could laugh. Father Martin was right. Laughter isn’t just a biological reaction. It’s a divine gift.

Why do we laugh? Because we’re created to.

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