Yesterday, I sat down in the midst of a circle of women at the retirement center. Mine had been a long day and I was inwardly chortling about an email I’d received from a young woman. Laughter is best when shared, so I told my companions about my invitation to a writer to appear as a guest on an upcoming Just Read It segment, the 10 minute book discussion on YouTube book which I co-host with fellow writer, Susan Stoner. Most people jump at a chance because they can promote their books before we move on to a discussion of the novel at hand, always a title from the New York Times best seller list.
The young woman to whom I’d extended an invitation had several questions, so I emailed her a link to the latest show. As it happened, the segment was rife with laughter. Susan, our guest and I held such varied opinions, I mused we’d probably read different novels. Nonetheless, I hoped our congeniality would be reassuring. I was wrong. The writer declined my invitation, saying the program “didn’t suit her style.”
The circle of women around me broke into guffaws, as I’d hoped they would. After all, who could object to laughter? “Isn’t it good for your health?” someone asked. I nodded, but my reply was irrelevant. Nature has the final opinion and according to researcher Gina C. Mireault, Nature thinks so highly of laughter that the behavior isn’t one we learn but arrives with us at birth, “factory installed.” (“Laughing Matters,’ by Gina C. Mireault, Scientific American Mind, May/June pg. 49) Mireault speculates it’s the glue that brings people together, though I confess, I’ve enjoyed a few belly laughs on my own. (Ibid pg. 49.)
As far back as Aristotle, people have been curious about laughter. The philosopher thought surprise was an essential element. As I don’t find all surprises pleasurable, I’ve never entirely agreed. What’s more, reading and rereading James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times brings happy tears to my eyes though I can recite the words by heart.
Research corroborates my opinion. Surprise isn’t the essential ingredient for a good laugh. What matters is incongruity that doesn’t threaten. (Ibid, pg. 48.) If we were to observe a red ball floating through a wall, we’d be surprised, in awe and, possibly, afraid. But when a clown pops the same red ball on to the tip of his nose, a child laughs, knowing it doesn’t belong there.
An infant may laugh at a sneeze thinking it strange, but humor matures as we interact with others. We avoid taking ourselves too seriously, for example, lest we provoke the unwanted laughter of tose arund us. When I told my Just Read It story to the circle of women at the retirement center, I relied on them to understand that principle. Happily, they did.