Laughter as a Spiritual Experience


Once upon a time, a young bride-to-be went into a fabric store. She asked for fifty yards of chiffon for a nightgown. The surprised clerk asked why she needed so much material. She explained, ‘Well, my fiancé is a Unitarian Universalist. He would rather seek than find.’

Amidst the stresses of 2017, we live in a golden age of comedy. The Fringe Festival includes about a thousand comedy acts, ranging from stand-up routines to scripted plays with large casts. Live stand-up comedy is popular in the United States also. Last June a stand-up comedy festival in California drew 45,000 people. And comedy shows on the web are very popular, including a one-hour special on Netflix that following a comedian as he performs for a month at the Fringe. In 2016 Netflix released 19 new stand-up specials. This year they are releasing a new stand-up shows at the rate of about one week.

In my review of American Unitarian sermons in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. I could find no jokes. However, these days American Unitarian ministers often tell jokes in sermons.

At the annual meeting of the America Unitarian Universalists held in June (2017), my colleague, Rev Cheryl Walker spoke to 4,000 of us. The size of the gathering is important because, we humans, are much more likely to laugh in the presence of others if others are laughing. She started her sermon by describing a Facebook post that urged people to ‘badly describe your profession,’ Walker described finding responses from ministers who badly described their profession. One minister said,

‘Once a week I talk about stuff I’m interested in, and I get mad if everybody doesn’t come to listen. The rest of the time I worry about money.’

Another said, ‘I patrol the parking lot making sure no one is parked in the spot reserved for the minister.’

A third said: ‘On Sunday I tell people they can make the world a better place. When things don’t improve that week, I repeat myself.’

Rev Walker was not the only minister who did this. Other sermons I heard from colleagues at the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists included humor.

The Hebrew Testament contains one of the oldest records of laughter. In Genesis God and Abraham talk. Abraham is one hundred-years-old years old and his wife is ninety-years-old.

‘God said, ‘As for Sarah your wife . . . I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’

According to the scripture, at the thought of his ninety-year-old wife having a son, Abraham fell on his face laughing. In spite of Abraham’s laughing at God, Sarah did have a child, and he was named Isaac, which means laughter.

In the 1990s a movement called ‘holy laughter’ was developed at a Pentecostal church in Toronto. ‘Holy laughter’ is a term used within charismatic Christianity that describes a religious behavior in which individuals spontaneously laugh during church meetings. According to descriptions I have read, laughter starts with jokes from the minister and builds into a contagious laughter response by the congregation. Many in the congregation laugh so hard they stagger and fall to the floor wailing, laughing, and making animal sounds. Pentecostal visitors experience holy laughter service and carry the ‘Toronto Blessing’ back to their home congregations passing on this church specific laughter.

Hindus also engage contagious laughter. In Bombay an ancient yoga breathing exercise based on laughter has been transformed into a booming enterprise called the Laughing Clubs International. Started in 1995, the clubs have grown to over 2,000 chapters, with a web site laughter online University. After starting with a warmup unison ho, ho, ho, ha, ha, ha, the group moves on to more esoteric variations with mouth open and close. The favorite laugh posture is standing with arms raised above the head, this is similar to the posture Christian Pentecostals use when performing their own holy laughter in Toronto. A Global Laughter Yoga Conference was held in June (2017) in Frankfort.

Why do we laugh? The philosopher Plato said laughter helps us feel superior to other people. For example, consider this story that was ranked as ‘the world’s funniest joke’ in a study at a British University. Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says, ‘Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.’ There is a silence; then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, ‘OK, now what?’

In the joke we feel superior to the stupid hunter who shoots his friend to make sure he is dead. We are too smart to make such a stupid mistake. Plato though that it was wrong to laugh at the foolishness of others and he urged people to refrain from laughing. Plato would not have felt at home at the Fringe.

Sigmund Freud developed another explanation as to why we laugh. Laughter, Freud said, is a way in which people can release our pent-up thoughts in a socially acceptable way. These include pent-up thoughts about death, sex, marriage, authority figures, bodily functions, anything that is socially unacceptable to say. To Freud, humour provides a kind of relief, a way of coping with the problems of our lives or issues that we are embarrassed or reluctant to confront. Freud might say the purpose of the hunter joke is to release our pent-up feelings about death.

In many jokes, there is an apparent release of repressed thoughts about such topics as sexual fidelity. For example, a man has six children and is very proud of his achievement. He is so proud of himself that he starts calling his wife ‘mother of six,’ in spite of her objections. One night they go to a party. The man decides that it's time to go home and wants to find out if his wife is ready to leave as well. He shouts at the top of his voice: ‘shall we go home, mother of six?’ His wife, irritated by her husband's lack of discretion shouts back: ‘anytime you're ready, father of four!’

In 1979 the American Writer Norman Cousins published his book called Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient suggesting that a purpose of laughter is to help us heal. Although this has become popular, so far little empirical research has been done on the effects of laughter and health. The best-known research, which claims that people who laugh have healthier immune systems, is based on studying only five people. 1
Immune System Changes During Associated Laughing, 1991. Berk.

In the words of one expert:

The evaluation of health issues of laughter in humour is at a very early stage with most of the important work yet to be done. . . . Faster and better physical healing to laughter remains an unrealized, tantalizing but still reasonable prospect. (Robert Provine).

The philosopher, Henri Bergson, argued that the purpose of laughter is to communicate with other people. Dr Robert Provine at the University of Maryland spent ten years studying laughter and came to the same conclusion. In his book, Laughter a Scientific Investigation, he argues that laughter evolved as a way to interact with other people.

Dr. Provine recorded and studied many conversations. He documented that in general, men tell the jokes and women supply the laugher. He also looked at personal advertisements in newspapers and documented that many women seek men who make them laugh, and many men try to comply with this request.

In a study of spontaneous conversations between mixed sex pairs of young German adults who were meeting for the first time, the more a woman laughed aloud during these encounters, the greater was her self-reported interest in seeing the man again. A man’s laughter did not indicate interest in the woman, but men were interested in seeing again women who laughed a lot in their presence. The laughter of the female, not the male, is the critical positive indicator of a continuing relationship. Also, simultaneous male and female laughter was a predictor of mutual interest.

Laughter, researchers conclude, is one way we communicate attraction or lack of attraction in relationships. Laughter is a form of communication that plays a role in social bonding, in solidifying friendships and pulling people into the fold. Most ministers know this. We tell jokes as a way of solidifying a religious community, a way of pulling people into the fold of the congregation.

So, there are several reasons why we laugh.

• Plato said laughter helps us feel superior.
• Sigmund Freud said laughter how we express our
• taboo thoughts in a socially acceptable way.
• Norman Cousins said laughter helps us heal.
• Henri Bergson said laughter is one way we communicate.

I have yet another reason why we laugh. I first read it in a book by the science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein. In his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land. Robert Heinlein invites us to imagine that a highly rational and logical Martian comes to earth where he tries to understand our culture. The Martian struggles to understand why human think things are funny.

After weeks of trying to understand, one day the Martian breaks out into uncontrollable laughter. When he finally calms down he explains to his human friends ‘I have found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts . . . because it is the only thing that will make it stop hurting.’

I agree with Robert Heinlein. We laugh to help in order to cope with the tragedies in our lives, both small and large.

In 2005, my eighty-eight-year-old aunt was living in a wonderful home on a small stream in a small town in the western United States. Along the stream one-hundred-year-old cottonwood trees were growing, providing shade and homes for birds. One day a rain storm dumped about five inches of rain in the canyon above the small stream and a flash flood came rushing down. My eighty-eight-year-old aunt got to high ground, but her house of twenty-five years was swept away in the flood, along with the one-hundred-year-old trees. I talked on the phone with my aunt, shortly after this disaster. I ask her how she was feeling. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I have to look at the positive side. When it was clear we were going to lose the house, we had about an hour when everyone ran in and carried everything thing they could out into trucks. I discovered that you can get a lot of stuff out of a house in an hour when you have many people helping.’ She paused, then she said. ‘As for the rest, I had wanted to go through and throw out a lot of stuff and clean the house. Now I don’t have to!’ And she laughed.

On the deepest level, laughter is a spiritual affirmation, a source of faith in people and in the future.

Copyright Roger Fritts, used by permission,
given in St Mark’s on 20 August 2017

Rev Roger Fritts is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church in Sarasota, Florida, USA. He was our guest minister in 2007.

Roger, and his wife Rev Leslie Westbrook, spent a few weeks in August last year enjoying the Edinburgh Festivals. We were very pleased that Roger found time to lead our worship on 20 August 2017, and we are delighted to print an edited version of his address. It was a pleasure to renew our connection with Leslie and Roger.