Plato deprecates laughter in the ‘Republic’. Aristotle too did not think that laughter was harmless. For Aristotle, we laugh at inferior things, because we feel a joy at feeling superior to them. The ridiculous is characterised by the display of self-ignorance, Plato felt.
However, the thinkers left the fact out that laughter can relieve the tension caused by one’s fears. A common sing-along by Eric Idle, originally featured in 1979 film ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, says thus:
“Always look on the bright side of life.
Always look on the light side of life.
Life is a laugh and death’s a joke,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep them laughing as you go,
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.”
What is the role of laughter in our day-to day lives? Do our schools shut out laughter ? How is laughter perceived in the visual arts? What role does it play for individual, societal growth ?
“Laughter is a part of human behavior regulated by the brain. It is typically a reaction to a certain stimuli, usually a joke. In neurophysiology, laughter is linked with the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that produces stress-busting endorphins. The endorphins give relief from physical pain and increases the level of antibodies, thereby increasing immunity levels,” says Dr Marykutty, clinical psychologist and assistant professor, department of psychology, UC College, Aluva.
From a psychological point of view, through laughter, there is a release of psychic energy and tension. Sigmund Freud largely viewed laughter as a defense mechanism, as a coping mechanism when one is upset, angry or sad, Dr Marykutty adds. Though laughter therapy is yet to gain currency, it provides a full-scale workout of muscles, is contagious, and can help relax mind and body, she notes.
In a world marred by conflicts, devastation, disasters and wars, it is not surprising that portrayal of laughter is neglected in works of art. Murals and portraits capture the smile, often enigmatic, a close example being the enigmatic smile of ‘Mona Lisa’.
“Laughter is an interesting way of exploring existential dilemmas. A few expressionist artists used the trope of the ambiguous, absurd laughter as a mode of defiance and desperation in the face of external chaos,” says Preetha, visual arts researcher. The evil laughter portrayed in Fransisco de Goya’s work ‘After Vice Comes Fornication’ is a pessimistic comment on human life, its follies and absurdities.
Narratives like cartoons also help explore the near mystical concept of laughter and what makes us laugh. “The media often celebrate the negatives. Akin to poetry that uses heightened language, the minimalism of cartoons can capture the lightness of grave issues. There is mirth and there is sarcastic laughter too. I believe in laughter that is without ridicule, and that does not come at the expense of others. When creatively used, the concept is a fuel for imagination,” says Sajeev Balakrishnan, secretary, Kerala Cartoon Academy.
For BTech student Anu, amidst the jam-packed academic schedules, it is a PG Wodehouse novel that provides some comic relief and a laugh. “Movies relieve the stress, no doubt. However, nothing like the comic genius of Wodehouse, with his distaste for great aunts,” she says with a wink.
Whatever the case may be, the world needs a good laugh. The World Laughter Day falls on January 11.