The Gift of Laughter: What Exercising the Funny Bone Can do for Older Adult Ministry
Everyone likes to laugh. It is not only enjoyable, but it is good for us. Laughter can improve a person’s mental state and physical well-being. Several studies indicate that laughter can reduce blood pressure and stress, alter the mood in depressed individuals, and lead to social bonding. Older-adult leaders recognize that laughter also has a spiritual value that goes well beyond the endorphins and relaxation it produces. Laughing is a known coping mechanism for those enduring suffering, a distracting technique to use with those who are experiencing profound grief. It reorients people who are struggling with despair toward a more hopeful outlook.
The spiritual and therapeutic value of laughter has proven itself over the course of history. It was celebrated in Jewish life and even used by Jesus with his disciples. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, notes that Jesus used irony, satire, and humor to help make his point with his disciples. After the publication of this book, a flood of books followed that recaptured the sense of humor of the ancient Middle East.
Humor also proved to be a survival factor in the experiences of those interred in the concentration camps in World War Two. Various survivors recounted how powerful laughter was in helping them survive the horrors of the camps.
The challenge of using humor is that not everyone finds the same things funny. Moreover, some humor is particular to specific cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. Much of our humor may seem strange to those outside the community of people who created our humorous stories and jokes. Enter Laughter Yoga, which overcomes this barrier by giving a person the effects of laughter without relying upon the usual triggers. In doing so, Laughter Yoga also becomes the stimulus to further laughter.
A medical doctor from India, Dr. Madan Kataria, created the modern practice of Laughter Yoga to overcome these challenges. Knowing the value of humor for his patients and himself as a therapeutic method, he had created lunchtime comedy clubs that gathered in the central park in Mumbai to laugh. He noted some jokes had fallen flat and other jokes quickly became stale because everyone already knew the punchline. So he developed the practice he later named Laughter Yoga, or doing exercises that simulate laughter through eye contact, childlike playfulness, spontaneous creativity, and breathing exercises. Those who participated in his exercises discovered that the body could not distinguish between these exercises and real laughter. Both had the same positive effects. Participants in Laughter Yoga discovered that planned laughter often became spontaneous laughter as a result of the exercises.
As a result of these early experiences, Laughter Yoga became a methodology that has spread. The technique became known worldwide after the 2002 publication of Dr. Kataria’s book, Laugh for No Reason. Organizations continue to develop new Laughter Yoga exercises, have vetted expert instructors who teach the technique, and there is a rigorous certification process to ensure quality Laughter Yoga experiences.
Laughter Yoga can be easily and quickly learned by people of all ages with very little formal training, practice, or instruction. It can be as easy as reading through one of the Laughter Yoga manuals listed at the end of this article or exploring online videos of groups practicing Laughter Yoga. Many simple exercises can be effectively employed with even frail, wheelchair bound, impaired, and sensory challenged individuals.
Laughter and Laughter Yoga should be in the toolbox of older-adult Leaders. Laughter and joy are powerful components for good aging. Laughter is a great tool for bonding small groups together because it is a shared experience that group members can enjoy together. Moreover, it can also be used for intergenerational group building. Friendships arise as children, youth, and older adults laugh together.
Laughter is not only therapeutic, but it is fun entertainment for fellowship meals, vacation Bible school, and church school openings. Laughter can even be a part of devotions or worship. Indeed some churches include laughter as a part of special worship services, such as a post-Easter and Christmas Sunday worship or as a Summer Vespers Worship Service. When they do, they call it a “High Holy Humor Sunday Worship or Celebration.” Usually a feature of such services is members being allowed to tell their favorite jokes (there should be rules in place to do this, such as humor should be kept clean and not be abusive of any group) and Scripture lessons and proclamation being built around scriptural passages of humor. Laughter can also be used in pastoral care situations by clergy and lay volunteers when visiting homebound members. One church produced a video of their favorite jokes and laughter exercises and included it as their Christmas gift for homebound older adults. The technique is easily adaptable to a variety of ministry contexts. One older adult termed it her older-adult ministry duct tape: “Because just like duct tape, you never cease to find new uses for it, and it always seems to help hold things together.”
Laughter is a gift from God. Humans are the only animals in the animal kingdom who laugh on demand in response to emotional and intellectual stimuli. Laughter reaches a part of our spiritual selves as well. Even people with cognitive impairment laugh, and laughter is a coping mechanism for people who are enduring fearful and hurtful situations. It is something older-adult leaders should try in their work and program design. We have included some resources for exploring humor below.
Resources for the Use of Humor
Laughter Yoga: Exercises, Jokes and Spiritual Stories by Nils Horn. Available free from Amazon as a Kindle download (2013). Contains diagrams and descriptions of techniques to assist people in learning to laugh.
Laughter Yoga - For Business and Pleasure by Thomas Flindt, available cheaply on Kindle. Reviews the value of laughter as a technique and shows how it can be used in group settings.
505 Best of Laughter Exercises (Spiral-bound) by Sebastien Gendry, Laughter Online University Press; 1st edition (2015). A sourcebook of Laughter Yoga Exercises and how to best employ them.
Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life by James Martin, HarperOne Reprints (2012). Contains numerous humorous stories, jokes, and puns, but also theorizes about how and why laughter is a gift from God.
The Humor of Christ by Elton Trueblood, Harper & Row (1975). Still a classic and a great sourcebook in helping older adults to allow themselves to laugh in various serious situations.
The Humor of Jesus: Sources of Laughter in the Bible by Earl F. Palmer, Regent College Publishing (2001). Great sourcebook for clergy wishing to preach on humor in the context of a High Holy Day of Humor worship.
Laughter Yoga International Official Site: http://www.laughteryoga.org/english
American Laughter Yoga Club: http://www.laughteryogaamerica.com/
Laughter Yoga Institute: http://lyinstitute.org/
Christian Joke Collection Website: http://jokes.christiansunite.com/#
TedTalks Humor Channel: https://www.ted.com/talks?topics=humor