THE MEANINGFUL SCIENCE OF LAUGHTER
Giggle doctors may not sound like a real thing, or at least, you might think they only exist in cartoon form or on some sort of film set; either way, you’ll be surprised to find that they’re actually quite real. If that surprised you, it’s likely to presume that you’ll be even more surprised to find that they also serve a rather legitimate, medical purpose, too. If you’re not surprised by this, it’s possible that you’ve already encountered these so-called giggle doctors, but in essence, they’re the entertainment “physicians” who come to cheer up very young children with all manner of music and laughter. This is done most often for children who spend the majority of their time bedridden in the hospital due to illnesses that are effectually robbing them of their childhoods in some senses.
This isn’t a pity party. Giggle doctors are brought in not because they or the hospital in question feels that these sick and disabled children just deserve to have some fun once in a while — though they do, indeed, deserve it. They’re brought in because there is a fairly institutional consensus that the cliché, “laughter is the best medicine,” is not entirely devoid of truth. These giggle doctors believe that there is a medical benefit to laughter itself, and many medical scientists agree. The only problem is that it’s very difficult to quantify that benefit. Theodora Children’s Charity deploys members of a team of only 25 giggle doctors to about 33,000 such children throughout the UK every year for that reason.
The children who receive these visits are under the age of 15 and are members of a populace of some 1 million British children in total who are hospitalized every year. In other words, they can’t get to everyone, but they stretch as far as they can with the resources they have. On average, a giggle doctor sees about 25 children per visit, spending some ten minutes with each of them individually. That one giggle doctor will get to about 1,000 children annually. Giggle doctors aren’t medically trained professionals; rather, they’re trained in how best to work with disabled and sickly children as well as how best to cooperate with hospital staff.
The study of laughter is known as gelatology, and March 19 was National Let’s Laugh Day in the US. It’s true that there is some existing research to suggest that laughter bolsters the immune system and relieves tension, but it’s not necessarily humor that serves as the optimal trigger for this or even the ideal conduit for it. Dr. Robert Provine, an expert gelatologist, claims that the company of another person or people is the most likely reason why you would laugh out loud. Statistically, it’s far more likely that any laughing you do is around others than it is alone with a movie or in response to a joke.
There was a meta-review conducted in 2012 of a collective of studies on humor in the workplace, and it found a very significant, measurable correlation between overall productivity of a workplace with both team cohesion and the development of effective coping mechanisms for stress. It was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and one Florida International University psychologist based in Miami. It’s since been bolstered specifically for labs by popular, Canadian business speaker, Michael Kerr.CREATISTA via Shutterstock
In lieu of this, researchers also caution that the drawback to a productive lab full of laughter could, like any other place, succumb to harmful teasing, which can cause the group cohesion to break down. “Make sure you’re not harassing somebody or singling someone out,” Sophie Scott said on the subject. She’s a University College London cognitive neuroscientist. “Banter can be bullying,” she added along with the fact that saying it’s just a joke isn’t reassuring enough to undo the harm. There are also, of course, the opportunities for jokes to go bad not just in the sense of harming someone but also in the sense of failing to be funny.
The idea behind the study’s findings, though, is that labs are generally well served to incorporate laughter into their workflow. Researchers, like any other employee at any other workplace, benefit greatly in their work if they can bond socially through laughter in such a way that does not isolate any of the labmates on the research team. Theoretically, the science actually benefits, and this is especially valuable for alleviating the stress of graduate studies, which can be frustratingly isolating in the first place.
A great example might be a lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where a PhD student in physical chemistry, James Utterback, holds the reputation of a prankster. In late 2015 when a laser system was delivered for his group’s solar photochemistry studies, he got some comrades to help him help him carpet the student office’s floor, printer, and desks with its bubble wrap. They hid and watched for their colleagues’ reactions, and both groups laughed and entertained themselves with the bubble wrap all day. Even thereafter, Utterback later got back to his office and found that he’d been supplanted with a bubble-wrap mannequin adorned with clothes, a wig and the name “James 2.” His bubble-wrap doppelganger was constantly moved from one person’s desk to another’s whenever everyone was out of the room, seemingly doing everyone’s work.
“Working with James  was seriously delightful,” according to Amanda Grennell, a Montana science writer who got her PhD at the same lab in August 2017. “Pranks gave my brain a much-needed break from both work and stress” — the moral of the story, of course, being that laughter is a strangely and unquantifiably beneficial phenomenon. It’s so beneficial socially that it’s considered medicine to a greater extent than some people realize in that it’s actually administered as such in clinical contexts, and though its biological purpose is, thus far, indiscernible, it does seem to bear measurable results in various ways.
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