Introducing Gelotology

There is a school of thought that suggests laughter really is the best medicine.

Yesterday was April fools day, and on that day, Richard Mullen, a humor therapist from Georgetown spoke at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Massachusetts according to an article, No fooling; local humor experts says skip the pranks and just laugh, in The Daily News Online.

One small criticism, I wouldn’t be so hard on pranksters as the reporter of this event apparently is. Pranks are valuable learning experiences for all involved. Pranks pull the rug of pretension out from under high and low alike. Pranks can be used to re-humanize an increasingly mechanistic world. Pranks offer hope for the future.

Mullen is a self-prescribed gelotologist — itself a funny word — who has studied humor and laughter and the effect it has on the human body. And that part’s no joke.

Gelotology has, as do all sciences, a history.

He also talks about two pioneers in the field of humor therapy, Norman Cousins and Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, and shows videos of old comedians such as Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny, who were notorious for getting people to laugh, not necessarily for their material, but for their approach.

I imagine this is only the tip of the history iceberg as Kings and Queens of antiquity kept jesters and fools to keep themselves in good humors. It should be noted that fools and jesters often kept Kings and Queens for their amusement and good health as well.

Laughter has its health benefits.

Richard Mullen says the health benefits of laughter include:

• Stimulates the immune system
• Lowers blood pressure
• Increases blood flow to the brain
• Clears lungs and airways
• Reduces pain and depression
• Strengthens core muscles
• Feels good

I imagine there are additional mental health benefits to be gained from laughter beyond that of merely lifting depression. You can’t be serious, after all, about your so called mental illness if it is the source of much laughter, and if you can’t be serious about it, how serious can it be?

4 Responses

  1. Not that long ago about half the stuff you see in the media nowadays would have been an April Fools joke.

    • Direct to consumer advertising of drugs the FDA approved for uses other than those for which they were designed. Antipsychotic Abilify for depression. Antidepressants that don’t do anything except please psychiatrists. Waterboarding. Abu Ghraib. 9/11. Shoe bombs. Promoting the myth of “Safe” shock devices, and getting away with it. Still existent eugenic practices. Ethnic cleansing. These things couldn’t be happening in reality. Yeah, I think somebodies playing one whopper of a April fools day joke on everybody.

  2. Actually, jesters were the only person in the kingdom who were allowed to speak truth to power. They were there to keep the ruler grounded in reality.

    • With the Kings permission, of course. I don’t think the ruler, were he an absolute ruler, would have let even jesters speak the truth if he didn’t have a soft spot for them.

      Jesters, and fools, were the entertainment of the day, much like the comedians of today.

      The word “jester” comes from Egypt, a reference to an entertainment in the courts of the pharoahs, wherein dwarves danced for the amusement of the royalty. “Jester” is a rough translation of the phrase “dancing dwarves from the land of the spirits.” The belief that dwarves came from the “land of the spirits” is key to the concept of the fool, a figure imagined as “not all there,” somehow only partially in this world while still connected to another.
      Jesters, Fools & Madmen: The World Turned Upside Down

      There’s etymology for you, and more than a little bit of superstition.

      The “natural” fool was someone who was by nature–by birth–foolish; we would say mentally disabled. Poor nutrition and inadequate medical care produced a much larger number of such people than we are accustomed to today, and some of them were lucky, or clever, enough to make a living from their simplicity. It was after all a society that found madness (mental illness) entertaining.

      The “artificial*” fool was altogether different. He deliberately acted simplicity, oddity, or eccentricity, in order to entertain, and sometimes indirectly to give advice*: “This is not altogether fool, my Lord,” says the disguised Kent to Lear, after the Fool has indirectly pointed out Lear’s own foolishness (1.4.153). As Lear’s Fool knows, the fool was traditionally given licence to speak out where others had to be silent.
      ~Jesters and fools

      Breaking with tradition was probably more threatening to royalty than it was to other people, royalty itself being such a tradition.

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