Laughter recurs twice in this week’s parasha. Sarah laughs when she hears that she will give birth at age 90 and then Yitzchak is born just one year later named from the word “to laugh”.
Sarah’s laughing actually gets her in a bit of hot water with God but I wonder if the laughter didn’t serve her well?
A study about laughter was published in 2007 by Heidi Beckman and others. This study was not about humor but about laughter, so Dr. Beckman was looking just at the physical act of laughing, not the psychological effect of being amused. (You can have laughter all by itself without humor but a good joke is usually accompanied by laughter – or it wasn’t so good!) Dr. Beckman’s basic question was, “Does laughter make you feel better about your job?” What do you think? If you laughed more at work or in school, would you do better?
In Dr. Beckman’s study she had 33 people who worked in a large mental health facility take part in a 3-week program. The first meeting was 45 minutes and then just 15 minutes each day. Think about that – just half your lunch break and you might have a totally different attitude toward work. Well, what happened?
The study showed that this 15-minute intervention helped people with self-regulation, motivation, optimism and assertiveness up to three months later. It wasn’t just at the end of the program, these effects stuck around a good long time. Now, to be perfectly honest, I am not sure all the benefits came from laughter. There were other aspects to the intervention including yoga, working with colleagues, feeling capable when they got it right and some humor from all the laughing so we cannot ascribe all the benefits to the physical act of laughing. But the bottom line is that the intervention of laughing is pretty simple, doesn’t take much time and does have long-lasting effects. And, like chicken soup, it certainly can’t hurt!
One possible explanation for why this worked is that many, many people have a tendency to remember every mistake or negative interaction and keep replaying that. The fancy word for this is rumination and it may be the biggest problem that we humans have, in my opinion. I think the laughter helps us break that cycle. Once we stop beating ourselves up we can start to flourish. This break from the negative thoughts can come from a good laugh, from meditation or from countless other positive psychology techniques.
Think about it from Sarah’s point of view. She has been married to Abraham for decades and did not conceive. I am sure she was stressed and upset about it and perhaps prone to rumination, I know I would be. Then Abraham has a child with Hagar and this may have only added to the negative thoughts running through her head. And then she has a really good belly laugh that breaks the cycle. One good laugh (and a little help from God) and Sarah’s tension is broken and she finally gets pregnant!
So take a cue from Sarah and have a good laugh. Maybe you’ll get in a little bit of trouble for it but it just might help you break through to a whole new place in life.
The research mentioned in this blog is Beckman, H., Regier, N., & Young, J. (2007). Effect of Workplace Laughter Groups on Personal Efficacy Beliefs. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 28(2), 167–182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10935-007-0082-z