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Laugh often

The Tuesday before my college early-action deadline, everything hit me at once. After four consecutive classes, I had absolutely no energy to double-check my essays in the Quiet Room. I decided to “do work” instead of actually being productive; I beelined for the main library, sat myself down at a table full of friends, and halfheartedly pulled up my Common App. 

Then one of my funnier friends started complaining about his own college-app situation. A few minutes into his jokes, Ms. Dow had to come over and personally reprimand us for our uncontrollable laughter. But, buoyed by the suddenly jovial mood, we kept going, each of us chiming in our own gripes until I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. 

I don’t even remember what we were saying—I just remember the warmth I felt. Did I get anything done during that X block? Absolutely not. But the happiness and connection we had in that moment, a brief spark in an otherwise humdrum Tuesday, outweighed anything productive I could have done. I didn’t realize just how much I needed a laugh.

In our BB&N lives, we don’t often think about how potent laughter can be. Stanford Business School has shown that the older we get, the less we laugh; as babies, we laugh around 400 times each day, but by age 35, that number drops to 15. Additionally, Gallup poll data reveal Americans laugh far less during the week than on weekends, suggesting that we haven’t made nearly enough room for laughter during our nine-to-fives.

That’s a real pity. I like to think of myself as a laughter-loving person, and I hate the thought of living out the rest of my life in grayscale. So, given that the stress and panic we feel now are highly unlikely to evaporate once we’re handed our diplomas, how can—and why should—we make laughter a priority?

Let’s start by looking at how laughter passes through our brains as told to me by my mother, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s resistance mechanism for pain and stress. Endorphins bind to the opioid receptors on our neurons, which gives us a pretty good idea of how they make us feel. The word “endorphin” itself comes from “endogenous morphine” because endorphins are our bodies’ way of giving us a euphoric high that is at times even more potent than opioids like morphine or heroin. Endorphins aren’t addictive like heroin, though, as PBS NewsHour explains: enzymes in our brain break down endorphins once they’ve bound to the opioid receptors, while exogenous opioids stay intact, prolong the high, and unnaturally increase the body’s tolerance.

Interestingly, a 2011 study from Oxford University reported that the endorphin-releasing effect of laughter comes not from the good mood it evokes, but from the physical act of laughing itself. In other words, we don’t feel better because we hear something funny, but because we laugh in response to it. What does this mean for us? Well, plenty of things occur at BB&N that make us smile—a bad joke, an ambitious lunch creation, even an over-the-top What’s Happening email—but unless we actually laugh, we won’t reap laughter’s stress-relieving benefits.

Laughter is an intrinsically communal phenomenon, having evolved from our most primal, tribal instinct for social connection. Not only does the physical act of laughter cause endorphin release, but the sight of friends laughing provokes us to laugh in turn, fostering a sense of group closeness and bonding. Laughter causes us to let our guards down and brings us together. Without it, society would have evolved very differently.

Since we’ve developed around laughter’s ability to make us happy and bring us together, why aren’t we laughing enough? That’s a big question, but I think I may have an inkling. Whether at school, work, or home, we don’t stop to appreciate the fleeting moments toward which we offer a small smile before we go back to worrying. 

As an example, in math the other day, Mr. Rollinson was explaining antiderivative notation; you write the antiderivative of f’ as F’. “Now, how do you think you’d write the second antiderivative? An even bigger F?” he asked, and drew a comedically large F on the board. We could have smiled politely and moved on, but we didn’t. In response to that moment of gentle humor, we laughed till we couldn’t breathe and found ourselves in a better mood for the rest of the day.

Or when Mr. Williams enlightened me with the knowledge that Shakespeare’s son was called Hamnet—not Hamlet—prompting me to almost fall out of my desk laughing. And not to mention orchestra last week, when our somewhat bored violin section decided we’d all play as quickly and as loudly as we could, throwing everyone off and dissolving into laughter.

I know sometimes it’s hard to unwind and let ourselves go. But if we all look out for those little moments of laughter, we can step toward making BB&N a better, happier, and more connected place.

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