Here's to Laughter

I’ve read that the average four-year-old laughs about 300 times a day. By the time we hit 40, our daily laugh quotient goes down to four. Did you know there’s actually a science of studying laughter? It’s called Gelotology. If it were my job to study laughter, would I still find it funny? Or would I be the jolliest person around?

The other day I was testing new audio software and needed some sound files in order to experiment. Instead of pulling clips from my archives, I started surfing my favorite site for free sounds, which is appropriately called freesound. One thing led to another and pretty soon I was engrossed in listening to clips of people laughing. Why not make my software test a thoroughly happy experience, I reasoned.

As I listened to all the laughs, I found a lot of fake ones and a lot of sinister ones. “Evil laugh” is a popular theme. But when I stumbled across ones with genuine laughter, the gut-busting variety, I couldn’t help but laugh myself. I didn’t need to hear a joke or even know why these people were laughing. Authentic laughter made me laugh. We’ve all had that experience, I’m sure. The Gelotologists probably have a fancy word for it. I just call it contagious laughter.

Science tells us that laughter triggers endorphins, promotes social bonding, reduces pain, and causes us to breathe in more oxygen— all of which make us feel better. And I only scratched the surface of the laughter literature to uncover these findings. Yet, I really didn’t need any studies at all to tell me that laughter makes me feel good. In fact, of all the sounds in the world, laughter might be my favorite.

I wrote once about My Grandfather’s Laugh. I have a collection of old family recordings and could easily listen to him speak for hours on these tapes, luxuriating in the deep timbre of his voice and the cadence of his southern accent. Yet it only takes a few seconds of hearing his laughter to conjure the full essence of him. When I hear him laugh, it’s like he’s right beside me again. [If you’re curious, you can hear a clip of his voice and laugh in the post.] It seems to me, that good-spirited laughter touches the essence of us all.

At the end of my software experiment, I had a 47-second laugh track in which I’d woven together three separate recordings of women laughing real laughs. They are hearing something we cannot. We are left to wonder what is being said in their headphones to cause such riotous guffaws. Further, the three tracks were recorded independently, so the women are not actually laughing in response to one another or even to hearing the same things. I simply put together all the laughs I liked best, my own little symphony.

Of course, this leads to only one logical conclusion. You should stop whatever you are doing right this minute and laugh. Just laugh. We might not be able to match the average four-year-old in laughing 300 times a day, but we can try, can’t we?

In case the audio player embedded in the story will not play on your device, click laughter to hear it.

Photo and sound credits: Girl laughing via Flickr by tom@hk; laugh tracks from recorded by sagetyrtle.

In Search of My Grandfather's Laugh

I am a pack-rat of the highest order. I save everything. Well, not everything. I save memories. Photographs, letters, old cassette tapes with recordings of friends and family, and ancient family movies. But the problem is that if you save everything, you sometimes can’t find what you need when you need it.

For months I had been thinking about an old cassette tape that my father recorded for me on the weekend of my graduation from high school. While I was out at parties with my friends, my father recorded messages from family members visiting for my graduation. What I remember most from that tape is my grandfather’s laugh. I kept replaying the tape in my mind, but I desperately wanted to find the real thing.

My grandfather, Forrest Lee Mathews, was a booming presence, someone who was prone to taking people by surprise when he spoke. He said exactly what he thought—no mincing words. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a down-to-earth eye on the world. Every time I listened to the tape, I could feel the delicious tension in the room when my father asked his father to record a message for me. My grandmothers had just delivered their messages, short and sweet, and while I cherish the sound of their voices on that tape, I can hear their discomfort at being recorded. “Lucy, we are so proud of you,” said one. “We are so happy to be here, Lucy,” said the other.

When the microphone got to my grandfather, I could practically hear the collective holding of breath as everyone waited in anticipation of what he might say. He began to speak slowly, with all the natural warmth and charm that was his essence. I have always wondered if he thought in advance about what he would say, or if he simply made it up as each word rolled off his tongue. In his gentle southern accent, he proceeded to deliver a message that surprised everyone and resulted in laughter around the room. I think even he was surprised at how funny everyone found his comment. He, too, began to laugh, and got so “tickled” (as we say in the south) he barely got his closing sentences out. The moment is so candid and real, the laughter so unplanned and so true, that I feel lighter when I listen to it. And I feel closer to my grandfather. It’s as if he’s in the room with me.

The good news is that I did find the tape. The clip here is for anyone who is curious to know exactly what my grandfather said that day.  And I’m now taking more seriously the chore of cataloging and organizing all my pack-rat treasures because they hold so many important memories for me.

But the bigger question that has arisen for me from all of this is: how do we “archive” the ones we love? What bits and pieces, handwritten notes, recorded audio do we select to create a full picture of someone? Bigger yet, perhaps, how do we archive ourselves? What is the essence of me that I will want my granddaughter to search for one day?

Of course, there is no simple checklist. The answer is personal to each one of us. In thinking of my grandfather, I wanted most to hear his laughter. In fact, that’s a sound I cherish about everyone dear to me. But there’s so much more that can help create a full picture of someone– hearing a narration of a familiar story; reading a handwritten letter that captures a moment just after it unfolded; hearing someone speak about what matters most to them; and, of course, looking at photographs or watching a home movie. We can capture so much in this digital era, but how do we make sure we capture the most important things?

So I am posing the question rather than answering it– what relics or treasures are most important to you about the ones you love or about yourself?  Is anyone else a pack-rat like me, squirreling away treasures of memory? (I know you’re out there!) What do you keep and why?

**In case the audio player above does not work, you can also listen to the clip at: