Laugh on the other side of your face

English: Watching a comedic television show he...

Watching a comedic television show helps provoke laughter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laughter’s good for you. We know this. It causes all sorts of healthy jiggling about of organs and ions and lively goings on inside you. It puts you in touch with yourself… in fact it does much the same as a vigorous massage. It connects you with yourself, and with the wider world.

You can’t be afraid when you’re laughing, you can’t be angry, you can’t move much, you can’t even talk properly. You can’t feel lonely if you’re laughing. It’s a Very Good Thing. You feel full of life

I mean proper laughter, not nervous laughter or tormentor’s laughter, which come from somewhere different in your psyche. I’m talking about the helpless, spontaneous, happy laughter that surprises and captures us.

Do you know… laughter is universal in humans, and in many mammals (probably all mammals, if we knew how they all laughed). We know how dogs laugh, and how rats laugh, and how chimps laugh.  It’s a social glue, it’s reassuring, and appeasing, and bonding, and is about more than responding to something funny. Laughter is infectious – can you hear someone laughing helplessly without joining in?

Laughter by tickling

Laughter by tickling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We laugh 30 times more often in company than when we’re alone. That’s why so many TV and radio comedy shows use a laughter track, to encourage us all to laugh together. We might find something funny if we’re on our own, and maybe it makes us smile, but it’s relatively rare to laugh out loud.

When was the last time you laughed until your ribs hurt? It’s SO good for us to laugh like that, that if someone hasn’t produced a laughter app, they should do. You should. We should. Anyone know about producing apps?

So if you haven’t laughed for a while, catch the bug from YouTube or Vimeo; go to a free BBC comedy recording; go to a comedy club, or best of all, go to a laughter club or workshop. Lie about with a bunch of people and laugh yourself to a jelly for no reason whatsoever. You feel fantastic afterwards!

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A touching remedy for the lonely

It’s clear enough that the sense of touch is important for babies – lots of people learn baby massage, and the sling is back in fashion so that infants are carried next to their parent’s body rather than at arm’s length in a pushchair.

But don’t we grow out of the need for touch?

Well… have you?

Children get as much touch as they like from their pets

Kittens never reject affection and are perfect for touch-deprived humans

I haven’t. I learned as a small child not to expect touch, and then to do without it. I had pets instead – dogs and cats, who adored being stroked and patted and weren’t ashamed to ask for strokes. Am I alone in relying on pets for innocent physical affection? Did anyone else experience this? Is this why Anglo-Saxons love their pets so much?

[Oh.. I’ve just remembered that psychologists in the 1960s – Eric Berne and then Thomas Harris – used the word ‘stroke’ to mean the emotional equivalent of a physical stroke: a compliment, praise, an endorsement, an award. Something that makes you want to purr. A feel-good moment. Imagine a cat stretching and purring under a stroking human hand…]

Touch is the first sense to develop in the human foetus. The skin is the body’s largest organ, and develops from the same stem cells as the brain. Frequent pleasurable touch for infants results in positive change in brain tissue, while chronic touch deprivation or trauma results in measurable brain damage. Lots of scientific studies have shown the critical importance of good touch to the developing infant and the growing child. It remains vital – touch-deprived adults may turn to food, alcohol or drugs to make up for the lack of physical contact, or adopt behaviours from promiscuous sex to shop lifting.

Think about your skin. There’s a lot of it, and it’s far more than a barrier between you and the outside world. it’s in organ, like your heart or your lungs, and in it are thousands of nerve endings which pick up a mass of information that help us operate and survive, give us pain or pleasure, and a whole spectrum of subtle emotions and reactions that we don’t consciously notice.

Think of losing all that information because you don’t get touched. For the elderly, who are the focus of current campaigns, loneliness is often the result of losing a spouse, family moving away, friends becoming housebound or dying… that’s bad enough and can be devastating. But imagine how appalling it must be to live your whole life, from childhood onwards, feeling out of touch, not connected, lost and alienated in a crowded world, because you didn’t get the touch your body and brain needed in your early years.

What about young adults who leave home to go to university or to a job in another city; dealing with a whole new world with only strangers around you, with none of the contact and support of home and friends…

And so on through life. Being deprived of touch is one of the key causes of loneliness, and getting touch is one of the key remedies.

Related articles

Keep in touch, make contact, only connect

A proper hug, with a simple, kind, loving intention, is the best prevention for loneliness

The best medicine

We use these words as metaphor. We don’t actually mean touch each other when we say ‘keep in touch’; we don’t mean touching someone when we make contact with them… EM Forster’s epigram “only connect” was his suggesting nothing more than a cerebral connection: no actual touching, thanks.

And that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

Cats have no hang-ups about being in touch

Cats need no excuse to cuddle up together

This is the first of a series of posts about touch, connection, contact, being hands-on. Touch is one of the three keys to curing loneliness – and for that matter, solving many of our human ills and failings.

Gerry Pyves, who trained me in bodywork techniques (aka massage), told us on our first session that he strongly believed that if everyone had one hour of massage every week, the NHS would be redundant. It sounded pretty outrageous at the time, but as I learned and observed and listened and read and experienced, I became convinced that he was right.

Massage – expert, intuitive, safe bodywork – does far more than make you feel relaxed, or smoothing out knots in muscles. It affects your mind as much as your body, and long-term can bring about radical changes that would amaze anyone who isn’t in the know.

More than massage, touch is the most neglected and misunderstood of our five senses, but one of the most important. Touch is critical in the very early stages of life, and probably the last sense we relinquish when we die.

But the matter of touch, or the lack of it, never comes up in discussions about loneliness. I’ve been monitoring this for 18 months – I have a Google alert for the word ‘loneliness’ and must have read hundreds of articles, blog posts, papers and studies about the subject. The only time the importance of touch has been implied was in short articles about someone inventing gadgets to hug you – most recently a vest which will ‘hug’ you when your beloved is away. But these are mechanical solutions, which don’t provide the living energy we need.

There is more than enough evidence – despite the lack of research into the sense of touch in mammals, let alone humans – to show that a key cause of loneliness is the lack of touch, and not just the lack of social activity. The sad irony is that the simplest of touches  – putting your hand on someone else’s shoulder, arm, hand – is the most effective way of dismissing loneliness. It needs no words, no explanation, no expertise – only a kindly intention. It’s not dangerous or expensive; it’s free, simple, and universal.

Academic approach to loneliness won’t find the answer

Yesterday and today (9-10 July) academics and social policy-makers are in Oxford at a conference on loneliness.

It’s vital that we understand more about loneliness, why it occurs, what it does to us, how to define and how to measure it. It’s great that so many agencies are coming together to tackle the problem, and good that it’s getting some media coverage.

I hope that the conference will lead to more radical solutions to tackle loneliness in the elderly – the group getting the most attention – which go further than tea parties and volunteers visiting. Can they find a balance between really effective solutions and dictatorial policies that shove people in directions they really don’t want to go in? It will be very difficult.

The problem, as I see it, is that the entire focus is on external solutions. The underlying belief is that the answer to loneliness lies outside the individual. It relies on other people. My belief is that this is fundamentally flawed. The answer must lie inside each of us.

Otherwise why would people surrounded by others still feel empty and desperately lonely? Why would busy people, famous people, sociable people all feel lonely? Why would individuals with partners and children living with them feel lonely?

There is more to it. There is a simpler solution. Loneliness is not a fact, it’s a feeling. Feelings can change. And they change inside us – emotions are chemical processes in the body, and although they are prompted by outside stimuli, they can be prompted by our own thoughts, and we can react to them in different ways if we are aware that we can choose. It’s about awareness, and finding the connection between ourselves and the rest of life, and it’s about a change in attitudes. Everybody will feel lonely sometimes, but nobody needs to feel lonely for long; life changes such as bereavement, illness or injury, unemployment, migration – all these can create intense feelings of loneliness, but stopping them from becoming long-term is perfectly possible.

The conference will be fascinating, and I’m confident they’ll come up with some interesting and productive conclusions, but they’re missing the point. We need to look inside for the answers, not wait for other people to bring us the solutions.