Scotland’s Finest Asset: Banter

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SBL-logo-strap-med“Scotland’s finest asset: Banter.” These are the comments of Willie Rennie, Member of the Scottish Parliament, included in the press release that went out yesterday in advance of this Friday’s national event: Scotland’s Big Laugh.

For anyone who has missed the news, Friday 24th January marks Scotland’s Big Laugh. The event follows on from last year’s, held on the same day in five city centres across the country, only this year it has a truly national twist. The core hosting team of Starcatchers and Suzanne Zeedyk Ltd are joined by Hearts & Minds — the Clowndoctors and Elderflowers who bring hope and laughter to children in hospital and to elderly people with dementia. We were delighted when Willie Rennie joined in by asking if he could put forward a Parliamentary Motion on the event!

A Parliamentary Motion on laughter? Is the man serious? Yes! That, in fact, is the point of the whole event, captured in its slogan: getting serious about silliness.

Our culture discounts the power of laughter. There’s a ton of scientific evidence about its power to foster health. The more you laugh, the less likely you are to get a cold or suffer a heart attackNorman Cousins is said to have cured himself of debilitating arthritis by training himself to laugh hard every day. The movement for a Global Belly Laugh Day, from which Scotland’s Big Laugh stems, was founded by a yoga teacher – and yoga is all about taking control of your own health.

Two-old-people-laughingLaughter has the power to heal emotional trauma. You know when you’ve had a fight with somebody you love? You’ve truly made up when you are laughing together again. That’s the attachment process in action. The empirical study of attachment, through techniques such as the Strange Situation Paradigm, has taught us that it isn’t a rift between two people that is most telling for the long-term health of their relationship. Rather, it is the way the two people make up. Once you are laughing together again, you know the fight has passed. Scholars have even proposed that laughter in humans may have developed as a way of sharing the relief that danger had passed.

Babies know how to purposely provoke laughter in others before they know how to talk to them. As described in Vasu Reddy’s award-winning book, How Infants Know Minds,  non-verbal babies know how to tease, how to get the timing of jokes right, how to play the comedian. Their ability to do this is fascinating. It means babies are able and keen to interpret the intentions and attention in other people. They play with those intentions, learning how the boundaries of personal relationships work. Am I allowed to tease in this family? Does trust between us still exist if I push against the boundaries? How emotionally flexible and resilient are you and I within our relationship? In some families and childcare settings, the answer is ‘not much’. Some children aren’t allowed to push against boundaries. Such behaviour is regarded by adults as disobedience, rather than play, leading to scolding or even punishment. (Remember my earlier blog, describing the books that advocate spanking infants with electrical cords, to train them out of disobedience?) Children, with their rapidly developing brains, can quickly learn that teasing is a place of emotional danger, so they come to feel anxious whenever they find themselves there. That anxiety can last a lifetime. Anxiety isn’t good for health…

Even the philosophy of some of the most popular speakers in the world is grounded in laughter. The perspective of Marianne Williamson, best-selling author of numerous books on love and healing, recently turned political candidate for the US House of Representatives, is based on the philosophy called A Course in Miracles. That philosophy asks: when was it that we humans ended up so angst-ridden, so bound up in the trouble caused by our personal egos? The answer: when we forgot to laugh.

Amongst the numerous categories I could name that point to the importance of laughter, what I really want to do is ask a question: Why do we underrate the importance of laughter? Why do we tend to think it is ‘merely’ entertainment? …cute? …the stuff of ‘time off’? …superfluous to the important stuff of which our days are made?

If laughter promotes health, then it saves the NHS budget. If laughter reduces anxiety, then it is essential for children’s learning. If laughter strengthens family bonds, then it prevents divorce. If laughter helps us calm down, then it keeps people out of prison. Yet we do not hear of laughter being seriously proposed as an institutional value, as a job remit, as a policy aim, as a way to raise school standards, as an early years intervention, as a prison prevention programme, as marital advice.

Why don’t we take laughter seriously? Why would it take an extremely brave headteacher to propose laughter as a strategy for enhancing pupil achievement – but no one would think twice if additional behaviour management techniques were proposed? Why does the work of Hearts & Minds, in bringing laughter to children in hospital, strike so many people as a bit ‘out there’ –- and it could be amongst the first initiatives to be cut in a time of austerity? As taxpayers, would we have been as willing to fund the Play Talk Read Bus if it had been called the Play Talk Laughter Bus?

Beloved Scottish comedian Billy Connolly

Laughter isn’t core to what we see our professional services as delivering. We see laughter as an extra. We somehow tell ourselves we need to focus on things more important than laughter. Laughter becomes entertainment – something we personally pay comedians money (lots of money!) to provide us with. Comedians, on the other hand, are often wiser. Many have discovered it is a way to preserve their own sanity.

So Scotland’s Big Laugh is an attempt to help us all get serious about silliness. It is the effort of a few tiny organisations to spread curiosity and courage throughout the whole country. What would it take for our Presbyterian nation to begin believing that laughter is the place from which we start making the big changes we want, including that of greater economic productivity? What would it take for us to believe that it is laughter that shines a light in times of darkness and laughter that fights the fear hiding deep down in all of us humans? What would it take for that last statement to sound obvious rather than eccentric?

Its not at all too late to take part. Here’s all you have to do:

  1. Decide what you or your organization (or family or school or childcare setting or business or institution or…) are going to do to promote laughter on 24th January. Funny hats? Tell jokes? Forward a great youtube clip to everyone in your Contacts List? Hire in a comedian? Hold a laughter yoga session?
  2. Write to me or our Facebook Page or our Twitter Account to inspire everyone else with your plans.

If you want to catch up on the daily laughter countdown we’ve been running on our Facebook page, or to download any of our posters, you can do that here.

And if you find yourself feeling the slightest bit nervous about publicly promoting laughter to the whole of your organization, just remember that Willie Rennie MSP has been promoting it to the whole of the country! On my last count, his Parliamentary Motion had been endorsed by 26 MSPs. That took courage on all their parts. And it also took vision, for the motion states that they “look forward to 24 January being an annual celebration of the importance of laughter in people’s lives and in Scotland.”

eyc_featured-220x220That means that this week, Scotland is becoming the first nation to embrace the spirit of Global Belly Laugh Day since its creation nine years ago. If that sounds an outrageous national vision (especially for a nation subject to dark rainy skies in January!), then remember we’ve recently been outrageous on other fronts. The Early Years Collaborative has staked Scotland’s claim to being the best place in the world to grow up. That vision is not going to be possible without children being treated to lots of laughter along the way…

So whether you have a vision for the nation or just want to sprinkle a bit of cheer around your corridors, please join with the many other organisations and families already signed up to take part this Friday, 24 January.

And what if you reading this blog, based somewhere other than Scotland? Feel free to copy us!

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