Happy New Year. I love it. It’s time to reorganize. It’s time to think differently. My mother always used to tell me that when one wakes in the morning, the troubles of yesterday must be forgotten. It is a conscious decision. It is important to wake up with a smile. In fact, smiling is one of the characteristics that defines humanity. The act separates us from most of the animal kingdom.
There is a woman who lives in the senior care facility with my father. Her name is Sophie. Like my father, Sophie has some serious memory issues. A few weeks ago, when I moved my father to Sonoma, she came right up to me, fact-to-face, and smiled the biggest smile one could imagine. She doesn’t speak. I smiled back.
The next day, I brought my 12 year old son for a visit. As soon as we walked into the locked wing, Sophie came skipping up to us and looked my son in the eyes and began laughing. She wouldn’t stop. Soon he was laughing. I began to laugh. The caregivers were all laughing. It felt great.
The Hank McCune Show debuted in Los Angeles in 1949. The show did not have a live audience. This situation comedy was placed on a national primetime schedule from 1950-51 and was the first such show to use a laugh track. The show was discontinued, but the laugh track has stood the test of time. Though understanding jokes is purely a human phenomenon, laughing is not.
Researchers believe humans inherited the response to laugh from our closest relatives. When baby chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas are tickled, they laugh. In the evolutionary process, laughing helps us to create and maintain social bonds. The evolution of human brains is linked to the evolution of laughter. As humans began to populate the world in great numbers, social complexity required the brain to also evolve at a rapid pace.
Though controversial, some evolutionary biologists believe that the human brain did not evolve to address complicated subsistence strategies such as how to hunt or develop tools for survival, but to deal with and better cope with living in larger groups.
Researchers Marijuan and Navarro note that chimpanzees spend 20 percent of their time grooming, an activity that strengthens bonds between individuals. They believe that language evolved as a way to establish and strengthen bonds within a large population in a short period of time. They also content that laughter is an extension of this process, ultimately leading individuals within the group to flourish. Of course, if individuals within groups flourish socially, the outcome will be interaction of the intimate kind.
Donald Brown, in his book Human Universals, found that laughter is a trait found in all societies. He asks, “is laughter a cultural phenomenon or a trait that evolved through time?” Children who are born both deaf and blind still laugh, though they cannot see or hear those around them laughing. This suggests that laughter is a genetically coded trait.
In 2010, I made my first visit to the southern Egyptian city of Aswan. I met dozens of people as the Sonoma Sister Cities delegation visited with dignitaries, observed schools and had incredible encounters with the Egyptian and Nubian peoples of southern Egypt. There were many meetings and at times language was a strong barrier. As we entered into a new room with new people, the first gesture of commonality was not the extension of a hand or sharing a hot cup of tea; the first cordial expression was a smile.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why we smile or laugh. All that matters is that it makes us feel good. We certainly may not laugh at the same jokes, but nothing beats a warm touch and a sweet smile. That’s my New Year’s resolution, to do it more often.