chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: October 2023 | Voting & Elections

Words of Wellbeing: Laughter

Eric York Drogin

Words of Wellbeing: Laughter Zigic

Jump to:

“Laughter is the best medicine.”

Lawyers—especially those who are compelled to hire doctors as expert witnesses—know that there is rarely any unanimity of opinion in the medical field.  Nonetheless, despite the predictable objections of the pharmaceutical companies that love them not wisely but too well, we can count on a healthy number of our caduceus-wielding colleagues to line up behind this perspective.  Even cardiologists and laparoscopic surgeons are willing to endorse the eventual hearty chuckle or belly laugh, as long as enough postprocedural time has elapsed to keep their patients literally as well as figuratively in stitches.

Perhaps the most visible promoter of the cackling cure is Kentucky’s own Clifford Kuhn, M.D., who goes by the anything but sobering sobriquet “The Laugh Doctor.”  Jibing in support of rather than at the expense of patients, Dr. Kuhn is described here as having “learned to appreciate the healing benefits of laughter” on the basis of “working intensively with cancer patients and their families.”  A professional comedian in his own right, Dr. Kuhn often presented seminars with the late Jerry Lewis—the original Disorderly Orderly—on laughter’s manifold medical benefits.

Ironically, the lifestyles of those who produce laughter for a living are typically anything but a model for sustained wellness.  Writing for Forbes, Lipi Roy, M.D, MPH asks “If Laughter is the Best Medicine, Why are So Many Comedians in Poor Health?”  Among the interview-based answers provided are “isolation,” “long periods of traveling,” “poor diet,” “lack of sleep,” and a general tendency to “go a long time without seeing a medical professional.”  Does this seem uncomfortably similar to life on the road for the multi-jurisdictional peripatetic pro hac vice litigator?  Self-neglect in the service of day-to-day professional pursuits is no laughing matter.

If laughter is the best medicine, is it possibly the best defense as well?  Not according to George Washington, one of a minority of our non-lawyer Presidents.  He opined far earlier than either Jack Dempsey or Pat Summitt that it was actually a good offense that was often “the surest, if not the only” defense, at least “in some cases,” as preserved on the website for the National Archives.  This does not mean, of course, that humor has no place in the courtroom, or that it cannot turn the tide in counsel’s favor when applied judiciously, as it were.  If lawyers want to pursue that quaint, humanizing, icebreaking laugh, then they are best advised to do so on their own instead of leaving such antics to the witnesses.  Counsel won’t be asked on cross-examination, for example, “just what’s so funny, doctor, about my client’s injuries?”

Abraham Lincoln, the quintessential lawyer President, would surely have flourished on the then-burgeoning vaudeville scene had he progressed from rail splitting to side splitting instead of professional politics.  The Hope Charter School has curated a number of Lincoln’s one-liners for posterity.  When described once as a “two-faced man,” he replied, “if I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”  Upon encountering a soldier even taller than his own then-phenomenal six foot four frame, Lincoln remarked “say, friend, does your head know when your feet are cold?”  When he lost a senate race just two years before becoming elected President, he joked that “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe; I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh.”

It isn’t necessary to attain a certain age in order to laugh; in fact, as confirmed by Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D. in a Scientific American article, “we laugh even before we can speak.”  Dr. Stierwalt identifies laughter as a phenomenon that “clearly serves a social function,” as “we’re almost 30 times more likely to laugh in a group,” while “young children between the ages of 2.5 and 4 were found to be eight times more likely to laugh at a cartoon when they watched it with another child even though they were just as likely to report that the cartoon was funny whether alone or not.”  Cited in the same article was a social scientific study in which research subjects listened to “simultaneous laughter” and “determine the level of friendship shared by the laughers,” with the result that “they could reliably tell the difference between people who had just met and those who were long-time friends.”

The doctors at the venerable Mayo Clinic have posted a list of “scientific benefits of laughter and humor.”  These include such clearly welcome developments as the ability to “relieve pain,” “improve your mood and decrease depression and anxiety,” bring us “closer together,” afford a “new perspective,” “reduce tension,” “improve your immune system,” and “increase resilience.”  Overall, laughter “is also good for your relationships,” given that it “serves as a powerful tool and safety valve for dealing with conflict,” in addition to which “you cannot overdose.”  This is all well worth considering for those of us whose day jobs are played out within the context of what can seem at times to be a relentlessly adversarial system.

If laughter is such a cure-all and overall hot commodity, where are we most likely to find it?  Beyond resorting to standup, sitcoms, and silly movies, we sometimes find it socially expedient to produce this condition on our own.  Authors Molly Edmonds and Joseph Miller describe the nature and quality of what they term “etiquette laughter,” by means of which we “tend to laugh with anyone who can help us out, which is why a group of undergraduate students may guffaw at a professor's bad joke, while a job applicant's attempts at humor may fall flat with those who are already gainfully employed.”  Indeed, judges observe wryly on occasion that “as soon as I got on the bench, my jokes became much funnier.”

Whatever its source or sincerity, laughter is as solid an investment in wellness as any of us are likely to find—and that’s no joke. 

 [reprinted with permission of the Kentucky Bar Association]