“To the extent laughter or any of the positive emotions, can block panic, depression, despair, we have a therapeutic ally.“ –Norman Cousins
I am grateful for and in awe of the prescient philosophers and scientists who were foretelling the good news about humor and laughter long before it could be proven scientifically.
To my mind, it is significant and essential to begin here by reviewing and bringing to your attention Dr. William (Bill) Fry, Jr.’s 1964 report to NIMH: FINAL PROGRESS REPORT – PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE Grant. No. MH 07665-01, (Covering the Period – April 1, 1963 to June 30, 1964).
Title of Project: A Classification of Emotive Laughter Responses. Principal Investigator: William J. Fry, Jr., M.D.. Institution: Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation, 860 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, California.
Forty-seven years ago, after more than a year of studying the topic, he made a clear and strong recommendation that laughter would be a suitable field of study. A few excerpts from that report are in order (and remarkable).
“There is much intuitive and subjective, but also unorganized and undisciplined, material about laughter – mainly in the humanities. There is an almost complete absence of objective, organized, and meaningful information about laughter – particularly utilizing modern technical developments and disciplines that have flowered during the past fifty years.”
“We have achieved valuable specific results during the past year. 1.) The most crucial result has been the establishment of a framework for what promises to be a productive and significant study of laughter. This framework is cornerstoned by the concept of laughter as emotive behavior relating to a variety of emotions, with implications relevant to the psychological, and perhaps physiological, homeostasis of the human. We divide the study of laughter into two general categories – 1) laughter as an acoustic phenomenon, of communicative (in ‘the broad sense of the word’ – “Communication Theory”) and interpersonal importance; (2) laughter as a physiological experience of homeostatic, psychosomatic, perhaps even survival, importance. This division is also appropriate to the talents available in our research teams – Linguistics and Medical Electronics.”
“It has been our decision…to extend and expand the study of laughter. A large-scale project is being designed and will soon be presented to NIMH in the form of a grant application. In the meantime we are continuing our study on an informal, unfunded basis.”
“On the productive side, the project team has been convinced by the various experiences of the past year that a large scale investigation of laughter is feasible and is desirable. Techniques, procedures, hardware and personnel are all available to allow for significant contributions to be made to a science of laughter. [N.B. Fry put the next sentence parenthetically, but I have removed that punctuation for emphasis.] “The science of laughter was formally established in March, 1964, by the origination, by Dr. Edith Trager, of its name – Gelotology, from the Greek root, gelos (laughter.”
Having coined the term “gelotology” to mean the science of laughter, Fry became the first self-proclaimed Gelotologist. Recently, I asked him what happened to his recommendation because it did not appear that NIMH had acted on it. He replied, “Vietnam”, indicating his belief that any thoughts anyone might have had about pursuing research about laughter had gotten put on the back burner due to severe budgetary restraints. Given the current politics of budgets, we may not be much closer than we ever were to adequate funding for research and application, but I am glad that therapeutic laughter is achieving the credibility it deserves. Bill is glad, too.