Robin Graham

Interview with Annette Goodheart, Ph.D.

The following interview, conducted by Antoinette May, appeared in the September 1988 issue of "Science of the Mind".

When many people see you for the first time, you are laughing. They see a lady standing on a stage or in a room laughing uproariously. Do you do this to relax your audience?

AG No, I do it to relax myself. I do it for me.

It seems to work for the audience as well. In a short time, they are laughing with you.

AG Yes because laughter is highly contagious. In spite of that, many of the people still need a reason to laugh. A few laugh right away, but most are very nervous about the whole thing. They talk to each other while I'm laughing 'Who's this woman standing up there laughing for no apparent reason ? Is she crazy ?' They're very uncomfortable, but that's part of what I want to demonstrate. That discomfort provides the audience with an immediate and direct experience of what my presentation is about.

Does the discomfort come from the sense that you're out of control?

AG Much of the time, yes. In fact, laughter is all about control: when we laugh, how we laugh, what we laugh about, who makes us laugh, why we stop laughing, how we stop ourselves from laughing - all that is about control because laughter is literally the loss of control.

But you do get people laughing before long and some even laugh so hard they cry.

AG That's not surprising because laughing and crying aren't opposites at all. They're a continuum. And once you realize that laughter doesn't come from happiness, then laughing and crying are seen as being side-by-side.

What do you mean, laughter doesn't come from happiness?

AG William James said it very well: 'We don't laugh because we're happy, we are happy because we laugh.' Laughter doesn't come from happiness, it comes from tension, stress, and pain.

I notice sometimes in movies that people will laugh in situations where it seems totally inappropriate.

AG Sure. But why is that inappropriate?

Because the laughter doesn't fit in with the tragedy or whatever's happening on the screen.

AG Right. And there's the assumption again that people laugh when they're happy.

I always imagined that people were laughing in the sad parts because they were nervous about what was happening, since sometimes I laugh when I'm nervous.

AG Exactly. That's what much of it is all about, for instance, I operate on the assumption that certain laughter rebalances the body chemicals produced by fear. A different kind of laugh will rebalance the internal chemistry of anger. These painful emotions produce stress chemicals in our bodies, but nature has given us natural cathartic processes to rebalance those chemicals. They are processes like laughing, crying, sweating, yawning, trembling, and raging.

In other words, not just laughing, but all forms of catharsis are health producing.

AG I believe so.

Has this always been your area of interest?

AG Yes, but in the beginning I tried doing it with a paint brush.
Sometimes, like any artist, I'd fall in love with a part of my canvas, but in order to make the canvas work, I'd ultimately have to paint that part out. To leave it would have been like falling in love with a sentence and trying to write a book around it. The struggle came because I was so attached, while the breakthrough lay in letting go. Getting in touch with feelings about something specific is the beginning of the road to catharsis.

Painting is a process of confronting yourself, as is writing or any other creative effort. You must face yourself over and over again as you confront an empty canvas or a blank page. Basically, what I did when I painted was to play with my colors. I'd splat some paint on and see what it said back to me. We'd have a dialogue - and basically that's what I do in therapy.

Which is...?

AG Cathartic therapy as I practice it involves four basic steps. First, you get in touch with your feelings. Second, you release them through catharsis. Third, you rethink the situation or the experience associated with the feelings, which now has become possible because the chemical rebalancing in your body allows you to think more clearly. Then, finally, you take whatever sensible action is appropriate.

Going from painter to therapist must have been a huge leap. How did the transition come about?

AG It wasn't really such a huge leap, because there are many similarities. For instance, what I do in my work is an art, and I use many of the same techniques one uses as an artist. As an example, therapists use the technical term 'reframing' all the time, which is right out of the art world and means virtually the same thing: to put a different frame around the content in order to see it from a new perspective.

But there are benefits to the art of therapy that were not available in the art of painting. I actually left painting because it was such a lonely business. When I went into therapy as a patient during the breakup of my marriage, I began to relate more and more to people. Soon I realized what I wanted most was to work with people.

Once I completed my training and became a therapist myself, I found I didn't miss painting at all. There was no void: everything I once did with painting, I now did with people.

What brought you to laughing?

AG My mother was a great laugher and her mother was as well. I was raised with a lot of laughter around the dinner table. We were a very impersonal family but we laughed a lot. I believe it saved our lives.

In terms of your work, was laughter your focus from the beginning?

AG Catharsis was my focus from the beginning, and laughter was the easiest way to achieve it. I'd actually been using laughter as a therapeutic tool for about eight years when I heard that Norman Cousins was coming out with a book on his healing through laughter. In fact, I met with him and we discussed it rather thoroughly. And I also got the message: a famous person was about to put laughter on the map...and I had this wealth of clinical experience and information.

It was an idea whose time had come.

AG Exactly. Numerous opportunities had appeared in my life. Some I'd taken and others I'd not, but whatever I did, the process had been pretty unconscious. This time, however, I had total awareness of what I was doing. I was going into the laughter business. I came back from the meeting with him and immediately called the University of California. 'How would you like a workshop on laughter?' I asked. They laughed.

And that laughter proved contagious?

AG Yes. I went to other campuses, then the people who came to those workshops wanted me to do repeats for their hospitals, welfare departments, churches, clubs, and so forth. It wasn't much different from doing what I'd been doing on a one-to-one basis for years, but now - suddenly - large groups were interested. There'd been seminars on humor before but never on laughter itself.

Is there a difference between laughter and humor?

AG Yes, and recognizing that difference is a real key to understanding the healing power of playful laughter. Humor is intellectual, a way of viewing the world. There've been a lot of studies on humor, but no agreement on what's funny. You think certain things are funny and I think other things are funny, because we have different senses of humor. We may cross over in certain areas, but there will still be basic, individual differences. People in Russia are amused by different things than we are here. There are differences between someone in New York and someone in California. A man's idea of 'funny' is often different from a woman's. These differences go on and on.

Laughter, on the other hand, is universal. It's a profound process that involves every major system in the body. It's spiritual, physiological, and emotional. It's not intellectual, except perhaps - with adults - after the fact. Think of the kind of laughter babies do. When we see a baby laughing, nobody says, 'Doesn't that baby have a wonderful sense of humor?'

Most people think our sense of humor is what causes us to laugh, but it's really the other way around. And we would have more opportunities to laugh if we didn't think we have to agree on what's funny. Laughter doesn't need a reason to be - in fact, laughter is unreasonable, illogical, and irrational. Laughter exists for its own sake. Infants provide a good example of this, because they learn to laugh first and later on develop a sense of humor, which is a playfully intellectual way of relating to the world.

What are the health benefits of laughing?

AG They begin with the dilation of the cardiovascular system, which enables us to keep our flexibility. Initially, when we laugh, our heart rate and blood pressure go way up, then they drop down below our norm. That's wonderful for those constricted blood vessels that cause high blood pressure. We know that four-year-olds laugh five hundred times a day, while the average adult laughs only fifteen times a day. If we could laugh as frequently as a four-year-old, we could have the heart rate and blood pressure of a four-year old.

Next, as the diaphragm convulses in laughter, our internal organs get massaged, which is what keeps them functioning, plump and juicy. As we gulp in massive amounts of air, our blood is highly oxygenated. The air that is expelled during laughing has been clocked at seventy miles per hour, so we know our respiratory system is getting a tremendous workout. We also lose muscle control, which relaxes the skeletal system.

Also I believe laughter is one of the things that causes our brain to produce hormones called beta endorphins, which reduce pain, and our adrenal glands to manufacture cortisol, which is a natural anti-inflammatory that's wonderful for arthritis.

Does this apply as well to the laughter that comes from teasing and tickling?

AG Yes, however teasing and tickling are very hurtful, and the resulting laughter is actually a way of dealing with that hurt. The laughter doesn't mean the person is enjoying what's happening.

Basically, teasing involves our having information about something that another person has very strong feelings about - usually painful feelings - and then bringing that information up without permission. Now it's possible that if you and I became very good friends we might, at some unconscious level give each other permission to push each other's buttons. Husbands and wives, lovers, and people who are very close sometimes play with each other's pain with permission. But when you tease without permission in order to trigger laughter, it's very manipulative and controlling.

Playing with another's pain is common in this culture and it certainly does nothing to promote trust. Quite the contrary, it makes people afraid to reveal themselves for fear they'll be betrayed. No child gives us permission to tease, and often when we do, the child develops a tremendous shyness. Many people who are teased as children are terrified of laughter - their own as well as other people's. They were laughed at so much that they now react negatively to laughter as though it was always aimed at them.

And tickling?

AG Think of it this way. Racist, ageist, and sexist jokes are a form of intellectual ridicule. Teasing amounts to emotional ridicule. And tickling translates down to physical ridicule. When I was a young mother, I tickled my babies because they laughed. I believed that laughter came out of happiness; so if they laughed I thought they were happy and I was a good mother. I tickled them a lot and now I wish I hadn't. They had no choice but to be tickled and were victimized by my needs.

I think the reason so many of us have a hard time touching one another as adults is that we've had our physical space invaded in some kind of similar, threatening way.

Some of your group work focuses on the sharing of embarrassing experiences, doesn't it?

AG Yes. Embarrassment is a form of light fear and it's a universal condition. Every culture has expectations of its members - 'You're supposed to do this and that and the other' - and everyone desperately tries to live up to those expectations. The tension arises from the discrepancy between the expectations and who we really are. That's what creates the fear we call embarrassment.

Charlie Chaplin illustrated this beautifully. He was always posing, so elaborately polite, yet he was a bum. Remember the routine where he was starving to death and proceeded to eat his shoe, all the while posturing elegantly ? The difference between who he really was - a starving man - and the elaborateness of his manner was what created the tension that caused us to laugh. Chaplin's humor - which is based on embarrassment or light fear - is universal.

We're all a little like that starving man. At some point we realize that the pretending, posturing and posing doesn't work. We make mistakes, we fall short, we don't meet those expectations. By listening to someone else's embarrassing moments and sharing our own and then laughing, we form a wonderful connection. The shared recognition that no one's perfect, the laughter that flows back and forth, the sense of camaraderie that's evoked, is a marvelously therapeutic thing.

You have said in your seminars, "Just because you're miserable doesn't mean you can't enjoy life." What do you mean by that?

AG We may have relatively little control over the events in our lives, but I think we really do have a choice about how we respond to them. If there's something missing we're miserable about we can still inject joy into it. We all have that power. We're not hopeless victims of our feelings. We can be serious about our problems or enjoy them. If we're going to have a problem, mightn't we just as well enjoy it ? Anyone can do it. I work with a lot of cancer patients, helping them to enjoy the process of having cancer.

How can you actually enjoy cancer?

AG What are the options? A person has cancer. I'm not suggesting that the person should laugh at himself because he has cancer. The laughter that's healing has to do with releasing the tension which is set up by how we relate to what happens to us. In other words if a person drags around feeling depressed, all that tension and feeling about having cancer becomes part of the sickness, increasing the severity of the problem, not being part of the solution.

Can you give me an example?

AG A woman came to me at a workshop and said, after some crying, that she'd like to be able to laugh about her ovarian cancer. I suggested that she say 'I have ovarian cancer, tee hee.' The 'tee hee' was up in her head and it didn't make her laugh. So then I suggested that we move down her body's energy centers. We started with "I have ovarian cancer, heh, heh.' That came from her throat and it, too, brought no response. She continued: 'I have ovarian cancer, ha, ha.' Nothing. We finally reached the actual area of her ovaries. "I have ovarian cancer, ho, ho.' With that she'd hit the tension area around her ovaries. The idea, the whole thing, was so playfully painful that it triggered her laughter. Soon she was laughing spontaneously and feeling much better, specifically about her cancer. Charlie Chaplin believed that the formula for laughter was to take pain and play with it. This is the method I use to help people laugh about the unlaughable.

Laughter clearly makes us feel better emotionally, but what about physically?

AG Actually there is no separation between the physical and the emotional. We know that beta endorphins, which I mentioned before, are natural opiates in the brain that deaden pain. I believe laughter triggers them. Norman Cousins, while suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, which is excruciatingly painful, discovered that fifteen minutes of belly laughing would allow him to sleep pain-free and drug-free for two hours.

People always say they feel better after laughing. Part of that, I'm sure, comes from the release of endorphins. There was an elderly woman in my advanced laughter class who had to have eighty pre-cancerous skin lesions burned off. It was a very painful procedure, because the attending physician felt that giving her novocaine would be unwise. She decided on laughter as an alternative. It worked for her. With the second burn, the endorphin effect kicked in and she felt very little pain.

That's remarkable, but do such things happen often?

AG Definitely. I often work with people recovering from surgery. Laughter works very well for them. Just the other day I worked with a man who had a tumor the size of a grapefruit removed from his knee. We agreed that, if possible, he should have a local anesthetic, which is preferable. And he was willing to go to the extra expense to have a private room so we could work together.

I was there as soon as possible after the surgery, sitting with him for half an hour while he pressed on his knee. I told him to say 'ow' as he pressed. Each time he did this, he would laugh. It is interesting to me that when adults admit they have pain, they almost always laugh.

So I'd say 'louder' and he'd say 'owwww!' Then he'd laugh and laugh. He was actually playing with his pain. As we went along, it took greater and greater pressure on his knee for him to feel the pain. Just before I left, the surgeon came in to ask how he was doing. The patient said, 'Fine!' and kicked his leg out. The doctor was so surprised, he nearly fell over. When he recovered himself, he said he'd never seen anything like it before. By afternoon, the patient was walking.

You see, this is what infants and small children do. They keep giving attention to their pain. They tell everybody about it as they come to a point of catharsis over and over, then they are finally done with it. That's what really involved when we describe an operation to people. We're trying to release tension. But if it isn't done with catharsis, the pain doesn't get released and we just keep bringing the story up again and again.

But isn't catharsis difficult to achieve? I think it's hard for most people just to turn on laughter in a stress situation and even more difficult in a painful one.

AG Sure it's difficult, and it took me a long time to become able to do it. For instance, we could laugh in our family, but we couldn't cry. I've struggled with depression my whole life and still do. I was sexually abused as a child and I was emotionally abused by being ignored, which I think is the worst thing that can happen. I've been through an alcoholic marriage, a divorce, and I've raised three kids virtually alone. I've had several major surgeries, I have tremendous weight fluctuations, and I'm currently going through menopause, which isn't helping my depression a bit. I'm not what you'd call a happy-go-lucky person. Things haven't been rosy for me, but I've laughed all my life because I've had a lot of pain to release.

Are you saying that if you can laugh, anyone can?

AG Yes, I am. I understand laughing my way through surgery and I understand laughing my way through depression. I've been in the very depths. I've been suicidal on occasion. People don't want to hear that. They want to think of me as happy all the time, but that's not the case. I laugh because I have a lot of old pain and embarrassment. There were many expectations in my family that I'd be a certain way and I'm not so I have great empathy for others in similar situations.

The what about crying as catharsis?

AG If you've ever laughed until you cried - and everyone has - you know there's a place where you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. I was working with a woman just this morning who had a bad cold. I checked on what happened the day it started and the day before that. Sure enough, we came up with some traumatic stuff. We talked it out and she cried for a solid hour and left feeling much better. Actually, the 'common cold' is just the body going through the motions of crying when we won't do it by actually crying. Think about it - the lump in the throat, the sore throat, watery eyes, the coughing. If we don't cry for ourselves, the body will get a cold and go through the motions for us.

Is there some way to deal with these symptoms more consciously?

AG If you get a sore throat or runny nose, you can think, 'What do I need to cry about?' Then you cry. Or if you can't think about what you need to cry about currently, go back to something in the past. I have tons of things I can go back to - the death of my father or my divorce. I can still cry easily about my parakeet who died forty years ago.

One of your seminars is titled, 'You and Your Spiritual Funny Bone.' Do you really have one?

AG We do, but sometimes its a challenge to find. The first time I did a workshop for a religious organization, I said 'Have a good day' to someone passing. in a grim, tight-lipped, determined way, she snapped at me, 'I always have a good day.'
That seemed to be the prevailing attitude the people there had, yet my workshops were always packed, in spite of the fact that my premise was that laughter comes out of pain and pain is okay to have. That must have come as a relief as well as a revelation, because most people on a spiritual path seem to think that to be spiritual means to have no pain or at least to deny pain.

They apparently forget that Jesus wept and sometimes raged. He lost his temper with the money changers and went after them with a whip. I can't believe he also didn't laugh, despite the fact that in Western religion, laughter is a no-no. Playboy received more irate mail after running a picture of Jesus laughing than they ever got for any other picture. That's really amazing when you consider the content of that magazine. How could Jesus laughing be more threatening than any picture they had ever run ? Yet apparently it was.

Our ideas are surely a long way from Eastern philosophies where there are things like the laughing Buddha; the wry Sufi stories; the Hindus, who think the universe was created in play; or Zen Buddhists, who believe that if you laugh for ten minutes upon waking, you've achieved the equivalent of six to eight hours of rigorous meditation.

There's a tremendous resistance in the Western spiritual movement today to acknowledging pain, because many people have become intensely interested in spiritual matters just to avoid such acknowledgement. In those cases, religion is like a drug. But pain is lifesaving feedback sensation which tells us when we need to pay attention to something potentially destructive. It is a natural part of being human. Many people think that because they've become involved with spirituality, they shouldn't ever feel pain again. Then they do feel pain, they fear they're doing something wrong and they wind up not only with pain but with guilt as well. This fear of 'doing it wrong' is the very opposite of the spirituality they're trying to achieve. So they become trapped in fear, afraid to laugh, when ironically laughter is the one thing that will release them from the fear. There is a saying that if fear is the lock, laughter is the key.

Also, the fear, pain, and guilt create feelings of isolation and separation, when the reality is that we are all One and separation is an illusion. The tragedy is, we don't always experience that. The key, once again, is laughter. When we laugh together, we actually experience connection. So, for me, that's what spirituality is all about - being present together, experiencing the here-and-now together, and moving together in a shared catharsis.


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