In Defense of the Chortle

This week scientists at Oxford University proved that laughter does indeed cause happiness. (Finally, proof that Lil Wayne is the happiest man on earth) Congratulations everyone! Now we can laugh and feel productive whilst doing so. Up until this point we only thought that laughter made us happy, or at the very least was joy’s elusive outcome. Obviously humans can’t think and feel for themselves, so why not have total strangers tell us when, how, and why we feel what we feel? All in favor? Let’s move on.

In this guffarticle (see what I did there?) a curious little morsel of cultural insight appeared out of nowhere and sideswept my mind into an unexpected place. The gym. Apparently, according to this same expert on laughter (and apparently happiness in general) physical activity also directly leads to happiness.

This is actually a much more archaic approach to happiness than you might think. Jacksonian America saw a similar awakening to the power of the human body and, consequently, the inability for that body to be totally controlled, especially in matters of sexual lust and desire. As sex was believed to threaten the smooth operation of the industrial machine that was American society, bodily health and physical moderation became an allegory for the general conquest of man over the body’s natural impulses. But it didn’t stop there. It went beyond the idea of having healthy nervous, muscular, immune (and so on) systems. People asked, “why should I exercise?” The Man answered, “because you won’t be happy if you don’t.” Our response? “Shit. Okay then.” 100+ years later and we still seem to be operating under that same assumption.

Physical fitness in this sense is not just about the ability to accomplish extraodinary things- it’s as much about what man/woman can do as it is about what he/she could do but refrains from doing. Classic American Moderation. We can work out, but we shouldn’t work out too much because that denotes insanity of some sort. The same is true for sex. There are things that make us happy that society tells us to participate in (think exercise, education, etc.) and then there are things that make us happy that society deems excessive or dangerous (think sex, food, drugs, or anarchy). All have the ability to make us happy, whatever that may mean. Society provides the footnotes.

Happiness is far too complex a phenomenon to have a clear causal explanation. There is obviously a difference between scientifically quantifiable happiness (endorphins, etc) and indeterminate, undefinable happiness, feelings that only the individual human mind can process and appreciate. How society tells us to be happy depends on the ideological baggage that accompanies it. It’s comparable with college Admissions. Deans ask, do we want a cello player this year? Do we want a perfect math, verbal or writing score? Society asks, do we want all of our inhabitants this year to be super intelligent or really jacked? Happiness has, more or less, become a threat, the figurative chocolate-chip cookie that no one gets if they misbehave.

But happiness, in my humble opinion, should be the given, not the variable, in life’s system of equations.*

*Math reference made possible by Kaplan’s GRE quantitative reasoning practice sets.