There’s a stereotype of card-carrying members of the Skeptics Society that we’re dour, humour-less, cynical nay-sayers; depressed Eeyores not cheerful Tiggers. Like most stereotypes, it’s 95% wrong. I’m often asked what characterises a member of the Skeptics, and I think of the diverse opinions, the range of religious and political beliefs, the spectrum of occupations and interests. Apart from a compulsive inquisitiveness about the world, the only other major thing all Skeptics seem to have in common is a large capacity for laughter.

The stereotype, and its counter, was brought home to me when two women at their first Skeptics Conference said that they had never expected to laugh so much. Skeptics conferences are full of laughter, we recognise the absurdities of the human condition with a wry appreciation for the foibles of the human spirit.

And yes we laugh, sometimes, in order that we might not weep. That laughter is cathartic in a sense. For without it, it is hard to face the exploitation of the vulnerable that underpins so much of what is referred to as the “New Age” movement. That exploitation comes in so many forms, whether it’s extracting thousands of dollars from grief-stricken people in the name of “comforting them”; or diverting children from effective medical treatment to die in shonky cancer clinics far from home.

Bob Hope, who knew a thing or two about laughter, said that it can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.

I think that’s what Skeptics do when we laugh. We see it as an expression of hope in the future. Or perhaps that hope is more to do with what the American essayist Agnes Repplier said of laughter when she wrote:

“What monstrous absurdities and paradoxes have resisted whole batteries of serious arguments, and then crumbled swiftly into dust before the ringing death-knell of a laugh!”

Now there’s something every Skeptic could hope for!

A laugh is certainly a powerful force against pompousness and an antidote to inane ideas, whether it’s the Emperor parading in his altogether, or the more serious stupidities of things like New Age nostrums, social stereotypes and political posturing.

Laughter is said to be the first evidence of freedom – it’s no coincidence that the most totalitarian societies are those in which the sound of laughter is a rare thing, even a dangerous one. It was a child in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes who laughed at his ruler’s foolishness; the adults didn’t dare. But even in more secure surroundings, we rarely let forth with the giggles, the guffaws, the hooting to be heard in any playground.

This was brought home to me when I took my family to see the Taki Rua production, “The Untold Tales of Maui”. Its blend of satire, social commentary and slapstick had the audience killing itself with laughter, real rib-cracking stuff that left you sore and smiling. As we left the theatre, my 12-year-old son remarked that he’d never been anywhere where he’d seen adults laugh en masse, he didn’t know that adults could behave like that. It was an offhand comment that stopped me in my tracks.

Adults don’t laugh enough.

We’ve seen footage of the laughter clubs in India where people gather for a morning laughter workout; there’s been the Robin Williams film “Patch Adams” about the doctor who dispensed medicine wearing a red nose and clown shoes. There are many, many claims for the therapeutic value of laughter and its contribution to well-being. It’s supposed to reduce stress hormone levels, lower blood pressure and stimulate circulation, elevate one’s mood and raise pain thresholds. Some enthusiasts have talked of a world-wide movement designed to help stone-cold sober adults benefit from a belly laugh, leading to a healthier, friendlier world.

While, as a Skeptic, I can appreciate the fact that the hard evidence may not be there for such optimism, as a mother, I rather like the thought that my children could live in a world where the sound of adults laughing is not something to be surprised about.

This article was originally presented on National Radio’s Sunday Supplement.

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