On laughter

23 02 2020

As many people who have visited us know, we love to laugh in our work. It’s not something, we consciously plan for. The way we are with our horses gives them the freedom to make choices, which often results in hilarity. If you think that a very intelligent horse is going to take you seriously just because you have two legs instead of four, you will be surprised and outwitted, over and over again.

There are many different ways to understand animals, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being with horses is their incredible curiosity about the human species. I often think that if you looked like a unicorn with sculpted features, elegant limbs, dreamy eyes and flowing mane and tail, why would you bother with slow-moving, boggle-eyed, clobber-clothed people? What could they possibly offer you except regular fodder?

It remains remarkable to me that in spite of our human tendency to lumber about like the apes we are, we can offer a horse a meaningful connection. When we extend an invitation to the horse to join us in something that truly matters to us, they will choose to join in. For example, a group of guests seated in quiet meditation often proves irresistible to our horses and ponies. Even though they are free to eat grass and wander, invariably they will come and be with us, selecting to stand and quietly breathe with someone they have never met before. Why they should choose to do this remains an exquisite mystery to me, but when I witness it, I am always moved to tears.

It is not simply the quiet life they seek. Our horses are also moved by laughter. Often, if Jo and I are laughing uproariously about something, one of the horses will come over to investigate. It amuses me to think that maybe the horses really do share our signature sense of humour, as extended family members who have grown up in a particular shared culture, which includes regularly laughing together.

Laughter is perhaps more important than we think. Psychology Professor and author Dacher Keltner makes an intriguing case for laughter as vital for social harmony in his book Born to be Good. I know I always feel lifted after a bucket of tea in the shed with my fiercely, funny friends who laugh long, hard and true. Sharing my sorrows and disappointments inevitably means laughing at my own tendency to get caught up in my woes. Sometimes the worst, most awful things that have happened to me have generated the biggest laughs months or years later. Keltner’s deeply fascinating enquiry about the impact of laughter, based on longitudinal studies of bereaved participants, elevates it even further.

“A laugh is a lightning bolt of wisdom, a moment in which the individual steps back and gains a broader perspective upon their lives and the human condition.”

Born to be Good. The Science of a Meanginful Life. Dacher Keltner (2009)

I love this idea of laughter as piercing wisdom, as another form of knowing. And I also love the intense creative energy that is generated when a group of people work with humour and goodwill on something new and untested. Instead of striving to pin down new ideas on charts, notes and sheets, allowing time for the freefall and counter-play of light-hearted ideas is the way to make magic happen. It’s certainly a lot more fun. We often say that our best business ideas pop into our minds when we’re grooming or taking the horses out for a walk.

The liberating effect of laughter cannot be underestimated. I don’t think Keltner is being provocative when he says ‘laughter may just be the first step to nirvana.’ The original meaning of the word nirvana means ‘to blow out,’ which makes Keltner wonder whether the term means not only blowing out the flames of self-interest, but also having a good exhale, blow-out, belly-laugh.

“When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state, incapable of flight or fight. People see their lives from a different point of view, with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds, through the firing of networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play.”

This makes me see why our laughter feels so good to our horses, who are naturally drawn to living peacefully. When they’re relaxed, they frequently enjoy a good blow-out, too, and are often quite playful afterwards. Laughter, I’ve learned, is older than speech and is part of a repertoire of emotions forming a universal social language. Chimps laugh, rats squeak with joy when their tummies are tickled, and horses just wait for humans to get serious.


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2 responses

25 02 2020
conversationswithnell

I love the idea of laughter as a bolt of wisdom and yes, sometimes during the saddest and most difficult of times it is the laughter with loved ones you remember. Thank you as always for your wise words. Xx

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25 02 2020
belindaseaward

Thank you, Sara. Laughter lightens the darkness. Xx

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