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.

Last rights

26 07 2013


We are living in a social age. Never before have we had so many opportunities to connect with others. Daily through an ever-increasing range of media people enjoy making links. Even something as inconsequential as ticking a ‘like’ box is a show of approval, a tiny endorsement. A smiley face at the end of a directive email can act as a small encouraging cheer to help to brighten the trawl through the imperative inbox.

We are good at the social niceties. The sparkle dust of social media can be sprinkled around quite liberally, and it makes us feel as if we are in touch with each other. Social media taps into our innate need for connectivity, and simultaneously gets us off the hook of really taking the time and trouble to actually be with someone.

I’m not attacking social media. Blogs are a wonderful way of reaching out to people around the world, and I feel a thrill each time I discover a new reader in India or Iceland. Social media is part of the new world we have created, and it is going to take a while before we really understand the best ways to use it. For now, it still feels to me a little like a delightful new toy that we are slightly obsessed with – the old favourites: hand-written letters filled with news; calling each other for hours on the phone; long lunches that become supper, maybe they will make a comeback once we’ve had our digital fill.

This week as preparation for a series of social philosophy seminars I’ve been reading Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, the follow up book to Emotional Intelligence. As is often the case with books that make me think differently, I’ve noticed its central theme cropping up everywhere.

According to Goleman’s research, ‘neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain – and so the body – of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.’

In other words: we are always affected by other people, for good and for bad. Intuitively we know this. There are people who nourish us just with their presence, and people who bring on an anxious knot in the pit of our stomach. There are conversations that leave us feeling enlivened and valued and those that bring us down and leave us feeling worthless. There are touches that help us to soften and touches that cause us to bristle.

It is clear that we know how to be sociable- we can’t help it, being sociable is a large part of what makes us human – what matters more, though, is an attention to the quality of our social interactions. Of course this has wide implications, especially when it comes to caring for each other. It is not enough to build hospitals and fill them with patients and care staff. It is not enough to design care pathways, as the case in Liverpool has shown. Staff won’t care about their patients unless they feel a connection with them. If patients are presented to staff as out-of-date commodities on the conveyor belt of life they will be treated without respect, denied basic needs such as a sip of water to moisten parched mouths or fruit to take away the gnawing hunger pains. One man spoke of his father, a victim of such ‘care’ as looking like ‘someone out of a concentration camp.’

The question, as I see it, is not how can we get staff that look after the dying to care more, but how can we get them to connect with the other human beings around them? There should be daily reminders in all care homes that the most important thing you can give to someone is not your rushed efficiency, but your time and your attention, not your detachment, but your engagement.

Poignantly, the other evening I was given a lesson in taking the time to care by a group of horses. As intensely social animals, horses develop strong bonds with each other and help each other out. During these hot days my two horses will stand nose to tail, flicking flies from each other’s faces, or one will position himself so as to shade the other. They will eat from the same feed bowl and share a stable. In the paddock next to us is an ancient horse of forty or more, who has bonded with them, and comes into graze with them sometimes.

It is rare for horses to reach forty and the thin old horse is at the end of his life. He is half blind and deaf and unsteady on his legs. Some days when he gets down on the ground to roll, he groans deeply, and his head droops between his splayed legs. More than once I have stopped whatever I’ve been doing, convinced that I’m about to witness his last moments.

The old horse has appreciated the social time with his new young friends and when he returns to his paddock, he is more rested and a wonderful sense of peace passes through the whole herd. The other evening one of my horses spent a good forty minutes gently grooming the old horse, nuzzling and licking his poor old ribs with such tenderness it brought tears to my eyes. The reverence shown to that old horse was joyful to watch. When he returned to his paddock, he felt so light he was almost weightless. Instead of his usual deep groans, he gave a long relieved sigh.

If it is so natural for other social species to care for their elderly, why I wonder is it so difficult for us?

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