Have you ever seen stand-up comedy live? Did you go with another person? At those moments where you found yourself laughing the most heartily, did you feel that inner urge to turn to your companion and see if they were laughing as hard?

If you have ever watched audience-addressed comedy on television, enjoyment is often gauged by the close-up cutaways of pairs and threes stimulated by the comedian’s material. What those moments reveal is the communal and social function of laughter. It reveals how laughter rarely happens in isolation and is experienced most joyfully when connected to another.

Psychologists think this behavioral response serves as a signal to others by spreading positive emotions, reducing anxiety and promoting group cohesion. Scientific study of laughter confirms its social purpose: evidence suggests that laughter is 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. When alone, an individual is far more likely to talk to themselves or perhaps grin than chuckle aloud. Laughter is more than an indication of happiness; it is a tangible outward communication sent to others and it practically vanishes when we lack others around us to give it meaning.

Sir Ken Robinson suggests that we are in our “element” when we connect “properly with our individual talents and passions”. Yet, it is one of his own examples in “The Element” which demonstrates that fulfilment truly lies in the application of those talents and passions in the service of others and not ourselves. The central tenet here is that personal fulfilment is to be found in serving those around us and is entirely distinctive from Western concepts of individualism. In southern African tradition, the word used to embody this sentiment is that of “Ubuntu” (or “I am, because you are”); it stresses the interconnectedness of humanity and has been described as the ‘very essence of being human’ for, ‘we can’t exist as a human being in isolation…you can’t be human all by yourself’ (Tutu, 1999).

The Jenks School District of Tulsa, Oklahoma is home to a world renowned reading programme in the context of a ground-breaking, Relational model.

The Grace Living Centre, a retirement home, is also the physical home of a local outstanding early years’ school. The mission of the GLC was to “eliminate loneliness, helplessness, and boredom in aging populations”. The vision of the education board locally was to “to make learning as engaging and purposeful as [they could].” With such unity of purpose, the GLC paid for the construction of two classrooms, housing over 60 children in the heart of their care home. With walls built largely from glass and with clear space at the top of the partitions, it allows for the laughter and playful sounds from the children to escape into the residence and the transparent enclosure affords opportunity for the elderly to observe the children in their daily work.

It wasn’t long before the residents wanted to become more active participants in the Kindergarten. The Book Buddies scheme connected a child with an adult from the residential home who would hear them read regularly and they, in turn, would read to the child. The transformational impact on all stakeholders was remarkable. A large proportion of children outperform their peers in standardised reading assessments. Conversely, there was a staggering impact on the elderly as well with residents medication reduced or removed entirely – they were happier, healthier and “literally living longer”.

Robinson describes this as the restoration of an “ancient, traditional relationship between the generations”. I consider it as yet further evidence that we find our greatest fulfilment in the service of others. That we are most passionate when we use our talents for the good of other people and not just our own benefit.

Leave a Comment