Wellness Wednesday: The Transformative Power of Laughter
By, Rebekah Elkerton
The health benefits of laughter have been widely documented. Decreasing stress hormones and increasing antibodies that fight infection and other illnesses, our bodies need us to laugh. Laughter releases endorphins, making us feel good and even temporarily easing pain. The transformative nature of laughter however extends beyond the individual, the power it holds in building connection and community is immense.
One major moment of realization in my life was a few years ago when I came together with friends for Kitigan Zibi Pow Wow weekend. Standing around the kitchen island, my friends and I were catching up and joking with one another. Over the hours of the evening, the laughter continued and eventually it was in such full force that I was crying and holding my stomach, playfully begging my friends to stop making me laugh because I was struggling to compose myself.
In those moments I felt connected to the people I was with in the purest and most authentic way. What I realized however, was that I hadn’t felt that way in a long time and I needed to nurture my relationships and reach out to my loved ones more regularly. There was a bittersweetness to the joy I had found again in community with my friends.
You might be thinking “What’s so funny, anyway?” and the answer is that, more often than not, we were laughing at ourselves. Teasing is an essential element of Native humour. When we witness a friend or loved one say or do something funny, these events become stories to share within our immediate circle. Our culture of storytelling plays a key role in how we tease, ensuring we successfully deliver our punchlines with love so that even the main character can laugh at themselves. I’ve found these interactions to be one way we confront and collectively abolish feelings of shame. It may not start out that way and in my experience it often begins with shooting my friend a look that says “Oh, no. Please don’t tell this story,” and ends with an ab workout from laughing so hard from riffing off of one another and in the process learning more about my loved ones and their funny stories.
This may sound odd but I’m truly grateful that teasing is part of Indigenous culture. Teasing is not about punching down but rather an act of acceptance within the community.
Through laughter, we experience healing sensations in our bodies. After we laugh we feel lighter, likely having released trapped emotions and built connection to another through story in the process. Indigenous cultures, in my experience, value these moments of joyful connection and seize every opportunity to lift the energy of a conversation through humour.
When I think about Indigenous joy, I think about the "Smiling Indians" video made by Ryan Red Corn. The video was a dedicated response to the photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis who sought out to capture images of what he believed were dying nations, presenting Indigenous people of the early 1900s with serious expressions and a stoic disposition. Red Corn's 4 minute video shares one clip after another of smiling Native people. Something that’s often brought up in our Matriarch Movement conversations is the power of representation. Red Corn’s video is an important addition to that conversation, an example of authentic and self-led representation of Indigenous people- a key component to ensuring representation is done right.
Photographer Matika Wilbur’s portrait series “We Are One People” similarly honours authentic Indigenous experiences, presenting a photo narrative of Coast Salish Tribes in Washington State.
Photo by Matika Wilbur
Both Red Corn and Wilbur use Indigenous joy as a powerful tool for the undoing limiting and harmful representations and reimagining how other’s experience us. While much of our time as Indigenous people in the digital space is used to educate non-Indigenous folks about our experiences, histories and cultures, we cannot forget that laughter is a key marker of Indigeneity.
Some studies connect laughter with resilience and it is undeniable that Indigenous people are resilient. Today, we are changing the narrative, showing ourselves in ways that directly shake up how cultures outside of our own have defined us. Through community and connection, we as Indigenous people have held onto who we are, continually reaffirming one another to keep going. Our laughter is just one example of the many ways we support each other’s healing.
So often when speaking about Indigenous peoples today we acknowledge and discuss intergenerational trauma. Through humour and sharing laughter with those around us (whether grandparent , peer, or child) we have an opportunity to heal. As a mother, some of the most significant moments shared with my son are the times when I look into his eyes while we laugh together. Our bond becomes deeper in those moments and any onlooker would see us radiating love.
Laughter is a relational practice. We laugh at the stories we come across, and use humour to make light of the world around us. Through laughter we connect and lift one another up. We welcome people into our communities with humour and create lasting memories with those closest to us. We do all this while feeding our bodies- releasing endorphins and combatting sadness and stress. Laughter transforms us both individually and collectively.
So, to everyone who I’ve shared a laugh with in this life, I thank you for sharing your joy with me.
Edward S. Curtis... Again? by Matika Wilbur
Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health
Michele m. Tugade, Barbara L. Frederickson, Lisa Feldman Barrett