Dr Peter Moore: Is laughter the best medicine?

So why is humour so important?

So why is humour so important? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dr Peter Moore, former Torbay GP, writes for the Torbay Weekly:

At the beginning of the pandemic I received a phone call from the General Medical Council asking whether I would return to medicine.

I agreed but, luckily for the population of Torbay, I was not needed. When I mentioned the call to one of our sons his immediate response was “Did Dr Shipman turn them down?”

One of the advantages of having sons is that I can never take myself too seriously. Once I appear pompous there will be a gag.

As the BBC discusses whether their comics are too left wing or might hurt people’s feelings are we losing sight of the importance of humour?

That great Torquay United supporter, Peter Cook, said that the way to avoid being beaten by the system is to laugh at it. And that’s no joke.

No-one has a right not to be offended. All TVs have an off switch.

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Do we all take satire too seriously? When Peter Cook was asked about the importance of satire, he pointed to the political cabarets in Berlin in the 1930s ‘which did so much to prevent the rise of Adolf Hitler’.

My father, who was excavated from Dunkirk and later fought in Burma, thought that the ability to laugh at ourselves was vital.

As he pointed out no-one can imagine having a good laugh with Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. Today, I could add Putin and President Xi of China.

British humour goes back at least 700 years to Chaucer. The 18th century cartoons of James Gillray make anything said on ‘Have I got News for You’ pretty tame.

Even the gentle stories of Gilbert and Sullivan are subversive. In most of the operas the comedy figure is the person in authority whether a Major General who knows nothing about the military, the First Lord of the Admiralty who has never been to sea and ‘never thought of thinking for himself at all’, or the whole House of Lords who ‘did nothing in particular and did it very well’.

Alf Garnet in ’Til Death Us Do Part’ was a brilliant send-up of a bigoted racist. Of course almost everything he said was highly offensive and is not allowed on TV today but that misses the point. These bigots still exist and one of the best ways to see through the bigotry is to produce a grotesque caricature. Today, Al Murray manages it with his spoof Pub Landlord.

In the 1980s we laughed at Yes Prime Minister and Spitting Image. The politicians joined in when Margaret Thatcher claimed that Yes Prime Minister was her favourite programme although she may have thought it was a documentary. When Spitting Image finished politicians rushed to buy their puppets.

At the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 we showed the world how to laugh. While most opening ceremonies to show the wonders of their country we had the Queen following James Bond and apparently jumping out of a helicopter.

So why is humour so important? Laughter stimulates the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain triggering learning and creativity.

At the University of Vienna in 2017, 156 adults were asked to rate cartoons. The people who liked dark humour were found to have a higher level of education and were less aggressive.

Humour also improves wellbeing, releasing tension and boosting self-confidence.

Being able to laugh at yourself makes people more resilient.

And women find men with a good sense of humour more attractive although I suspect women would be more likely to have a pin up of Brad Pitt than Ken Dodd.

Of course, humour can be used to bully but is bullying followed by ‘can’t you take a joke’ really humour?

So is laughter the best medicine? I wouldn’t take anything I write too seriously.