In the New York Times today, Ellen Lupton has a column on how to lose a legacy. Lupton examines our relationship with physical things: how keeping a set of dishes within a family for generations provokes feelings on continuity and connectedness – or, loosely paraphrased, how her non-hunting husband wound up with a doe’s head hanging proudly in their suburban living room.
These items can be wonderful, meaningful additions to our lives, Lupton asserts—but they can also be a burden. Storing, moving, and caring for the souvenirs of days gone by can be a challenge – as anyone who has ever tried to decorate for the holidays and move cross country in the same year can tell you!
Even if you want to retain every memento, from your children’s macaroni masterpiece through the dessert menu from the last time you went to Olive Garden, there’s always a risk of loss. Natural disasters, housekeeping concerns, and plain old entropy are conspiring against you – not to mention lack of storage space!
Laughter is a Legacy that Endures
The same can’t be said for every legacy. If we shift the conversation from the tangible to the experiential, we begin to see the real value in the connections we have with others. Our relationships can be examined in the light of time spent together, milestones, moments and memories taking the place of treasured coffee mugs or Mother’s favorite garden hat. When we look at how those connections are forged, given light and strength and meaning, often what we find is laughter.
There’s a reason for that. Often, we consider laughter as a very individual event – something that gives us joy, something that makes us happy. Yet leading biological researchers have come forward with the theory that laughter plays a pivotal role in ensuring humanity’s survival. Laughter triggers positive feelings in other people, dissipating tension and strengthens bonds. When people are in high stress situations – primitive humans trying to survive in a hostile world or a team of colleagues trying to complete a project on time and budget – this dissolution of tension can ensure that groups stay on task, objectives are met, and goals realized. At a minimum, frustration and hostility can be alleviated – you’re less likely to harbor ill will toward the person who can make you laugh.
Building A Legacy of Laughter
If we want a way to connect ourselves with others, whether they’re members of the previous generation or the next one, it’s essential to shift the focus away from physical, tangible objects and onto experiences. Spending time with others, in person or via virtual connection, is the foundation of memory. Those positive emotional experiences we have – laughing together, sharing a silly moment, even those embarrassing moments that need a few month’s worth of perspective to provoke a chuckle – serve as a common ground where we’re connected to each other. These moments have an additional value: they can be shared with a third party, recreating and expanding the joy to include even more people, strengthening and reinforcing bonds. That’s the legacy of laughter: the stories that connect us and give us a collective identity.