Wellness: ‘Well, There’s No Harm in Laughing’

August 23, 2011 08:08 pm
Humorist Frank Sullivan had a collection of his columns published under the title “Well, There’s No Harm in Laughing” back in the 1970s.

It’s a great title and a great sentiment, certainly preferable to the oft-repeated “Laughter is the best medicine,” which is an overstatement.

If you have a big boil, you should have it lanced and get an antibiotic. Laughing yourself silly over a boil — or cancer, diabetes, or a broken leg — might not hurt you, unless it delays your getting to medical help, but it is no panacea.

That truth aside, laughter is awfully good medicine, and there’s really no harm in laughing.

At a State-of-Oregon-sponsored conference on Addictions and Mental Health last year in Salem, David Granirer offered his expertise on the subject: “Since laughing is something people can do sitting down, costs no money, and requires no special exercise equipment or skill, it’s the perfect workout for anyone who doesn’t have the time or desire to participate in a regular fitness program.”

Granirer, who calls himself a psychotherapist/stand-up comic, says, “According to Dr. Lee Berk of the Loma Linda School of Public Health in California, laughter strengthens the immune system and lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. After a bout of laughter, blood pressure drops to a lower, healthier level than when the laughter began.”

He says Dr. William Fry of Stanford University found that “20 seconds of guffawing gives the heart the same workout as three minutes of hard rowing.’’

He even goes so far as to urge people to take “smile time-outs” when under stress and says, “Remember, even when you fake a smile or laugh, you get the same physiological benefits as when it’s the real thing, because your mind is smart, but your body is stupid and can’t tell the difference!”

It is purely anecdotal, but think of all of the great comics and humorists who have attained a degree of longevity.

Phyllis Diller didn’t get to her current age of 93 by moping and stewing. Her philosophy? “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

Charlie Chaplin lived to 88, Mae West 87, Jack Benny and Sophie Tucker 80.

Milton Berle, who lived to 93, said, “I live to laugh, and I laugh to live.” He also called laughter “an instant vacation.“

Bob Hope, who lived to be 100, said, “A sense of humor is good for you. Have you ever heard of a laughing hyena with heartburn?”

And George Burns, who lived to 100 as well, answered those who chided him for dating younger women, “I’d love to date women my own age but there are no women my own age.’’

However, Grouch Marx, who lived to be 86, provided a cautionary reality:

“The only real laughter comes from despair.”

And that is something people using humor need to remember. All humor is based on someone’s misery. Historically, jokes have perpetuated stereotypes and belittled the already downtrodden.

An enormous part of vaudeville comedy was based on what was sometimes called black-face comedy, apparently hilarious to white people at the time, but deadly for those being laughed at.

“Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams” tells of the great songwriter and comic who was forced to perform his whole life, though he was light-skinned African American, in absurd black-face make-up. It took its toll on him, but the book makes it clear it devastated the other black performers of vaudeville forced to mock their own race if they wanted to make a living on stage. Most died young.

So one person’s coping mechanism could be someone else’s spiral into self-deprecation and depression. If sick jokes or ethnic jokes heighten your spirits, remember they may do the opposite to others.

Norman Cousins popularized healing oneself with laughter many years ago with a book called “Anatomy of an Illness,” his premise being if stress and depression can cause illness, the opposite might cure it. He treated himself successfully by secluding himself and watching a barrage of Marx Brothers movies.

Cousins called laughter “inner jogging.”

And what if you fail? What if you don’t cure yourself by laughing? Who’s to say spending your last precious moments within the throes of mirth would be a really bad way to go?

As Lily Tomlin says, “Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest — then we can all die laughing.”