Humour, the best medicine

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Don’t, and the world laughs at you.”
(Fakeer Ishavardas)

I was in 9th class. It was raining and most of us were late to the school. The class teacher who had made it in time was angry over all the late comers. All of us looked gloomy. Enter another late comer and the teacher asked him, “What happened? Why are you late.” “Sir, the road was very slippery; I would advance one step forward and would slip two steps backward.” “If it was really so, how did you reach here?” “Sir, then I started walking towards my home and that his how I could manage to reach here.” The entire class roared with laughter, the class teacher included. The gloom was gone and everyone looked happy.

Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister of U K, was once called to order for declaring that half the Cabinet members were asses. He rose at once and said, “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw. Half the Cabinet are not asses.” This led to a roaring laughter in the House as his insult bore the stamp of greatness inasmuch as he did not withdraw his remark in reality. The situation created by the imperfection of the language created humour.

Humour cannot be easily defined. It mocks all attempts at definition. We can see it, possess it, enjoy it; but cannot say what it is with certitude. Experience, however, has shown that it has become applicable to the ludicrous and the amusing. A widely shared opinion among psychologists is that the perception of the incongruous and the inconsistent gives rise to humour.

Bergson, the renowned psychologist traces humour to, “rigidity, automatism or disposition to which we are liable, and which hinders us from adapting ourselves quickly to different situations, or from moulding our actions in swift accordance with the varying demands of changeful life.”

I think the biggest way I can thank the people that came into my life “just for laughs” is to remember that there is always a spin I can put on a situation to make me smile. A deep laugh from your belly is one of the best feelings in the world. It  forms amazing connections. It creates a friendly vibe in the room. Who knows — it could make you feel a lot better. Not sure?

There are distinct and definite benefits to humour and laughter when done alone and even more so with others.  Laughter is contagious, more infectious that any cough, sniffle, or sneeze.  It binds people together, increasing a sense of well-being and feelings of closeness.  Laughter triggers healthy physical changes in the body.  It strengthens the immune system, boosts energy, diminishes pain, and protects from the damaging effects of stress.  Best of all, laughter comes with no cost and is fun and easy to use.

Laughter is excellent medicine for both the mind and body.  It is powerful in diminishing stress, pain, and conflict.  A good laugh can bring our mind and body back into balance.  It can lighten our burdens, give hope, connect us with others, and keeps us grounded, focused and alert.

Entertainers and filmmakers Mel Brooks (93) and Carl Reiner (97) say: “When you can laugh, life is worth living.” Reiner adds, “It keeps me going. It keeps me young.” Brooks says, “You can’t laugh unless you’re feeling good enough to laugh.” Experts studying the effects of humor say it works both ways. It’s easy to laugh when you are well, but studies also suggest that laughter also can improve health and possibly stave off disease, thereby extending life. It also eases stress, and helps the ill cope with their sickness and pain.

 “A friendly sense of humor will bless you with better social relations as well as coping skills, and the reduced risk of dying early,” says Sven Svebak, Professor Emeritus at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who has studied the health impact of humour for more than 50 years. “A friendly sense of humor acts like shock absorbers in a car, a mental shock absorber in everyday life to help us cope better with a range of frustrations, hassles and irritations.”

The results of a large study of 53,556 participants conducted over fifteen years by Svebak and his colleagues in Norway, indicate that humor can delay or prevent certain life-threatening diseases. The scientists measured the subjects’ sense of humor with a health survey that included, among other things, a cognitive element, “asking the participants to estimate their ability to find something funny in most situations.” Women with high cognitive scores experienced a reduced risk of premature death from cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Men who scored high cognitively had a reduced risk of early death from infections. The study found no effects on cancer and other causes of death. The benefits gradually faded with increasing age and disappeared after age 85. “This means that a higher than average cognitive sense of humor is no vaccine to protect you against death in the end, although it will increase your probability of getting old,” says Svebak.

 “When people are funny, they attract other people, and community connectedness is the social currency for longevity,” says Edward Creagan, Professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. “Nobody wants to be around negative, whiny people. It’s a drain. We’re attracted to funny people.” Adds he, “When we laugh, it decreases the level of the evil stress hormone cortisol,” and  “When we are stressed, it goes high and this interferes with the parts of the brain that regulate emotions. When that happens, the immune system deteriorates and becomes washed in a sea of inflammation, which is a factor in heart disease, cancer and dementia. Cortisol interferes with the body’s immune system, putting us at risk for these three groups of diseases.”

For sick people, laughter can be a distraction from pain and provide them with a sense of control when they otherwise might feel powerless, experts say. Moreover, it’s often the patients themselves who crack the jokes. Deborah Mayer, interim director of the National Cancer Institute’s Office of Cancer Survivorship, agrees that humor is best initiated by the patient, and shared with other patients. Says he, “Some of the things they say are hysterical, but their families would be horrified,” she says. “I don’t know if humor does extend your life, but it certainly can make your life better for as long as you live it.” Humor also seems to stimulate memories and improve mental acuity in the elderly.

That cliche about laughter being the best medicine, as with many cliches, is  grounded in truth. Those of us who are born with a sense of humour are indeed blessed; those who don’t should try to cultivate it or at least appreciate it. “Even in the nation’s bleakest hours, our favorite entertainers have been those who could tickle our funny bone.” (Matthew Hennessey) “Fortunately, that heart is big, resilient and in frequent contact with its close neighbor, the funny bone.” (Karla Peterson)

Bhushan Lal Razdan, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh.