By Mary Ellen Christy
As we are all now in our sixth week of coping with Covid-19, in addition to social distancing and sheltering in place, laughter may be a powerful tool for protecting and improving our health. The Mayo Clinic has done extensive research in this area as part of their general wellness program and has come to the following conclusions:
Laughter is a natural stress reliever because it brings greater levels of oxygen into the bloodstream, relaxes muscles, enhances the function of our organs. Laughter also increases the levels of serotonin and neuropeptides which enhance attention and cognitive function and in turn creates a greater sense of satisfaction and overall wellbeing. Because so many serious illnesses can be caused by stress, laughter is indeed a very powerful medicine. They also found no difference in the positive effects of laughter whether it was voluntary or involuntary laughter.
Babies seem to know this instinctively. The importance of laughter is further indicated by the fact that laughter is one of the first behaviors that babies learn. Often as early as four to five months of age. There is no more enchanting sound in the world than a baby’s laughter. Babies love to laugh and in stressful times like these, can bring joy to anyone who sees or hears it. Babies laugh with their whole bodies. Arching their backs and waving their arms hey squeal with complete delight. When toddlers begin to walk and fall, they are far more likely to laugh than to cry because they are naturally inquisitive and entrepreneurial. They don’t want to miss whatever may be coming next.
Someone who agrees with them and who has maintained these positive attitudes is Carl Reiner. Now 98 years of age, he attributes the fact that he is both well and happy to two things: First, he tickles himself in bed when he first wakes up and has a good long laugh (voluntary laughter) and second, he has dinner most evenings with his best pal Mel Brook (lots of involuntary laughter). These two met for the first time as writers working together on Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows.” Anyone who grew up in the 1950s will remember the Saturday night lineup of Jackie Gleason followed by Cid Caesar. Both men credit their lifelong success in comedy and lifelong friendship which began while they were writing for and learning from two comedic masters Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.
I recently watched a video of Charlie Rose interviewing Carl and Mel told the story of their first big break. One day they were fooling around it a new invention called the tape recorder and Carl was interviewing Mel who was pretending to be a Two-Thousand-year-old man. Mel purported to have been a witness at the crucifixion. When asked if she ever met Jesus he replied: “Of course he always came into the candy store. A real nice guy but never bought anything. Always had 12 nice guys with him, all wearing sandals.” Legend has it that when Cary Grant heard that they had made it into a record, he requested 12 copies to give as gifts. One copy was intended for Queen Elizabeth. When Mel Brooks heard hat the Queen loved it he said: “We are in, the most important Shiksa in the world loves us.” In “The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man,” Mel Brooks introduced something that became part of is comedic “stock in trade” singing one of his favorite songs “Sweet George Brown.” This version is his mixture of Yiddish and Aramaic. Next came the movies. The first was “The Producers,” starring to fabulously actors “Zero” Mostel and Gene Wilder. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder formed a professional collaboration. Later, Wilder produced many other films, all available to you via the internet.
To be truly funny one must be able to laugh at oneself and combine truth, irony, satire, and a good measure of silliness. Most grownups have forgotten how to be silly or perhaps more truly simply don’t allow themselves to do so because it seems beneath their adult dignity. One most notable exception was the late great John Fornengo, pictured here on Christmas morning. If ever a picture was worth 1000 words, this is the one.
We have all been the recipients of many cartoons and YouTube videos satirizing the quarantine. Of all that I have received, my three favorites include one that was terrific political satire —”You have 2 Cows,” a second which is amazingly creative — a musical parody of “One Day More” from Les Miserables, and a terribly silly and very funny video of a man giving you instructions in Italian of how to convert a feminine hygiene product into a disposable face mask. Though my comprehension of Italian is largely limited to opera, I found it hilarious.
The Mayo Clinic finds voluntary laughter equally beneficial. About sixty years ago laughter clubs were founded in India. The first of these were for men only and the arranged themselves on rows like a military roll call and laughed. These have gained popularity and many combine yoga and laughter, and the majority of participants are women. I watched an instructional video on voluntary laughter and have now incorporated it into my daily routine. Standing in front of a mirrored closet door that simulates a partner you clap three times while laughing “Hee Hee, Haha” or any combination of “hees hoos, and has.” Repeat three times and then raise your arms over your head and repeat the laughter pattern. As you advance, you may wish to add Yoga poses or jogging to your pattern. This would be a fun activity to do as a family.
If your children are of school age or younger, they will think it is fun. If you have teenagers at home, it will confirm their suspicions that you are losing your mind. In any event, everyone will all get a good laugh; including the neighbor, should you decide to do this outside or in front of high-rise windows.
Whether our quarantine continues or if we begin to open up, remember to be careful, stay safe, and laugh whenever you can.