I don’t know who coined the phrase, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but I first connected the idea of laughter and health when I was little. My mother, a voracious reader of whodunits like Perry Mason and Agatha Christie, subscribed to one and only one magazine: the monthly Reader’s Digest, which always featured several pages of jokes and witticisms under the title of Laughter, the Best Medicine.
I didn’t acquire the taste for recreational reading until long after college and medical school. I was a slow and easily distracted reader so even if the subject was interesting, reading X number of pages per night was daunting, especially when X was greater than ten, which it always was. I remember counting down the pages until the end of the assignment like a convict crossing off his days until release from prison. Books like The Red Badge of Courage and The Scarlet Letter may have been classics but, they weren’t a lot of fun. We were never asked to compare and contrast Mark Twain’s sense of humor with that of Woody Allen, although I suspect it would have been a much better way to learn literary criticism.
What appealed so much about the Laughter, the Best Medicine was the liberating idea that wit could be brief. Most of the jokes and stories were amusing; but a few were so downright funny that I laughed until I cried. The idea that laughing was good for one’s health must have appealed to the budding psychiatrist-in-me for it struck a chord whose overtones have never stopped echoing.
There’s not much to say about the science of laughter except to assert that it is one of the most natural and healthy ways to release endorphins, the ‘feel good chemicals” that tickle the brain’s pleasure center. Aside from orgasm, few things in life are as pleasurable as good belly laugh, the aftereffects of which have been shown to reduce even the severest of physical pain for hours. Writer Norman Cousins successfully treated his chronic pain from an incurable condition called ankylosing spondylitis by self-medicating with laugh sessions from watching Groucho Marx.
So the question de la saison is: how to laugh one’s way through the holidays; how to make it fun?
First and foremost: get into the mood. If you think of a belly laugh as analogous to an orgasm—both involve letting go—you’ll see that lightheartedness is like foreplay; it sets the tone. Just as arguing over politics is not sexy, neither is it conducive to laughter—unless people want to turn the holiday into litigation. As for the TV: there’s rarely pleasant news on CNN, and on one of the politically-overturned channels you’re guaranteed to see two or more talking heads barking at and over each other like territorial hounds.
While we’re on the subject of mood, plan ahead. If you are dreading encounters with people who made you feel bad in the past, develop a strategy to limit toxic exposure to them; just because Uncle Charlie is coming, doesn’t mean you have to regress when he starts ranting about Hilary or Donald. You can even strike a pre-emptive blow and announce what topics are on or off the holiday table. It’s always a good idea to seat people carefully so that leftists and rightist are on the far right and left of the table. Overhearing fights sets off instinctual fear and danger responses in the brain’s limbic system—the emotional brain—which douses lightheartedness like an ice cold shower.
If you’re visiting from out of town, bring books or film CD’s that make you laugh; it’s like packing sexy underwear for a trip. There are scenes from Pat Conroy’s Beach Music when the brother’s get into a repartee that puts me in stitches. Then there’s the stateroom scene from the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera that cracks me up, too.
Share your funniest passages from books and get others to tell funny stories. It’s amazing how infectious laughter can become. Download Alan Sherman’s “Hello Mudda, Father”—pretty much every album ever recorded is available on Spotify or Rhapsody.
If you’re hosting, make sure to invite people who like to laugh. Try to get people to tell the funniest thing they can remember. Laughing at yourself is a sure fire way to let off steam. The reason why charades is such a popular holiday get-together game is that it gives people a break from taking themselves so seriously.
True, everyone’s sense of humor is different, but it’s surprising how eager even the dourest of folks are to share funny stories from when they were happy. People are delighted when they hear about the hijinks Grandma and Grandpa got into when they were kids.
Play with young children if you have the chance. They usually giggle uncontrollably at the simplest games like peekaboo. There’s nothing like a child’s unbridled laughter to put even the dourest of souls into the mood to recall and share their delights from earlier in their life. As a species mammals love to play; that’s instinctual, too.
As for dressing, there’s a reason people wear red at holiday time: it’s a cheery color. But I would like to see a Christmas Eve with everyone in costume saying what they really think watching the Alistair Sims version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Imagine Bob Cratchit telling Ebenezer to f*** off, or the ghost of Christmas Past threatening Scrooge that if doesn’t repent he’ll be damned forever to be a deejay at a disco.
Regarding substances and holidays, it is true that a little alcohol lubricates the pleasure center, but most experts agree to take it easy on the booze; that doesn’t mean total abstinence but it’s worth remembering that nothing puts a damper on fun more than someone picking a fight during an alcohol-lubricated rant.
Have a great holiday everyone. If I could bottle endorphins I would spike the holiday punch. But since I can’t, there’s no more effective psychiatric treatment than laughing together with friends and family. Enjoy!
Holiday laughter photo available from Shutterstock