An amoeba named Sam and his brother / Were having a drink with each other; / In the midst of their quaffing, they split their sides laughing / And each of them now is a mother.

Q. How many mystery writers does it take to change a lightbulb? A. Two. One to screw it almost all the way in, and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.


Did the above make you laugh? They’re favorites of mine, and sharing them always makes me feel good.

Understandably, the past few days’ media headlines have had quite the opposite effect; and one result has been a resolve on my part to avoid adding to the gloom.

It’s hard to escape the onrush of news and views dealing with the barrage of Gaza rockets, Israel’s reaction to this onslaught, Syrian violence, Palestinian Authority posturing, Islamist rabidity and other charmless and unsettling features of life in our region.

Yet one should not, as some attempt to do, close eyes and ears to current events in the name of “preserving sanity.” Knowledge is power, and we owe it to ourselves to stay informed.

That said, in the name of sanity, everyone deserves a breather.

SO WHY not make a brief foray into gelotology, a field which explores the physiological and psychological benefits of laughter? Gelos is the Greek word for laughter, and while the field is a relatively new one, the health benefits of mirth were known way back in antiquity.

“A merry heart doeth good like medicine,” proclaims the Book of Proverbs, adding, “but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”

What is laughter? Neuroscientists still lack real understanding of what precisely occurs in the brain when we laugh. But experts and laymen alike agree: Laughter is ultimately an expression of emotion – happiness, amusement, surprise, relief; even, on occasion, “nerves.” We’re all familiar with the nervous giggle.

LET’S BE honest: We love a good joke; and we might laugh harder and longer – maybe even at bad jokes – were we fully aware of what hearty laughter can do for us.

How’s this for starters: Laughing can lower our blood pressure, increase vascular blood flow and oxygenation of the blood; reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and increase the response of tumor- and disease-killing cells.

Researchers have also found that laughing helps defend against respiratory infections – even reducing the frequency of colds by increasing immunoglobulin in the saliva. It’s one reason to laugh more this winter.

We know that prolonged, deep laughter takes quite a bit of energy – so it’s no surprise to learn that this kind of laughter gives your body a decent workout; experts say that laughing almost 100 times is equivalent to 10 minutes of using a rowing machine. The diaphragm and abdominal muscles, as well as those of the face, legs and back are all exercised.

And unlike the gym, laughing is free.

Laughter can increase memory and learning – a study at Johns Hopkins University Medical School showed that humor employed during instruction periods improved test scores.

Is there anything laughter can’t do? It can’t pay your supermarket bill, though a good (short) joke might well contribute to the well-being of the checkout clerk.

THAT LAUGHTER produces endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, helping to reduce pain, is supported by the personal experience of American political journalist, author and professor Norman Cousins, who died in 1990.

In the 1960s, he battled a serious degenerative disease of the spinal tissue called ankylosing spondylitis and found that comedies, like those of the Marx Brothers, helped him feel better and get some pain-free sleep. His story baffled the scientific community of the time and inspired a number of research projects.

“I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” Cousins wrote.

“When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and, not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”

THOMAS SYDENHAM, a 17th-century British physician, once observed: “The arrival of a good clown into a village does more for its health than 20 asses laden with drugs” (Peter Doskoch, quoted in Pschology Today).

And, indeed, comedians and clowns are found in modern hospitals to help patients recover – the profession is called medical clowning. The American Cancer Society even sponsors laugh rooms in hospitals.

As if all these mirth-induced benefits weren’t enough, laughing has been found to improve alertness, creativity and memory.

Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. William Fry, considered the father of gelotology, contends that “creativity and humor are identical. They both involve bringing together two items which do not have an obvious connection, and creating a relationship.”

This relationship is formed very quickly, and engages the whole brain: Less than half a second after exposure to something funny, an electrical wave moves through the higher brain functions of the cerebral cortex. The left hemisphere analyzes the words and structures of the joke; the right hemisphere “gets” the joke; the visual sensory area of the occipital lobe creates images; the limbic (emotional) system makes you happier, and the motor sections make you smile or laugh.

CURIOUSLY, IT seems that the body cannot tell the difference between natural laughter and laughter that is forced – which may help explain the existence of laughter clubs.

Started in India, these clubs have now spread worldwide. In them, laughter coaches teach group members to laugh “effectively.” They get together, typically in the morning, when laughter is most potent, and laugh away 20 minutes, hopefully leaving in a good mood and with many of the health benefits described earlier.

Other “fun” therapies include humor and laughter therapy, in which clinicians use humorous materials – books, shows, movies or stories – to encourage spontaneous discussion of the patients’ own humorous experiences.

Laughter meditation is similar to traditional meditation, the difference being that it is the laughter that focuses the person to concentrate on the moment.

Laughter yoga incorporates breathing, yoga and stretching techniques – along with laughter. The structured format includes several laughter exercises for a period of 30 to 45 minutes, facilitated by a trained individual.

WE KNOW from our own experience how contagious laughter can be. (I am still capable of giggling helplessly, usually in highly unsuitable surroundings, when “egged on” by a fellow giggler.) But one of the most dramatic and bizarre examples of the infectious power of laughter is surely the 1962 Tanganyikan laughter epidemic described by American neurobiologist Robert R. Provine:

“What began as an isolated fit of laughter (and sometimes crying) in a group of 12- to 18-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. The epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of schools. It lasted for six months.”

“It is no laughing matter,” wrote another researcher of this extraordinary occurrence. “Laughter is highly infectious. But I suppose there are much worse things one could catch.”

IT HARDLY needs saying that humor is the oil that lubricates relationships. I place the ability to laugh high on the list of important personal qualities, and I sometimes wonder how couples can get along without it – if, indeed, they do.

Relationship coach Dr. Adam Sheck explains that laughter releases oxytocin, the “cuddle drug,” which is also released in new mothers to bond them with their infants. Laughing together will actually bond a couple, he says.

Certainly my husband and I laugh a great deal – at life’s quirks and quandaries, at ourselves and our relationship, and over who left our front-door key sticking out of the downstairs mailbox (actually, not a laughing matter). The trick here is to head off potential confrontation and mutual blaming with a bit of humor.

We believe our relationship has gained inestimably from all the laughter we have fed into it. And that is surely true for every other human contact, even passing ones.

“I find humor to be the next best thing to being in love,” wrote Andy K. on the care2 website.

What more can you say? A laugh a day keeps the blues away.

HAVE YOU heard this one?
Judge: “You’ve been brought in for drinking.”
Drunk: “OK – let’s get started!”

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