The therapeutic value of laughter

  • Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, July 30, 2012 10:46 a.m.

Arecent newspaper editorial read: “In church the other Sunday, I was intent on a young child who was turning around smiling at everyone. He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing hymnals or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling.

“Finally, his mother jerked him about and, in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off-Broad-way, said, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’ With that, she gave him a belt on his backside and, as the tears rolled down his cheeks, added, ‘That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers.”

The editor continued with this question: “What must they think, those children of today? We sing, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,’ while our faces reflect the sadness of one who has just buried a rich aunt who left everything to her pregnant hamster...”

There seems to be the idea abroad that, if you are going to be good, you can’t have any fun. To be religious is to be serious all the time. The more somber you look, the more religious you are. As someone has put it, these joyless religionists have just enough religion to make them feel miserable. They have never really entered into the legacy that Jesus has promised: “I have come that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

Humor can be a factor in saving us from ill health. As the late Ernest Campbell, former minister at Riverside Church in New York City, wrote: “A sense of humor is one of the signs of healthy life. One of the surest indications of a sick and mentally disturbed personality is the inability to laugh.”

Laughter has therapeutic value. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet, who said: “Mirth is the medicine of God.”

Gordon Allport, who taught psychology at Harvard for many years, observed that laughter can be an important therapy: “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management; perhaps the cure.”

Rabelais, the French physician who later became a writer, observed: “This age has a bad stomach; purge it with laughter.” He formulated the theory that is still with us: laughter can heal grievous pain.

One of my favorite verses in the Book of Proverbs is chapter 17, verse 22: “A merry heart doeth good like medicine.”

I’ve been fascinated with Norman Cousins’ testimony that he laughed his way to recovery from serious illness. He tells about his healings in 1964 in his book “The Anatomy of an Illness.” He said that laughter was able to do for his body what drugs were supposed to do but couldn’t do.

Laughter relaxed him so that he could sleep at night. Laughter changed his attitude so that he was optimistic about the future. And laughter seemed to encourage his boy’s own intrinsic recuperative powers.

You not only feel better, you also look better when you are laughing – when you are smiling. Is it any wonder that a cheerful person often lives longer than the pessimistic one, and certainly enjoys life twice as much? Cheerfulness is as important as diet.

Humor not only saves us from ulcers, heart attacks and other maladies that result many times from too much tension, it also saves us from ourselves. Without a healthy sense of humor, we take ourselves too seriously. Our difficulty is that we take ourselves too seriously and do not take God seriously enough. Laughing at ourselves helps us to realize that we are the creature and not the Creator.

With a degree of what the world calls success, we can be carried away and forget from whence we have come and who we are. Humor cuts through all our pretenses and facades and keeps us for real. The best way to deal with some of the illogical, ridiculous things that go on today is with a laugh.

It is reported that the only relief Abraham Lincoln had was in his fund of stories: “Once, at a cabinet meeting, he read aloud a passage from a humorous book. His listeners were amazed; not one of them smiled – especially during the serious days of the national strife.

“Gentlemen,” he asked with a sigh, “Why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die. You need this medicine as much as I do.”

Remember it takes more muscles and effort to frown than it does to smile. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Smile and you’ve helped yourself and the world around you.

Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.

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