I want to pause and give homage to a real superhero of our time, Congressman John Robert Lewis. He died July 17, 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is someone who literally put his life on the line for social justice before social justice became a thing for American society. He is one of the last giants of the civil rights movement. He got into good trouble for my sake and yours. He dedicated his life to ensure that every American can exercise their rights, especially their right to vote as an American citizen. He made America great by living a life full of love, righteousness and forgiveness for those who trespassed against him. And the battle continues even 55 years after he crossed the Edmond Pettis Bridge and had his skull cracked so that every American can have their right to vote. All his accomplishments would have been enough for him to stand tall alongside the great men of American History, but I read that he was also a very beautiful and loving man.
Today I would like to discuss something a light-hearted, yet as important to Wellness and Self-care as getting adequate sleep. It is the importance of humor and the laughter that accompanies it. We are going to need a little humor to get through these most challenging times in American History and attain some form of Wellness.
When I consider humor, a name that comes to mind as I was growing up is that of the legendary comedian and actor Bob Hope who spent many December Holidays on the front lines entertaining military service members all around the world. He knew the emotional cost of being away from home during the holidays, to be distant from one’s loved ones, to be missing someone. And he also knew the positive effects of humor on morale. Humor is such an important medicine that some hospitals have Clown Doctors and Clown Care to help address the sadness and fear of children hospitalized on pediatric wards.
I have read that since 1995, the professional hospital Clown Team or Laughter League at Boston Children’s Hospital has provided countless moments of joy, and comfort to patients, families, and staff.
Can you take a moment to recall something that makes you smile? Or a memory that makes your smile break into laughter? Let me share with you what makes me laugh when I think of it. And please, don’t judge me.
Many years ago, I played a wicked but very funny trick on my father. I handed him a sealed envelope containing a letter supposedly from the U.S. government informing him that he had won an all-expense paid weekend to a camp in the woods. He will be trained in the joys of outdoor fishing and hunting. To do this, he will be given a gun and camouflage gear. He will be trained on how to expertly gut his kill. He will also be sleeping among several men in a cold cabin in the woods. Of course, I had written this letter and with the help of a friend, we made up some official letterhead and return address. I added in small print that the facility could not guarantee his safety as far as loss of life and limb so he should have insurance. My friend and I decorated the letter with pictures of fish and deer, and even a bear.
What made this funny was that my father is not the camping type of person. For him, hunting consists of going to the supermarket. His weekends are holy days for him to wake up late on a Saturday and to take it easy. He is a comfortable man who likes his comfort. He is not one to sleep in the woods in a cold cabin. He has never gone fishing and we have never gone fishing together.
When he received this letter, he predictably became very upset as he believed that this was an official letter from the U.S. government, and he had to go. Consider that he grew up in Haiti during a period where the government made people disappear at any time. In a way, he really felt threatened, pressured and stressed.
I think he was 60 years of age at that time. I can still hear him asking me in anger, “Am I a boy scout that I should receive such a letter at my age?” And the more upset he became, the more I offered to drive him to this place and pick him up at the end of the weekend. And even as his anger was rising, I would say something to the effect of, “Dad I think you have to go to this. Look, it says Mr. G. Arty. It’s addressed specifically to you.” I even asked him if he had filled out a survey or application that resulted in him receiving this award. He became so angry that he uttered a curse word in Creole. But I wouldn’t stop with the joke.
Eventually, I started giggling, trying my best to hold back a laugh, which caused him to become more upset. When I couldn’t hold back my laugher anymore, I burst out and told him it was just a joke. And then, he doubted that it was a joke, so seriously did he take this. This brought tears to my eyes as my body rocked with laughter.
Now you may say, Dr. Arty, that was pretty sick joke you played on your father. And I will say yes, it was. And it was priceless. I have issues ok. Don’t judge me. Recently, we had a good laugh about this time of our lives while going down memory lane.
Laughter is medicinal. Our families, and friends can benefit from it. And we will need a proper balance of seriousness and comical levity to navigate these harsh and deadly uncharted waters that we are all swimming in.
- Increase the endorphins that are released by your brain to make you feel good.
- Result in a good relaxed feeling after your whole body has been shaken with a good laugh.
- Stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
- Improve your immune system. Positive thoughts can release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses. I recommend reading “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” by Norman Cousins.
- Relieve pain. Laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.
- Help you connect with other people.
- Improve your mood. Laughter can help lessen your depression and anxiety and may make you feel happier.
- Reduce stress hormones: If you recall last week’s Wellness post, stress can cause changes to the heart that can compromise your health. So, laughter is in some ways an antidote to stress.
- Lower Blood Pressure.
- Allow for uncomfortable conversation about a serious issue.
- Relax people around you. People will join you in your laughter.
I have a patient who is afraid of going out due to the coronavirus. Her fear and sadness have crippled her. She spends days crying and missing her family because she can’t readily visit them. From the beginning of my assessment I made an intentional attempt to lighten a very heavy and somber mood. And she began to feel better prior to any medications being written.
I still treated her with medications, but a little laughter is part of the prescription. Don’t misunderstand. I am not promoting making fun of an individual’s illness or teasing them. You have to assess the atmosphere.
Here are two Wellness challenges I want to leave you with:
- Send words of encouragement to 5 people by text. It could be family or friends or co-workers.
- Look to do 1 random act of kindness to a stranger
These two exercises will cost you nothing but a smile and possibly a chuckle.
Pierre R. Arty, M.D.