A Laugh a Day Keeps the Blues Away
A laugh a day keeps the darkness away. That’s a philosophy that’s proven effective for so many people who are working their way through depression. Laughter can help break the oppressive wall depression can often build around those suffering with the disease, and can be a wonderful addition to a person’s mental health treatment plan.
This isn’t folklore, either. It’s been tested and studied with modern medicine over several decades. Most notably through the work of Doctor Norman Cousins, whose groundbreaking book Anatomy of an Illness revealed a revelation: a method of combating an unwinnable diagnosis. Knowing he would likely soon succumb, Norman decided he’d go out a happy man instead of feeling sorry for himself. He decided he’d binge watch his favorites from the Three Stooges and supply himself with enough oranges to make it through. Laughing considerably more than he’d had in years, he enjoyed a miraculous recovery, and went on to live well through his normal life expectancy. The illness went into remission.
Critics argue such cases can be explained away. The body, after all, has been known to heal itself. There could have been other environmental changes no one spotted. He could have been originally misdiagnosed. Even if any of those scenarios were true, what is undeniable is the power of thought over our physical well being. Psychosomatics—how our thoughts can and do control our physical bodies—play an important, if not vital, role in both preventative and healing medicine. Can laughter also help in other situations?
Medical science has demonstrated that laughter releases endorphins and lowers blood pressure, relieving stress on the heart and circulatory systems. It can, quite literally, reduce pain. There have been numerous studies over the last few decades, ranging from scientific research such as Norman Cousins, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cancer Center of America, all the way through celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Oz, and The View. All have explored the question: can laughter heal, or help us heal?
It is important to note, however, that laughter is seen as a complement to traditional medications, and not as an alternate, stand-alone approach to healing.
Norman’s story, as well as several other cases, influenced me many years later when faced with medical challenges of my own. In my teens, I was diagnosed with Manic Depression. At the time, I didn’t grasp what that meant, or how it would affect me then or as I grew older. Often, the disease debilitated me. I’d skip classes or school, the anxiety too much to allow me to function normally. Eventually the medicines improved my health and I found routines that worked. A good friend kidnapped me at one point, taking me to a silly kids movie. The laughs helped more than I cared to admit. I felt well-rounded and grateful. My life rolled along, with everything falling into place.
Anthony: A Mental Health Treatment Journey
Later in life, as my son recovered from a serious surgery, I found myself in the depths of an unexpected divorce. The sorrow that once held me captive as a youth returned harder and faster, effectively grounding me. The simplest tasks seemed overwhelming. Nothing felt better than staying in bed, until, even that wouldn’t stop the anxiety, stress and accompanying nausea.
Where to go? What to do? How could someone escape the tight, mental clutch of such a horrible depression? I wanted out, and even though I visited a doctor and began a new regimen of medicine, I felt I needed to be more proactive in my healing—I needed to physically do something to fight the monster. Sitting around would only exasperate my situation.
Six months after the onset of my depression I met a young man named Anthony through mutual friends. There was something about him that compelled me to reach out. I recognized the sadness behind his eyes. He was close to the age I’d been when I’d first been diagnosed. Sure enough, he soon revealed to me he was struggling with Bipolar Disorder and wasn’t sure what to do. “I want to do something myself,” he said. “Something physical.” He looked at his coffee as though it were an alien; he was not able to enjoy the simplest pleasures at that point.
“Great idea,” I said. “Move a muscle, move a thought.” That phrase had been given to me as a youth, as well, and getting out and walking or just leaving the house can certainly help those suffering from depression. But as those who fight this battle can attest: sometimes it’s hard to even make that first step outside. That can feel like the longest step of your life.
Anthony nodded. “You seem like you’re doing okay,” he said to me. “It seems like you’ve got everything together now. A lot more than I do.” Anthony seemed equal part angry and intrigued. “What’s the deal with your mental health treatment plan? The big secret to getting through this? What meds are you taking right now?”
We spoke about the pills we’d been described, and how they were taking some getting used to. “They’re great, but I still think there’s got to be more to it than just popping a pill a few times a day.”
“I believe that’s true.” I said. “Have I shared with you what I’ve been doing lately that’s really been helping?” I sat up straight in my chair.
He sat up, too, and looked me in the eye. “No,” he said. “What is that?”
“Finding a way to laugh again,” I said. “Believe it or not.”
Anthony took in a deep breath, leaned back, and appeared very disappointed. “Laughing? That’s dumb.” He looked at anything but me. “There’s got to be more to it that than, right?”
“I realized I haven’t laughed in ages and thought I was dead,” I said. “I wanted to prove myself wrong. I didn’t want the depression to win. So I went on YouTube and started watching dumb videos. The first one I saw was of a guy in an old man mask sneaking up behind people at a Wal Mart with a fart machine. Dumb. Juvenile. The mask was terrible. But I laughed, and got outside my head for the first time in ages. That was really all there was to it. From there, everything else snowballed.”
As I spoke I noticed the smallest smile try to peek out on Anthony’s face. “Sounds really stupid,” he said. “I don’t know.”
“It was and it is stupid,” I said. “And that’s entirely the point. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just think way too much. My head can become a prison cell, just thinking about things that bother me over and over until I’m crazy. These videos let me turn off my brain and let it rest.”
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I’ll watch ‘South Park’ or something.” He looked at his phone and pretended he needed to be somewhere . . . anywhere but with me. He left without taking a sip of his coffee. I figured I’d failed him.
The Power of Laughter’s Effect on Mental Health
The next day Anthony even texted me. “I hate you.” I was sure I’d overstepped his comfort zone. I sent him back a question mark. Maybe I’d gone too far—been too effervescent.
He surprised me when he sent back a smiling emoji.
I replied with another question mark; I wondered what was happening with Anthony.
He wrote back: “You were right about the whole laughing thing.”
My spirits lifted. He’d taken my advice, begrudgingly, and it had somehow worked.
After I called, Anthony told me he’d managed to get out of his head. “I still feel like I’m in the middle of this battle,” he’d said. “But that was the first time in a long time I felt like Anthony was in control instead of my Bipolar driving. Between this and the medications, I think I’m going to be okay. Maybe not right away, but eventually.”
“That’s great,” I’d said. “That was fast.”
“I know. It was like you said: I was able to leave the prison inside my mind,” he said, laughing. “You’re like my own ‘Patch Adams’, man,” he said. “But no funny clown nose.”
“Hey? It works, man. It really does.”
“Don’t stop taking your meds, though,” I’d said. “Keep your doctor appointments. Everything works together.”
“Right,” Anthony said. “I totally get that. This is not an easy battle. At all. I need all the reinforcements that I can get!”
“The best part about this, too, is that laughter doesn’t have side effects. Smiling triggers endorphins. The physical act of smiling, literally, changes our brain chemistry. Fake it until you make it,” I’d said. “It doesn’t cost any money, but it can be addictive. It takes a lot of the weight from our bad thoughts. Humor takes away a lot of the power bad things have over us. Mel Brooks’s ‘Springtime for Hitler’ play within a movie in ‘The Producers’ comes to mind, in that it takes down the scariness of Hitler and turns him, literally, into a joke.”
“Right,” Anthony said. “A lot of the stuff I like—like South Park and Family Guy—does the same kind of thing, but with current events. It’s cool. I never realized that.”
My own journey found me being my own Norman Cousins or Patch Adams, and deciding I was going to laugh once a day and not think about myself for even a moment. By the way? Did you know that the movie Patch Adams was based on a real physician named Hunter Campbell, M.D., who did much pioneering work in the early 70s?
A Lifestyle of Smiles
The first thing that broke the spell of depression were videos of a guy in an old man mask sneaking up behind people at a Wal Mart with a fart machine. Stupid. Juvenile. But it helped. It was so dumb! But I needed something that extreme to break me out of the rut I’d fallen inside. After a few weeks, it added up. It added up for Anthony, as well. I watched as my new friend climbed out from under the weight of his Bipolar Disorder and learned how to manage his life. We shared many landmarks and successes along the way.
Today, Anthony has many years of therapy behind him. Like me, he’s learned routines and found methods to cope with not only Bipolar disorder, but also, has gained another very valuable and simple tool he can keep in his arsenal for his specific mental health treatment plan. Here’s hoping it helps you, too. He’s taken to calling me his personal Yoda.
When I ran into Anthony recently, he shared with me that his young cousin was recently diagnosed with Bipolar, as well. “I know just what to do,” he said. “I’m going over to his place tonight and we’re going to binge watch a bunch of South Park and Family Guy episodes—maybe order a pizza or a bag of oranges. If that doesn’t work,” he said, showing me a rubber old man mask inside his backpack, “then I’m going to have to break out the big guns.” We both laughed from the bottom of our hearts.
In the end, it’s important to realize that finding what makes you laugh can also help you find a natural and healthy complement toward healing what ails you. This is true for both physical and mental illnesses. Laughter is powerful, but it is good to remember that it is a complementary part of a prescribed course of action for one’s own mental health treatment plan. More often than not, illnesses also require prescription medicines, medical treatments, and a doctor’s supervision. In many cases, discovering how to laugh can help lower blood pressure, release endorphins, and quickly release stress and lift our moods. Like Anthony and myself, and many before us stand as examples of the healing power of humor, and remember this fine mantra: A laugh a day keeps the blues away!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Palisano is a writer whose non-fiction has appeared in several genre and literary magazines. He won the Bram Stoker Award© in short fiction in 2016. He’s also written articles for websites such as Shmoop University and Backstreets magazine.