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The Western world devotes a substantial portion of its resources to the pursuit of happiness, mirth, and laughter. While we look to humor to enhance our lives and put us in a good mood, scientists who take our giggles and guffaws seriously have proven that they have a positive effect not only on our disposition, but also on our physical well-being – blood pressure, resistance to infection, digestion, and much more.
In this discussion, we'd like to touch on two aspects of this discovery. First of all, let's take a look at laughter as a key to good health and creativity. Secondly, another question is tickling our funny bone, namely, what classic Jewish sources have to say about laughter. We'd like to find out. Will you join us?
Scientific theories are proposed and accepted for some time. Eventually, they either collapse or are disproven, and are replaced by more modern hypotheses. Notwithstanding, there is one theory which has never found itself dashed against the rocks of progress. To this day, no one refutes the idea that having a good laugh at appropriate intervals is a fine way to enhance one's health. What is more, many are those who maintain that mirth not only guards our health, but also improves it. In short, laughter means good health.
This opinion, or, more correctly, this fact, has been acknowledged at least since the Middle Ages. Neither revolutions, upheavals, nor social and political reforms changed people's minds. New religions arose and faded into history, but no one could touch it. Mirth has both short-term and long-term repercussions. Laughter brings blessing in its wake, both directly and indirectly.
Have you heard a good joke today? Have you had a good laugh? If so, you have strengthened your immune system and given yourself a shot in the arm that will enhance your health.
Let's make it clear: We're not talking about a laughing session; it need not be a half-hour comedy or even a full five minutes' worth. Even a smile of pleasure, from ear to ear, makes a substantial, positive contribution to our well-being.
Research done at the University of California raises hopes that in the near future, humor will be demonstrated to be the universal cure-all which relieves pain and promotes healing. Laboratory testing related to pain relief has demonstrated the power of humor to alleviate pain and distress.
During one experiment, healthy children were asked to immerse their hands in ice water while watching the antics of a top-notch clown. Some of the children agreed; they watched the hilarious performance while their hands were immersed in the frigid water. They did not stop laughing. Their reactions were observed and recorded. The resulting data demonstrated that the giggling children were better equipped to endure the discomfort of the ice water bath to which their hands were exposed – by a whopping 40%. The researchers drew the obvious conclusion that a joyful heart, humor, and laughter play a major role in helping patients to overcome pain and the discomforts of sickness.
The Healing Power of Happiness
It has been scientifically proven that there is a direct connection between a person's emotional state and his body's immune system. The medical world suspects that patients who are depressed are more likely to fall victim to disease in the first place. It has been shown that those who have lost their power of laughter, or even to give forth a semblance of a smile, are likely to suffer from disturbances of the immune system. Those who are depressed take longer to recover from illness or surgery than the high spirited patient and the optimist. Emotional stress, ongoing tension, together with worries that have been repressed over a period of time, all add to the risk factor, and are likely to lengthen the recovery period. Unhappiness is almost a sure-fire guarantee of difficulties in the recovery process.
A generation or so ago, someone with a free hour or two on his hands was likely to go for a stroll in the fresh air. This improves circulation and the flow of adrenaline. This was a wise way to spend one's time, and it enhances heart-lung endurance as well. But today's researchers now present us with an alternative: Laughter! In order to refresh ourselves, we no longer need set aside time for an evening stroll, nor rush off to the local gym for a workout.
It is enough to have a good belly laugh or two. Studies show that five minutes of hearty laughter is equivalent to ten minutes of cycling. Laughter is like exercise, and it's fun, too. A good chuckle strengthens the abdominal muscles and enhances body functions to boot.
A good joke session can be considered the equivalent of standard aerobic exercise in every way. It empties the lungs of stale air and enhances the functioning of the heart, while massaging our innards. In addition, it lowers blood pressure and alleviates tension and anxiety.
Best of all, laughter prompts the body to release endorphins, a chemical substance produced naturally by the human brain. Endorphins reduce the effect of pain significantly and improve the patient's mood, thus enhancing his well-being. In some cases, the body produces enough endorphins to induce a state of euphoria. They can even reduce appetite and thus help the dieter to achieve his goal of weight loss.
Laughter, Research, and Medicine
If you don't think of yourself as the jovial type, have no fear. Everyone can develop a sense of humor. Here's how one doctor proved it.
Dr. Medan Katari, of India, set up a series of experiments to test the influence of laughter on the human body and the brain. His findings came as no surprise. They clearly demonstrated the power of laughter to cure both physical and mental illnesses.
Each morning at seven o'clock Dr. Katari would go to a local park for an hour's worth of laughter. That's a rightful sixty minutes of laughing. He met there a few outs-and-down who were bored with life and spent their time on a wooden bench, watching life pass them by. Three of them joined Dr. Katari in an exchange of jokes. Just like the classic yawn is contagious, so, too, is the giggle catching. After a few days of this early morning routine, the group began to grow. Eventually, there were about fifty participants gathered to enjoy a merry start to their new day.
As time went by, however, interest dissipated, presumably for lack of new material. No one's supply of jokes was inexhaustible. The numbers dwindled, and the morning mirth sessions also came to an untimely demise. At the last minute, Dr. Katari's professional knowledge came to the rescue. He recalled having read that the human body does not distinguish between natural outbursts of laughter and those which are artificial. The hormones, muscles, and all the rest, will react in the same way – with all the side benefits involved – even when the laughter is artificially induced.
Dr. Katari was excited at the opportunities that this fact opened up for promoting better health. He gathered his group of fellow laughers and asked them to continue with their morning rendezvous even though their repertoire of jokes had been exhausted. “It doesn't matter,” he told them. “What is important, is that you laugh, regardless of the fact that there is nothing to laugh about. Our bodies won't know the difference, so we can reap in all the benefits of laughter no less than we did on the first day we got together.”
Why should this be so, you ask? Come with us, and we'll let you in on a few of the secrets of professional comedians, and those who train for the job.
The Humor Workshop
It starts out as an innocent grin, a bit like an uninvited thief, somewhat abashed. It keeps to the shadows, so as not to be seen. But, like a rolling snowball, a smile, red-lipped and widening, gradually grows into a full-faced grin. But, hold on, we're not at the end of the process yet. The corners of the mouth, turned up and beaming, open wide, and a roll of laughter bursts forth, and before anyone knows it, the whole room is laughing heartily. This is Laugh Therapy at work.
Laugh Therapy: What Is It?
Now we're going to get serious about something called Laugh Therapy. Paradoxical? Not at all. Here's what happens at a typical session.
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” As a general rule, the larger the group, the better. There is no selection process; anyone and everyone is invited, young and old, the passive, the pessimist, the apathetic, together with the sensitive soul who is sympathetic, and sentimental.
At the outset, the serious-minded regard the goings on with no little reserve and even disdain. “I'm here to watch; I just want to see what it's all about,” they tell you. By the end of the session, most people are holding their sides and rolling in laughter.
On the whole, men find it harder to relax and let their emotions run free than women do. Altogether, men are less likely to join a humor therapy group, but once they do, they find they have no choice but to join in the laughter. Sessions have been held for patients fighting serious medical conditions. Again and again, researchers find that they report a significant degree of relief from their pain. Statistics show that regular doses of laughter also shorten hospital stays, because the healing process has been accelerated.
Laugh therapists report an interesting phenomenon. Again and again they found that it is just the person who is disadvantaged and has undergone extensive suffering that will suddenly break into peals of laughter in the middle of a session. Such individuals seem to suddenly close the door on painful memories and burst out laughing, releasing energy that has been stored up for years. Some report a feeling that the workshop served as an emotional overhaul and come out much better for it.
Modern hospitals are cashing in on the discovery of laughter's healing properties. Trained medical clowns make the rounds through the wards provoking smiles.
In Israel, a number of volunteer organizations train medical clowns and send them to hospitals to help heal the sick. Children often balk – sometimes vigorously – at the sight of a needle. White uniforms encircle him and threaten his independence, and unfortunately, often bring additional pain.
Then in walks a hilariously dressed clown, smiling from ear to ear, and transports the young patient to a different, happier world. In this bubble of laughter and giggles, the body releases hormones that promote healing. Blood pressure takes a deep breath and relaxes. Numerous other benefits derive from a good laugh, and also from a healthy smile. Not only is the patient helped; so, too, are parents, caretakers, and medical staff.
Joy Through the Eyes of Judaism
Each spring, when the month of Adar comes around, every Jew is urged to take a deep breath and laugh. “From the onset of Adar, we add to our joy” (Tractate Taanith 29a). Surprised? What better order of the day could there be than to increase our happiness? But wait a minute; how do you go about it?
“Happiness?” you may reply. “That's just what I've been looking for all my life. But how can the Talmud legislate joy and mirth, or even a good mood? Is it something we acquire by pressing the right button, that the Sages can issue an order: “Be happy!” Where's the switch I'm supposed to throw?”
We know that there are experts whose specialty is to get people dancing. Likewise, there are professional comedians whose job it is to get everyone in the audience hold his belly in peals of laughter. These people produce an artificial, man-made happiness that comes and then quickly dissipates.
Let's look more deeply into the human soul. What makes a person happy? A minimal look around at our surroundings will lead us to the conclusion that it is not a hefty bank account, not material abundance, and not even a mansion of a home or two Lexis's in the garage. In fact, opulence can often bring undue pressures and depression in its wake. A classic example is found in the events of the Purim story. Haman was extremely wealthy. What is more, he had risen to the heights of power, as close as a commoner could come to the royal throne. A payment of ten thousand talents of silver were not an issue for him. The good people of Persia trembled before him, and bowed in deference whenever he passed by. Only one individual in the entire kingdom refused to bend his knee before him. Haman had unprecedented wealth and power, yet he was not content. Far from it: “And all this is worthless to me...” he declared (Esther 5:13).
A lack of deference on the part of one individual was sufficient to vaporize completely the pleasure and satisfaction Haman had gained from a meteoric rise to power and wealth.
Why so? Because true happiness and satisfaction come not from acquiring more and more, but from giving more and more. When a person succeeds in overcoming his natural impulse to accumulate material goods, power, or influence, he cleanses himself of the germs of selfish concern which multiply and foment pain and depression. Then, and only then, can he be truly happy.
The Key to True Happiness
We all prefer to be in a good mood rather than depressed or grouchy. It makes life that much more pleasant. But there is more to happiness than merely adding a cheerful backdrop to our journey through life. Joy is not an optional accessory to life, but rather an essential ingredient, a sine qua non. One can no more sustain human life without some degree of pleasure than one might raise exquisite roses without a drop of sunlight.
The Torah tells us that our mitzvos are lacking if when we do not take pleasure in being able to fulfill them: “all these curses come upon you… because you did not serve the L-rd, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Deuteronomy 28:45-47).
How does one learn to derive pleasure from serving one's Maker? Why should this be a source of joy for a person? King David reveals this wisdom to us in the Book of Psalms: “Know that He is the L-rd. [It is] He [who] made us, and not we” (Psalms 100:2).
The first step is to cultivate an awareness that G-d is the supreme Sovereign who reigns over the universe, and we are given into His hand, and His alone. This heightened awareness leads to a blessed calm born of the confidence that our lives are being directed by a loving, all-powerful Father who always acts in our best interests. In contrast to a parent of flesh and blood, this Father is all-powerful and all-knowing.
What greater security could a person ask for? His heart will be buoyed up with the assurance that even when the situation is far from optimal, everything is under the control of a Master Planner. Eventually, the purpose of his existence and all his discomfort, disappointment, and suffering will be revealed to one and all. As impossible as it may seem at the moment, he knows for a fact that, one day, he will understand why his life took the twists and turns that it did; so, too, will he comprehend how it was all for his own good. What is more, he will even rejoice in what now appears to be his misfortune. This insight into the future empowers the Jew to smile here and now, even amidst great pain and tribulation.
Depression is the result of a sense of helplessness. If a person feels condemned to suffering, with no one to whom he can turn for help or empathy, and no perceivable route to relief and safety, he falls into despair. So, too, do those who view their lives as an endless series of random, unconnected events and mishaps, suffer ongoing anguish.
The story of Purim as related in the Book of Esther is particularly helpful in cultivating this sense of being under the protection of a compassionate, all-knowing Father. There in ancient Persia, the threat of genocide hung over the entire Jewish People. The only possible ray of hope was to enlist the help of Queen Esther, who had not revealed her Jewish roots to the king and his court. But even this dim ray of hope faded and disappeared when the people learned that the queen herself was entertaining the diabolic archenemy whose only delight in life was to wipe the Jewish People off the face of the earth.
And Esther said: “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to the banquet I have prepared for him” (Esther 5:4).
Not only did Esther fail to come to their aid; it appeared that she was so oblivious to the sword of death hanging over the entire nation that she was actually showing favor to Haman, far above and beyond the call of royal duty. In the end, the picture changed completely. It turned out that Esther was indeed a loyal daughter of the Jewish People. She had contrived the subterfuge of the festive banquet only as a means to bring her people's plight before the king and to plead their cause. As we read in the Megilah, her plan was successful and the People of Israel were saved.
We, too, come up against situations in which there seems to be no hope. Just as the Jewish People were saved through Esther's feast, even though that same banquet seemed to be an indication of her utter indifference, so, too, does Heaven manipulate events in ways far beyond the limitations of human understanding, in order to rescue His Chosen People.
As the Megilah itself tells us: “...and it was [all] reversed.” On the very day that Haman had chosen for the total destruction of every Jewish man, woman, and child, the Jews rose up against their enemies and eliminated them. The very same events which led to Haman's rise to power, to his insidious plot against Mordecai and his people, suddenly culminated in his instantaneous demise when Esther revealed her identity to her husband, King Xerxes, (Achashverus).
How often does it turn out that what we perceived as a blight on our existence proved to be a blessing in disguise! However, this is not always the case. We do experience loss, tragedy, and bereavement in real life. There is no way to deny the pain involved. The Jew, however, can always draw strength and revive his spirit if he keeps the principle of the Purim story in mind. We, together with all our adversaries, are but puppets in the hands of a loving Father, who manipulates the events of history for our eventual benefit without letting us catch a glimpse of His ultimate purpose.
Each year, we again read the Megilah together in the synagogue to relive our miraculous rescue as a nation thousands of years ago. Once again, we experience the despair, the pain, the utterly hopeless situation of our people, then rejoice together with the downfall of our collective foe. We recite the concluding blessings to thank Heaven for watching over us and preserving us. Then, together, we burst into the song of thanks, “Shoshanas Yaakov”, in which we re-affirm our trust in the loving Father who rescued us then, and continues to watch over us, and express our thanks to Him:
“You have been their eternal salvation and their hope throughout the generations... to make it known that all who place their hope in You will not be shamed. Nor will those who take shelter in You ever be humiliated.”
This axiom of our faith proved its validity in ancient Persia. Throughout the ages, it remained a basic tenet of the Jewish faith. We have no less need of it today, in modern times. As the verse declares: “G-d, and only He, is our hope throughout the generations”.
The Jew who remains firm in this faith in his Father's love for him, and His on-going guidance of all that takes place in his life, will never find himself without hope. Life may be difficult; there may be bitter disappointments; but at the end of the tunnel, he will always glimpse the golden light of hope, a hope which will infuse his life with untold joy.