The answer to surviving life, with its ups and downs and sideways and backward turns is definitely laughter. I am convinced there is no magic pill that can cause the body to detox, flow and get those synopses leaping that can rival a sense of humor. Whether you like it or not, laughter releases 3 types of energy to combat anxiety, boredom, and anger.
First, as a cancer patient, I learned that laughter helps rid your body of anxiety and fear. Even if the relief is temporary, take what you can get because a laughter hangover can result and bring back a smile to your face days or even years later, if you are lucky enough to have company who makes you hiccup and howl over the moon. “Finding the funny” has been the most therapeutic tool for me in all dark stages of my life. Humor got me through a toxic family, a venomous divorce and the nastiest surprise of all, ovarian cancer.
I happen to be self-deprecating by nature so I automatically turn all my horrible experiences inside-out making them very funny. In order to pull this off, one has to be fearless and not worry what other people think. Have a weakness? Boldly exploit it… the fact you can say it first makes you powerful. Embarrassed you called someone the wrong name or forgot a birthday? Give the forgotten friend a new name every time you see her or send randomly-dated birthday cards to the belated bestie for giggles. If you happen not to like children in general (like me) my friends laugh when we dine out and there is a screaming child throughout the meal. With humor and a teaspoon of arsenic, suggest to the server that you’d like to send over a pot of boiling water to the table, but then wink and say, “or maybe just a gin and tonic to that poor Mama.” It might cost me $6, but everyone can appreciate me commiserating in the only way I know how!
As a cancer patient, my treatment that did not involve injections was humor. My friends in the infusion room laughed with me as I regaled them with daily dispatches from cancer’s front lines. One such incident occurred as I became bald very early in my disease diagnosis. By the 2ndchemo treatment, I was glossy as a cue ball. Right after that treatment, I decided to go thrifting, one of my favorite hobbies. While trying on clothes in the dressing room, my blouse went over my head and every hair fell to the floor: a mound of mottled brown hair. In the thrift store! I gasped aloud… then I doubled over. I could not stop laughing at the thought of the next person in the dressing room. What would they imagined happened here?! Thrifting can already be a surprising experience, so I had a choice. Be horrified and mortified or laugh my buns off. You know which one I chose, I do believe.
I was also working in academia at the time of baldness and knew a baseball cap was not the answer for my wardrobe. So, I imagined Carmen Miranda and her headpiece and began wearing huge batik turbans. With rhinestone broches attached! The students loved it as I wore different ones each day (blowing through my academic paycheck with each new design, no less) and I welcomed the stares in the grocery store. They were so much better than pitying half glances or mournful arm pats. People just wondered if I was a crazy Instagram model or eccentric art collector. And the best part? The closest thing I got to pity were the ladies who approached me with a “Bless Your Heart…” I still don’t know if they were blessing my cancer or my sartorial choices!
Another benefit is that laughter releases endorphins in our bodies. Endorphins are the good ones, that come from things like chocolate and sex. I could have never survived my dysfunctional family without humor and turning inside out the ugly and abusive times. Of course, this did not happen at the time while growing up but luckily, I remembered so much of the insanity that it became fabulous literary material. Seriously, this was not easy at the time I started publishing short vignettes about my past, but cathartic it was. And when I put these stories to use in oral storytelling, I found the audience laughing like crazy. For one thing, it was all non-fiction and I don’t think very many people own a life story like mine. So, when I began performing in storytelling groups, people loved the fact my Viennese grandma owned “Joan’s Exotic Lingerie” – a real X-rated shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans. They laughed out loud when I talked about wearing lace garter belts as headbands in my hair as a schoolgirl. Hearing the audience laugh, made my memories of childhood so much brighter and the darkness surrounding my past dissipated. People saw me not only as an entertaining character, but also a real person with a unique history. What had once been my cursed prison was now my calling card. It is truly another type of humor to have life do a 180-degree turn like that!
Even if you don’t have a train wreck of a life, laughing just simply feels dynamite! And if you are lucky enough to laugh until your face hurts, that is really a bonus. Laughter is beneficial to everyone and those negative emotions disappear in the act of laughing. That is the third real benefit. Laughing helps those around you. While surviving many scans and tests in the hospital before my surgery, I was constantly being wheeled around to various exam rooms. I was totally scared, so it didn’t occur to me that the person wheeling me around or checking my charts or scanning my armband could also be scared. I realized this one day, when a meek, newly-hired aide arrived to wheel me to a CAT scan. The hospital was huge so I had no idea where I was headed. But having no idea was par for the course during cancer! Suddenly, I found myself on the stretcher outside feeling a warm, summer breeze and felt an acorn drop from a tree! Little did I know, the aide had exited a wrong door and we were lost in the parking lot. So, here I was in my hospital gown, listening to the birds and enjoying the fresh air. The aide was sure she’d be fired. I could have yelled and screamed, cried, or demanded to speak to her manager…but I didn’t. I laughed with her and told her thank you for the lovely, albeit unexpected, tour. My attitude helped her relax and reminded her that even sick people are still fun people. This incident is a source of so much laughter with my friends; it’s a favorite story I get to retell again and again, spreading joy each time.
In sum, laughter helps you engage in a difficult world where kindness is desperately needed. The only one criterion is to be brave and let your stories out there into the world. Trust me, it feels so good and it just might help you turn a corner to a brighter, fuller life.