Laughter is the best medicine

I once read an old saying that “if you laugh, the whole world laughs with you, but if you cry, you cry alone”. One of the reasons for this saying, it seems, is that as humans we come together to celebrate joy, but we have difficulty knowing what to do in times of sadness or crisis. I have just spent three days in Gozo with friends, and we laughed so much that sometimes it hurt.

Humour is important. Not just fun. Not just enjoyable. Humour is not only for those who can afford to laugh right now. It is not just for the lucky. Humour is also for those who require catharsis from the heavy sorrow of loss. Some may have lost loved ones. Some may have lost jobs. We have all lost major life events.

Since March last year, most of humanity has lost time and normalcy. The COVID-induced loss has been pulsating, coursing through every office or factory floor, every grocery store, every person we met. It has been collective and it hurts. We all know this.

In a war, humour is the first to perish. And fighting the pandemic has been one of the worst wars since the Second World War. Perhaps worse. During any military war, you can hear the air raid sirens, you can see the enemy aircraft or cruise missiles arriving, you can hear the bombs raining down and whining like a child, you can hear the thump of shellfire. But the COVID virus has been as insidious, as deadly, as terrible as a bomb, even if one can only see it under a microscope. Equally terrifying has been the mental stress.

Throughout the pandemic, psychologists have been advising us to look for things that can make us laugh. Those who have done so have discovered that laughter can reduce stress. There is a sense of catharsis in laughter during a tragedy or crisis. Cracking jokes and laughing at ourselves has allowed those who indulged in it to cope with living through what will surely be remembered as a historic event.

Throughout the pandemic, psychologists have been advising us to look for things that can make us laugh.

Laughing about the same thing provides a sense of intimacy between people, particularly in a time marked by social distancing. It brings us closer, gives us the means to relate to one another. So the intimacy of laughter is more important than ever before.

According to an article I read in an old copy of Reader’s Digest, “research has shown that laughing can improve immunity, help regulate blood sugar levels, and improve sleep”. Laughter has physiological effects; it changes body chemistry and brain function. There is an inverse association between coronary heart disease and propensity to laugh; laughing reduces heart attack risk. 

Laughter induces a state of relaxation in a person. While these effects may not be the equivalent to aerobic exercise, as some claim, that is not to say it is entirely without benefit as a physical activity. It is a fact that 10-15 minutes of laughter per day may burn 10-40 extra calories. So, all those who follow the satirical Bis-Serjetà or Malta Diżastru Totali have been on to something.

As most people have found out, laughter also has the potential to significantly affect the quality of our work lives. It seems to increase people’s willingness to disclose information and share experiences with other workers. Humour helps relieve tension, reassures people, and draws them together. Hospital clowns are also credited with strengthening the bonds between patients and members of their care team. A study of laughter therapy’s effects on volunteer community care workers found that it reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

In other countries, the political world has been blessed for many years with comedians like Jon Stewart, with his nightly take on things in The Daily Show, and Stephen Colbert with his The Colbert Report and now the spin-off Late Show. Both Stewart and Colbert have been criticised for attempting to portray the news through comedy. But the success of their shows attests to the necessity of their existence. While many feel that the comedic aspect is unnecessary, it is exactly this facet that continues to draw in viewers.

Here in Malta, we lack such shows.  Even if we had good comedians like Stewart or Colbert, they wouldn’t last one day. The political parties would tear them to pieces, and the heavy-handed Broadcasting Authority would no doubt tally each joke about the PL and PN to make sure that no one party enjoys as much as a milli-second of advantage.

Satire in Malta is as dead as the dodo. I regularly get people attacking me on fb because they do not understand my satirical remarks. Some have even suggested that my satire would improve by including emojis to make sure that people understand whether I am angry, annoyed, or amused. To me, emojis are the antithesis of satire. They rob the satirist of the ridicule or irony that cut down the mindless authorities or super-egoistic politicians.

Satire in Malta is as dead as the dodo.

Making fun of Robert Abela or Bernard Grech would unleash a deluge of insults and hate speech by thousands who take politics and politicians too seriously. After all, a Prime Minister sunning himself on his yacht in Sicily and a Prime Minister-in-Waiting (too long) deserve adulation, not ridicule. So, one has to be careful not to speak of waves or of Greeks. Similarly, calling Ian Borg the new Darius I would be totally unpatriotic. Calling Jason Azzopardi the Holy Land Pilgrim would rob him of his divine mission.

Thank God that, at my age, I can afford not to give a fig about what people think about my sarcasm. In short, I can be human, unabashedly and humorously human. Why don’t you join me?

A word of warning, just in case somebody decides to sue me for civil damages. Laughter can also be a rare cause of death. A fit of serious giggles can apparently cause cardiac arrest, asphyxiation or a loss of consciousness. This weird way of dying has actually been reported since ancient times, with one particular case that occurred with Chrysippus, a stoic philosopher who died at the age of 73 during the 143rd Olympiad which took place in 208 to 204 BC.

At that time, Chrysippus saw a donkey eating his figs and reportedly yelled: “Now give the donkey a pure wine to wash down the figs!”, and then started laughing so hard that he fell on the ground before starting to shake uncontrollably with foam coming out of his mouth. While people tried to help him, he apparently died soon after.

I suppose it’s still better to be remembered for dying of laughter, than for dying in boredom.

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