By Julia Gumm
The word ?humor? comes from the ancient Greeks. It refers to the practice of ?humoral medicine,? a school of thought that proceeded from the notion that the four fluids or ?humors? of the body, in balance or not, were responsible for the ups and downs of human health.
These four humors and their corresponding organs and elements were black bile (gallbladder, earth), blood (liver, air), yellow bile (spleen, fire), and phlegm (brain and lungs, water). If a person had a tendency towards excess of one of those humors, it was believed that that was what determined their personality type, or as the term was at the time coined, their temperament- from the Latin temper?mentum, a mixing in proportion.
Someone with excess of black bile was ?melancholic?- introverted, cautious. An extroverted pleasure seeker would be considered ‘sanguine?, made that way by their excess of blood. A ?phlegmatic? soul was a peaceful, quiet type, perhaps made that way by all that phlegm clogging up their throats…and a ?choleric? was an easily angered, bad tempered idealist. A my way or the highway? type, ruled by the yellow bile of the spleen.
So the basic idea was, when someone was out of balance, they were of a ?bad humor. And bad humor lead to bad health. Today, even though we’ve chucked these ancient voodoo notions of pseudo-science out the window, along with the leeches and poultices of arsenic that came along with them, we still acknowledge that there are folks of ?good humor? and ?bad humor. Someone of good humor might be pleasant, affable, friendly and have a good sense of humor in the modern, comedic sense. Someone of bad humor is generally a huge load to have around, and takes themselves and their lives way too seriously to dare crack a grin. These bad humored folks tend to develop things like hypertension, anxiety or addictive behaviours to provide themselves some small level of comfort. And the only comfort for people who are forced to live with these poor wretches is the knowledge that they will probably die sooner, what with all those untempered stress hormones coursing through their tight, highly pressurized arteries.
He who laughs, lasts, as they say. And he who does not hopefully won’t! Ah relax, I’m just kidding. Lighten up, it’s good for you.
So is laughter the best medicine? Is being of a ?good humor,? in a traditional and modern sense, perhaps one of the best things you can do for your health?
According to the Mayo Clinic, laughing stimulates your organs and increases blood and oxygen flow to them, which improves function and tone. Also, it raises and then dramatically lowers blood pressure and heart rate, bathing the body in a sense of relaxation. Laughter effectively relieves muscle tension, improves immune function by increasing antibody production, improves healing, ‘shuts off the cascade of stress hormones, increases levels of DHEA (sometimes called the ?hormone of youth?) and stimulates the release of your natural pain relieving, feel-good chemicals- endorphins.
Laughter, like crying and exercise, brings the body to a height of stimulation, followed by a pervading sense of well being and relaxation.
Being ?good natured? is of course, beneficial, and practicing traditional stress relieving activities like meditation and yoga are helpful too, but it appears that the physical act of laughing itself provides the body with intense stimulation and release that those more placid activities can’t provide.
For me, that’s good news. Whenever I go to a meditation class and get a load of the crunchy, hippie dippie folks around me thinking about their spirit animals or whatever, I get a serious case of the giggles. What a relief it is to learn that instead of bottling that up and repeating my mantra, I’d do better to quietly excuse myself, go have a knee-slapper in the car, and drive home to watch old episodes of ?The Golden Girls. If I’m in a bad mood, there’s nothing that gets my endorphins moving like a ?Picture it, Sicily… story.
So whatever does it for you, go on and do it! Maybe you’re missing part of your frontal lobes and therefore don’t recognize the hilariousness of ?The Golden Girls.” That’s cool, there’s no accounting for taste here. The point is to loosen up, be more like a child and roll with what gets you rolling on the floor. Laughter is a wonderful example of the beauty of spontaneity, and the benefits associated with it are proof positive that restraining your feelings (as we’re taught to as part of being ?mature) is not always a good recipe for a healthy, vital life.
Children laugh something like 300 times per day- a whopping 296 times more than us adults. We occupy the same world as kids, what are they seeing that we aren’t? Are our eyes so crusted over with the heartbreak of having our egos bruised, the pain of crushed dreams, the monotony of daily life that we can’t see that the whole thing is all just a big damn joke anyway? And it is. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take life seriously. But there is fun, wimsy, irony or at least, gallows humor to be recognized in practically every situation.
I, like most of us, haven’t had the smoothest ride thus far on Spaceship Earth. But what I have had, held tightly in my breast pocket, is a hell of a sense of humor. Probably an inappropriate one, and I thank my lucky stars because otherwise, I’d have likely succumbed to some stress-induced disease ages ago. So I advise you all to take yourself a wee bit less seriously and literally ?make fun? of your life more often.
And I’ll leave you with a tale of the dangers of holding back your laughter.
So I’m nine years old, and I’m sitting in the cafeteria of my elementary school with my best friend, Susan. We’ve just gotten finished free-styling a genius song denigrating the quality of the school lunch, and I am erupting into fits of laughter. Unfortunately, the fever pitch of my glee struck right at the beginning of forced ?quiet time. ?Quiet time? was a cruel and sadistic ritual exercise in sucking the joy out of small children, enforced by an army of grim, thin-lipped lunch ladies. If you so much as peeped, one of them would be looming behind your back in five seconds flat, close enough that you could feel the icy blackness radiating from their being, threatening to reduce you to nothing but a whimpering little toad.
Laughter had always been a bit of an Achilles heel of mine, seeing as teachers treated silliness like a capital offense, so I was prepared. I had developed a new technique that year, a way to fight the forces of evil without becoming as mirthless as they wanted me to be. I would simply hold my breath. As the laughter rolled up through my body, bursting forth from my diaphragm, massaging my Vagus nerve, I would not force it to cease. I’d simply hold it in, like a burp or a fart at an inopportune time. But I refused to stop finding the funny in this world, I simply would not abide.
That day at lunch, I held my breath. As the giggles poured from out my soul, the pressure build up in my lungs spilled out into my cheeks. Suddenly, everyone was looking at me in horror:
Indeed, what WAS wrong with my face? I was hustled off to the nurse, where as I sat waiting for my mother, students peered at me as they walked past, incredulity in their eyes. A strange, angry red rash had exploded all over my cheeks, nose, forehead, chin. Was it a terrible, contagious disease? Or worse, had I developed an allergy to Cool Ranch Doritos? Oh the horror, the terror, the dread.
After a long afternoon at the hospital being poked and prodded like a pincushion by sinister fiends who called themselves ?nurses,? a befuddled doctor finally asked me if I’d been pressing my face up against any fish bowls lately. I couldn’t bear the idiocy. Why would I do a thing like that, and what could it possibly have to do with what is obviously the end of my life, a Dorito allergy? He explained that sometimes kids press their faces up against glass tanks or windows and it creates a suction effect that bursts the blood vessels in their faces. He made sure to add he had never yet seen a case quite as bad as mine.
?Well of course I’m not dumb enough to be sticking my face to fish bowls?, I huffed dismissively. ?Have you checked for cool ranch allergy yet??
?What were you doing right before the rash broke out?? he asked.
I thought about it. The laughter. The lunch ladies. My god, my strategy had backfired. The peals of laughter radiating from out my insides proved to be too powerful for my feathery little blood vessels to withstand without release. What was a benevolent exercise in joy had been morphed into something dangerous and shocking, all thanks to the dictatorial powers that be.
I sheepishly told him what happened. My mother looked at me like I was crazy. I looked at them like they were crazy. If it hadn’t been for the vile agenda of grown-ups everywhere to turn kids into boring, obedient little soldiers, my face would have been just fine. Fine, I tell you!
After that day I vowed to never hold in my laughter again, and let the chips fall where they may. And I have the detention files to prove it!
And that, dear reader, is why you should never hold back your true feelings- especially laughter. Yuk it up, clowns! It’s good for ya!