Laugh, and the years will smile upon you Expert says humor fosters long life

February 12, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

A fitness expert says the best way to stay healthy is to get your minimum daily requirement of yuks. And most of us suffer from a humor deficiency.

"When people hear laughter, it's not something they take seriously," said Dr. Brian L. Seaward, 35, a professor of fitness and health at American University. But they should.

Studies show that up to 70 percent of all disease and illness is stress-related, he told a relaxed lunchtime audience at the Johns Hopkins University yesterday. And the best antidote to stress, he said, is a steady diet of one-liners, cartoons and comedies.

Humor is so effective at easing muscle tension that we sometimes fall down laughing, he pointed out.

It not only makes stress and depression vanish, it promotes the production of endorphins, which are pain-blocking peptides manufactured by the brain. It can repair a damaged immune system, Dr. Seaward said.

"Humor as a healing concept has been used in about every culture since the dawn of mankind," he said.

Many cultures have allowed jesters and holy fools to express painful truths, or relied on them to divert people from their troubles. Today, he noted, clowns are routinely welcomed in pediatric wards.

Dr. Seaward is selling satire and pushing parody -- especially the self-deprecating brand. "When you say, 'I can't believe I did that,' it's a good way to reduce stress," he said.

Slapstick, he said, causes us to think, "I know someone who really needs a pie-in-the-face."

Black humor helps us face our fears.

But he said to shun sarcasm, which is to taunt, jeer or sneer and comes from a Greek word that means "to tear flesh like a dog."

Teasing is another double-edge form of humor. It springs, Dr. Seaward said, from an effort by the teaser to create a bond with the target.

"But it can turn into pestering with adults," he said. When an adult teases a child, it can damage the child's self-esteem.

Even gentle jokes aren't always therapeutic. "It's important to respect people's moods of depression and withdrawal," he said.

Laughter has had its ups and downs throughout history, he said. The Greeks appreciated its value as a medicine but some European cultures called it the work of the devil.

There are several theories about what makes something funny, he said. One is that it gives the joker a chance to feel superior.

"I'll give you an example in two words," Dr. Seaward said.

"Dan Quayle. All you need to do is give this guy's name or show his face, and you think, 'What the heck is this guy doing in [line of succession for] the White House?' "

Another theory holds that jokes relieve sexual tension, a notion supported by the huge literature on that taboo topic.

Sometime around the Vietnam War, Dr. Seaward said, America lost some of its sense of humor.

Now, when we should be giggling and guffawing, we're grasping and complaining.

"We're hung up on negative emotions," said Dr. Seaward, "It's almost a status symbol to be bummed out or to whine."

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