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Never give up on laughter

Q. All her life, my mother had this golden sense of humor. However, since my father died - more than two years ago - she no longer tells her funny stories, or even laughs. Is this normal?

A. Your mother needs professional counseling, and medication, because she appears to be in a lingering state of depression. Further, she requires what only you and other family members can provide: 1) abundant love; 2) patience, comforting, and 3) repeated, soft-voiced reminders that she remains “The Family Comic.”

In a way, your mother’s behavior points up how significant, and vital, humor and laughter are to our health. Comic Israel Gesell tells audiences, “I’m from Brooklyn, where a sense of humor is a survival skill.” Then, after he has a group’s attention, he explains: “Our ability to laugh is most needed at precisely those times we feel least capable of finding something funny.”

Dr. Gordon Livingston, psychiatrist and soldier - he earned a Bronze Star fighting in Vietnam - writes in “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” that laughter is one of two characteristics that differentiates us from animals; the other is the ability to contemplate our own death.

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Then, he ties this disparate pair together, referring to “the great paradox of life: It is possible to be happy in the face of our mortality.” Indeed, there is profound humor to come out of foxholes or wherever else American soldiers are trapped inside wars.

Livingston, who has lost two sons to disease and suicide, writes, “All humor is in some way directed at the human condition,” and “to laugh at ourselves is to acknowledge the ultimate futility of our efforts to stave off the depredations of time.”

Dr. Livingston’s chapter on humor is titled, “Of all the forms of courage, the ability to laugh is the most profoundly therapeutic.”

I first met Izzy Geisel at an Elder Camp, where he was encouraging 15 or so senior women and men to laugh more at life. He called humor “an underutilized resource for most people.” Looking out at the wrinkled, yet attentive faces, ranging from the young 60s to the upper 80s, he said: “You people are the custodians of what humor used to be. Your humor is a wistful humor, about what courtship used to be, of struggling to make a living, of relatives who came too often and stayed too long. Don’t let your humor disappear or be forgotten. Be funny for your grandchildren, be funny for yourselves, yes, for the sake of your good health.”

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The late Ossie Davis, actor and author, was famous for his serious, gritty characterizations, but he also knew the vitality of laughter, saying: “I believe humor is good therapy. It relaxes; it reduces, and keeps you from going to jail, or having to see a psychiatrist.”

Medical science, meanwhile, continues to deliver new accolades, and attributes, at the altar of laughter. The late Norman Cousins, “Anatomy of an Illness,” wrote, “Scientific evidence is accumulating to support the biblical axiom that ‘a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.’”

Tell your dour mother that we know today how laughter improves circulation, lowers the blood pressure, eases digestion and oxygenates the blood. In other words, laughter is like your very own house call.

Prime Notes

  • A quote for the week: “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, you’ll get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he’s a good man.” Fedor Dosteovski (1821-1881), Russian novelist, wrote this.