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Marilyn Heins: Laughter is healthy

Marilyn Heins: Laughter is healthy

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I hereby urge all of my readers to laugh many times a day. Doctor’s orders!

Many years ago, my then toddler son came over to me and asked me to tickle him.

“I tickle me but no work!” he said.

He was right, being tickled leads to laughter because the sensation that comes from another’s fingers is unexpected. Of course, I obliged him and gales of laughter ensued.

Laughter is universal. No matter what language you speak, you can understand what it means.

According to the late Robert Provine, who made the study of laughter his academic work, it occurs unconsciously. In a large study of 2,000 tapes of natural laughter in malls and on the streets (this must have been fun to do!) he studied laughter. It is contagious and starts early, babies enjoy a belly shaking laugh at about four months. We can’t make ourselves laugh or laugh on command. It is associated with play in children so grownups laugh less because we play less.

Laughter is the best medicine there is. Being happy and laughing can actually help promote growth of new neurons, those wonderful nerve cells that help make us intelligent humans. This no-prescription-needed medicine can help us better manage stress and foster resilience.

I can think of no safer way to deal with the “Covid Moodiness Syndrome,” which has been so successful in making us feel worried.

Readers know I advise us elderfolk to take care of ourselves, don’t fall, and avoid loneliness. Here is a fourth bit of advice: laugh a lot about your old age and anything else that tickles your funny bone. Though longevity is not dependent solely on optimism and a positive attitude, it sure can’t hurt because laughing is more fun than bewailing and complaining. And we don’t need to worry about a prescription or co-pay.

Aging is no joke (although we oldies can be the butt of jokes) but laughing make us feel good while moaning and groaning does the opposite.

Dr. William Quinn, a fellow pediatrician, wrote in the AAP Senior Bulletin what he learned through the ages of his life. At 82, “I’ve learned that even when I have pains I don’t have to be one.” At 92 he admits, “I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.”

Humorist Will Rogers kept America laughing and had lots to say about aging though he died in a plane crash at only 56.

“You know you are getting old when everything either dries up or leaks.”

“One must wait until evening to see how splendid the day has been.”

“If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you’re old.”

American writer Ambrose Bierce gathered his satiric definitions into a single book, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” first published in 1906 under a different title. I cannot pick up my almost crumbling paperback without laughing out loud. The word life is defined as “… a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay. We live in daily apprehension of its loss yet when lost it is not missed.” Longevity: “Uncommon extension of the fear of death.”

A delightful book by Father Gander (Douglas Larche) “Father Gander Nursery Rhymes” brings gender equality to the nursery where it belongs. One reviewer used the term “Equal Rhymes Amendment.” An example, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candle stick! Jill be nimble, jump it too, If Jack can do it, so can you!” (Grandparents, take note. You can entertain the young ones with such poems and teach them a lesson at the same time.)

Gilbert, the lyricist half of Gilbert and Sullivan, had a sharp wit and sharper tongue. When a woman, not very knowledgeable about music asked,” “Is Bach still composing?” he retorted, “No, madam, he is decomposing.”

And then there’s comedian Fred Allen, “When Jack Benny plays the violin it sounds as if the strings are still back in the cat!”

Limericks, both clean and not, have always made me laugh. Even infirmities like hearing loss can lead to a laugh when you realize what was said and what you heard were hilariously and salaciously different. When it comes to TV and movies, I have to be selective because I like clever more than I like farce or cruel humor.

A house that rings with laughter or even a few chuckles is healthy. It’s a good way to turn off that sad or worried tape playing in your head, especially these days. If you aren’t worried, you probably are not paying attention.

Humor is especially good for those of you who, like me, are old. Happier people are less likely to develop dementia. Humor-related benefits have also been reported by elderly residents in assisted living facilities.

A reader might groan, “How can I laugh when things are so bad? The world is anything but funny right now.” Agreed, but laughter is a cheap, funny solution to improve not only your mood but also your well-being. About one in seven people in the United States are over 65. Maybe if we all had a belly laugh at the same time, it would be earth-shaking?

Here are a few suggestions for increasing your “Laugh Quotient:”

  • Check your bookcases for remembered books that made you laugh. Ask friends for the name of books that made them laugh, Google to find new ones.
  • Check out old TV sitcoms and funny movies to watch.
  • Start a joke fest with one or more buddies. Pledge to tell at least one joke a day on the phone so you can laugh together. I recently asked my third-grade grandson to make up a joke and send one to me at least once a week. (First telephone joke: “What do you call a cow with no legs?” “Ground beef!” We all laughed together.)
  • Call old friends to reminisce about funny things in high school or college days.
  • Look at family pictures … some are funny.
  • If you are lucky enough to not live alone, agree to make each other laugh three times a day. Tickling counts!

Dr. Heins is a retired pediatrician, parent, grandparent, columnist and author. She welcomes your questions about people throughout the life cycle, from birth to great-grandparenthood. Contact her at

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Columnist Marilyn Heins was conceived during the Great Depression and as she approaches her 90th birthday, in the midst of a pandemic, she reminds us that "being alive and aware of this troubled world is a gift and a privilege."

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