“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.”

― Victor Hugo

When I was in college, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

I was taking a health class at the time and was told I must choose a health-related topic about which to research and write. I chose to write my paper about Alzheimer’s, in hopes of finding some piece of information that would reverse my grandmother’s sad diagnosis, or at least make her life more pleasant.

As this disease, and other forms of dementia, have affected my family, I’ve not stopped trying to find a cure or at least a delay tactic. And in all these years, I’ve continued to cling to one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, which Victor Hugo apparently learned before I did — laughter is everything.

When my daddy was diagnosed with cancer many years ago, I searched every book I could find (the internet was not an option for all of the Googling we do today) for anything that would be a surprise answer for helping him heal, or at least for lessening the sting of the disease.

I found in my investigations something that has stayed with me on my personal health journey and those of people I love. Everything I have found in my studies has convinced me that what happens in our head affects our entire body. I learned it when I researched about my father; I learned it from an incident with my grandmother when she burst into laughter as we walked down a sidewalk; and I’ve learned it in research for my own health: Laughter is one of the greatest keys to a better life.

Does something have to be funny to make you laugh? I am proof that it does not.

I burst into laughter as I sat in the front row of my grandpa’s funeral when I was 8. It horrified me when I heard my laughter in a most inappropriate setting, and I am sure it horrified the adults nearby, as well.

I fell into laughter as a newlywed when I rounded a corner to see my husband had stepped on the lip of a refrigerator cart and been knocked to the floor. I was shocked at my emotion that usually would have been expressed in tears.

Multitudes of people have had similar experiences of laughing when they would have preferred not to do so, knowing it appeared disrespectful. There are plenty of parents and teachers who have been angered by a child who has laughed in a serious situation (like, when punishment is forthcoming). Laughter is simply a normal reaction to stressful situations, much as tears might be, and embracing its power could be the key to happier days.

“...some psychologists classify humor as one of the ‘mature’ defense mechanisms we invoke to guard ourselves against overwhelming anxiety...Being able to laugh at traumatic events in our own lives doesn’t cause us to ignore them, but instead seems to prepare us to endure them.” —Psychology Today. (It seems I am mature, after all!)

In sharing my own medical advice, one could go back to Lord Byron, who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s for similar thinking.

“Always laugh when you can, it is cheap medicine.”― George Gordon Byron

Life is sometimes too serious, and laughter is just the thing to let the steam out of the pressure cooker of life in which we often find ourselves.

Children, unafraid of appearing undignified, laugh in delight, and it might be just what you need to lighten your spirit and remind you that age is just a number and we adults often take life too seriously. We were designed to laugh, and no matter when we laugh, it is good for our soul.

If better health doesn’t interest you, maybe knowing that a study at Vanderbilt showed you can burn 40 calories by laughing for 10-15 minutes will be more meaningful to you. Laughter is good medicine. Children know it, and research shows it.

Humor, it seems, is also important to your success in work. Humor that is funny, not offensive or sarcastic, puts those around you at ease, makes you more approachable, and makes work a more pleasant place for everyone to be — all of which means a more successful company.

Think I made it up? Look at Southwest Airlines — it’s actually on their job application, “Have you ever used humor to solve a workplace problem?” It matters to them. My favorite flight attendant joke: “They told everyone on the plane’s left side, toward the terminal, to put their faces in the window and smile so our competitors can see what a full flight looks like. “

Laughter, funny or not, has been deemed good and necessary. There are even laughing groups across the country where people can let loose and laugh for no particular reason. Heck, you might even decide to start your own laughing community where you live.

Are you sitting near other people right now? Have them join you in a little experiment. Take a deep breath, and as you exhale say, “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” five times. Did you laugh? If you are still feeling serious, do it again, and this time smile with your mouth and your eyes as you say, “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha” five times. If you still aren’t laughing, you might need to rent a funny movie.

I can tell you it is also one of my favorite photography tricks. When you ask people to pretend to laugh for the camera, they almost always end up offering genuine laughter. That’s hard to beat when you’re trying to capture a personality.

There will still be bills to pay, clothes to wash, people to feed, projects to complete, and experiences to be lived, but with a new spring in your step, and an attitude others can enjoy, maybe you’ll see the value of adding a little laughter to your life every day. With the holiday season approaching, a good sense of humor might be the best gift you can give yourself and those around you.

And about diseases such as Alzheimer’s, I am grateful the country in which I live sets aside a month (November) to raise awareness about this cruel disease. More than 6 million Americans are living (and dying) with Alzheimer’s, and every month is a great time to spend celebrating and laughing with people you love who fight diseases like this every single day.

Laughter serves as a blocking agent. Like a bullet — proof vest, it may help protect you against the ravages of negative emotions that can assault you in disease. — Norman Cousins

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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