HAGELIN: Laugh out loud for less stress, better bonding

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture Challenge of the Week: Back to Stress

It’s that time of year. Back to school too often means “back to stress” for many families. Some of the stress is unavoidable — congested roads, tighter schedules and added expenses. Some of it is situational — kids wake up grumpy, mom has a headache or your boss imposes an onerous deadline. Like it or not, life creates stress.

Ads for stress relievers abound, inviting us to schedule a massage, take yoga, go shopping or join a fitness club. But one of the best stress relievers around is free: laughter. One friend of mine reminds herself often that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” It’s an old but timely truth. And “taking oneself lightly” means embracing humor.

Humor can make everything better. It brings perspective, helping us see things aren’t as bad as they seem. It produces endorphins — kicking off chemical reactions that make us feel better and more resistant to pain. It’s universal, connecting all kinds of individuals in all sorts of situations.

Laughter, according to Robin Dunbar, a psychologist at Oxford University, promotes bonding similar to the bonding produced by physical touch. Shared humor — genuine delight and laughter at something that tickles the funny bone — connects people instantly, breaking through language and cultural barriers. And, as anyone who has experienced a socially awkward moment knows, humor is the best icebreaker ever! Even in everyday situations, humor diffuses tense situations and moves people to let go of anger and irritation. (Think about it — it’s hard to recapture that irritated, annoyed feeling when you’ve just doubled over with a good belly laugh!)

Laughter also helps us learn. Absorbing volumes of new information at school or work is stressful in itself. But facts and concepts stay in our memory more easily when they’re explained in the context of a funny story or told in a humorous way. (Remember that, come homework time.)

Incorporating humor in daily life is a lesson to pass on to our kids. (Or maybe it’s one they’re trying to pass up to us. According to Dr. William Fry, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University Medical School, kindergartners laugh 300 times a day while adults laugh but 17 times.) In fact, children need to see adults laugh more.

“At times a child’s self-confidence will be shaky at best,” Dave Stone, author of “Building Family Ties With Faith, Love & Laughter,” wrote in a recent article, “But when they see you laughing about your own idiosyncrasies, then it becomes easier for them to do the same concerning their own flaws and quirks.”

How to Save Your Family: LOL for Less Stress and Better Bonding

The Bible says in Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” It’s a very simple but powerful truth. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to make laughter part of your life. It also can do wonders for your family to share the simple joys — and even silliness of life together.

As the pace of life accelerates, keep an eye on the “laughter level” in your family. Deepen family bonding time simply by injecting humorous anecdotes or riddles into the conversation. Little kids are good at this, so follow their lead. Even if their jokes aren’t particularly funny to you at first, humor them and indulge their wacky whims. You’ll take on their lightheartedness and your family circle will draw even closer. What your 3-year-old finds funny might not work for your 14-year-old, but laughter is infectious! Get your toddler giggling and the whole family might just follow suit.

Not feeling particularly light-hearted? Remember, spontaneity encourages laughter. Mr. Stone gives lots of examples, such as taking kids to the Krispy Kreme drive-through — after they’ve put on their pj’s and think they’re headed for bed. Forget about the practical inconvenience (yes, their pajamas might get sticky and they’ll have to brush their teeth again). Go ahead and make a memory! Even reluctant adolescents will enjoy themselves in spontaneous occasions that create humorous moments.

Remember, however, that all humor is not created equal. Sarcasm (whose Greek origin literally means “tearing of the flesh”) always involves a victim. Be careful of biting remarks that may get a laugh out of some, but crush the spirits of another.

“Humor is a lot like gasoline,” reminds Mr. Stone. “The right amount used at the right time and for the right purpose can be a great blessing and resource. But if used improperly or as a weapon, it can start a fire that’s tough to extinguish.”

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