I confess to having no clinical or medical training, but my reading of some of the literature increasingly tells me that laughter, and the hormones that trigger it, is a powerful healing and comforting tool that serves to help us cope with stress, anxiety, trauma and the challenges associated with living and navigating modern life.
Mental health issues are an increasing concern for clinicians and allied health workers, and given the trauma associated with coping in a world affected by a global pandemic, my non-clinical eye tells me that the longer the pandemic lingers, the bigger the incidence of mental illness in a post-pandemic world.
Humour generally, and laughter in particular, have always been key coping mechanisms in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other Indigenous communities around the globe. There are always scallywags, men and women, who made people laugh to help forget, for a few minutes, the trauma of racism, living in poverty and social segregation.
Growing up in the shanties on the banks of the Namoi river in Walgett, stories were an important part of our survival, and were regularly used to ignite raucous mirth and laughter. These stories were as eagerly awaited as were the mystic and mystery of the many ‘ghost stories’ told around camp fires.
There were Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scallywags, yarn-spinners who would try to outdo each other about the size of a fish that was caught/ got away, or who had the most obedient dog etc. One such legend was the non-Aboriginal father of one of my best mates, Ray Morris.
Ray’s father had a reputation in Walgett and surrounding towns as a great yarn spinner, and one of the yarns I recall him telling to a group of us young kids one day was of two old blokes boasting about the most obedient dog they had worked with. One bloke said that his dog was so clever and obedient that all he had to do was whistle and his dog would immediately jump on the back of his wagon and he would be panting, ready for work.
The other old bloke was a drover and he told his mate; ‘That’s nothing, my dog was so clever and obedient that once I was in Coonamble (just over a 100kms away), and I was in a phone booth talkin’ to a mate and I remembered that I left my best dog in Walgett. I told my mate to put the phone to my dog’s ear and I whistled, and when I finished the call and left the phonebooth, my dog was there outside the booth waiting for me, that’s how clever and obedient my dog was’.
Such tall tales filled and excited the imagination of growing boys.
There’s another story of an old Aboriginal bloke who was sitting on a doorstep when he was approached by a tourist who was passing through town. The tourist stopped to ask directions to a neighbouring town, and the old bloke pointed to a road out of town and said to the tourist, ‘You’ve taken everything else from us, so just take that road and it will take you to the next town’. The tourist had a good laugh and apologised and gave the old bloke a good tip for his truth and ‘advice’.
There are a number of hormones that reportedly trigger chemical reactions in the human body. These hormones are transported through the bloodstream to help regulate mood and excite sensitivities. The hormones are collectively referred to as the ‘happy hormones’ and include dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins.
Endorphins are perhaps the most relevant hormone when the notion of laughter and happiness is considered. Endorphins are produced by the central nervous system and when activated they help us deal with, among other things, pain or stress. Endorphins are the high that we get when we do things such as eat, exercise, or have sex.
Serotonin is a hormone that helps moderate our mood, our feelings of wellbeing, and general happiness. It also helps to reduce our worries and concerns and is associated with learning and memory.
Serotonin is released when we do things that we often take for granted such as a walk in the outdoors, especially during sunny days, a healthy rest and good night’s sleep, each of these in their own way, helps to reduce our stress levels.
So, bring on the laughter, unleash the happy hormones and whilst we mourn the loss of life, let’s also have some levity to help us cope with the stress of surviving this global pandemic.
As Lord Bryon counselled, ‘Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine’