“Learn to laugh at HIFA!”

I read this headline with some amusement when the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) advertised a series of laughing workshops hosted by a famed doctor from India during its 2010 edition.

I was taken aback, not so much by the fact that people need to be taught to laugh, but rather, that people do not laugh as often as they should.

Laughter, the best medicine.

Numerous scientific articles have been written about the health and mental benefits of laughter. Books have even been published on laughing lessons![1] According to Dr. Madana Katarina, who hosted the HIFA laughing workshops, prolonged periods of laughter reduce physical, mental and emotional stress[2]. He specializes in teaching people how to laugh and started a laughter club in India in 1995. Laughter relaxes the whole body, boosts the immune system, triggers the release of endorphins and protects the heart, according to experts[3].

Being a beneficiary of a life filled with laughter, I totally agree with these experts and think the world would be so much better if people took time to relax their facial muscles, open their mouths and let out a long, hearty laugh.

Just as there is beauty all around us, we can find reason to laugh under any circumstances no matter how adverse. There is just so much humour everywhere, if only we would take time to look, listen and laugh.  

Growing up in Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo, my family may not have had everything we wanted, but one thing was certain, our home was filled with laughter.

Having lost my father at the age of five, as a child I always had this nagging fear of losing my mother. I grew up when there were no mobile phones and although there were public call boxes, my mother did not always call to say she would be home late. Six o’clock every evening was the time we were trained to close all windows and draw the curtains. It was also the time when everyone was supposed to be home. If my mother was not home by then, as it grew darker and the clock ticked towards seven o’clock, that fear would start creeping in.

I’d be overtaken by panic as a myriad of questions swam through my head, like “What if…?”

However, as the “what ifs” tormented me and I struggled to suppress the overwhelming fear, a familiar tingling sound would interrupt those negative thoughts and I would be at peace again. My mother’s merry laugh would fill the atmosphere as she chatted with the neighbours on her way in. During those days, the world was so safe that walls were decorative and built largely to demarcate one’s yard, so we could always peep over at our neighbours and converse.

As mom made her way from the gate to the door, her musical and soothing laugh overshadowed every other sound. It always started on high note, like a soprano, before reaching a crescendo and then coming down to an alto as it faded. I imagine an invisible orchestra would join her when ever she laughed. If I had to draw my mother’s laugh, it would take the form of bells shaped into a curve, a bit like that of the product life cycle in Marketing.  

Laughter, like music, can be uplifting.

Naturally, my fears would immediately vanish and the house would be filled with mirth again. As we grew older, we learnt to generate our own laughter too.  

Later as a high school student, friends would phone me during the holidays and not say a word. Some confessed that they did not always call to speak to me, but “to listen to the laughter in the background.” I found that queer but indulged them all the same, although I now understand how laughter can affect one’s mood and well-being.

Years later, while I was working for the national news agency, a friend whom I had not seen for some years brought her son to a pediatrician who practiced from the same building. I was surprised when she rang the bell and asked for me. When I asked how she’d known that was where I worked she simply said “I heard the laugh and followed the sound.” Exactly a year later, we found out we lived in different wings of the same block of flats when, one day, she gathered the courage to follow the sound of laughter and ended up at my doorstep.

“Your laugh is refreshing…” this is the first thing most people say to me when we meet for the first time. Often, when someone who has met one of my family members meets me, chances are they’ll say “you laugh like so and so.” One of my colleagues says she stands by my officer door “just to listen to the refreshing laugh.”

Laughing is among the values my mom passed on to us hence humour is intricately woven into the very core of my being, which is why I marvel at the fact that people have to be taught to laugh.  I realize, rather sadly, that as children we laughed so easily, yet in adulthood we have lost the essence of laughter. It’s as though maturity and lacking a sense of humour are synonymous.

As children, we laugh so easily, yet we seem to loose that ability with "maturity."

Certainly, we need to regain and maintain the ability to laugh. It is by far one of the safest ways to stay healthy. When I feel low, I still call home and laugh with my mom. Who needs a pick-me-up drug with a mother like mine? To me, laughter is one of the most comforting sounds.

So, why not just try laughing. Next time you feel stressed or sad, before you reach for that bottle, try something different – laugh! If you can’t laugh at your problems, at least find a comedy or get a book on jokes – there are way more reasons to laugh than to stress.

So go on then, just laugh!!!