Mondays with Martin: Laugh My Way to Health

David Martin

A recent health study determined there are three primary reasons people cannot cope in life:

  1. They have low self-esteem. 
  2. They live in the past. 
  3. They don’t laugh enough. 

This study concluded that we need a minimum of twelve laughs a day to stay healthy! I must be suffering from undernourishment. Imagine that – twelve laughs per day. Who does that? My wife and family believe I have no sense of humor, at all, so they are already in shock to hear that I want to laugh more. When I was young, I wanted to become a marine biologist, but I could not keep my grades above “C” level.

When we were children, at least once a year, my father took my brothers and me to the best barber in town for a shaving, I mean a haircut. Jim Sefried was a good man and a good barber. How do I know? He was so good that as children, we sat still long enough for him to cut our hair. The most unusual thing was that we did not squirm in the barber chair, because we were listening so hard for the punch lines to his funny stories. He was a master storyteller, and we were amazed that he could get the grown men and the young boys in the shop to laugh at the same darned jokes. I learned at that early age, if you want to teach someone a lesson, it is a lot easier if they are laughing first before you give them the message. A good laugh goes a long way. A long way to what? To better health, that’s what.

“Two Quarters or a Dollar Bill?” is one of the stories I remember him telling us. 

A young boy enters a barbershop, and the barber whispers to his customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch, while I prove it to you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” 

The boy takes the quarters and leaves the dollar. “What did I tell you?” said the barber. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream store and says: “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licked his cone and replied, “Because the day I take the dollar, the game’s over!”

Recent studies have found that facts and logic do not persuade people to change their minds, even when they are wrong. The more facts that are marshaled to prove their error, the more tenaciously most people will cling to mistaken ideas.

Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, says, “Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” Studies at Yale demonstrated that emphasizing similarities in values prior to presenting the facts was much more likely to be persuasive.

Humorists have long been effective at pointing out the nonsense that frequently passes for wisdom or accepted truth. Think of Will Rogers. His humor was effective because it wasn’t aggressive; whereas, George Carlin’s more caustic wit landed him in court and antagonized many. If you would change people’s minds, don’t try to swamp them with facts. Lead with values that are shared, preferably wrapped in gentle humor.

“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” -Will Rogers

Most of the time, I am adequate at what I do, sufficient for what is required, but I am not remarkable in many things. My whole life has been marked by a consistent overestimation of my abilities. In the past, I would pursue real-life with crippling caution and my hobbies and goals with optimism that overreached the bounds of common sense. 

I regret my social phobias, but I do not regret my ambitions. Thanks to my father’s training, I rode my first horse at the age of five, knew how to swing a pitchfork, and started talking like a naughty adult with bad language to make myself feel older. At fourteen, I wondered if I should focus on my muscles, so I could work outdoors with my dad and be more masculine. Indoors, I thought I should improve my language and think more clearly, like my mother. Slowly, her influence took over my testosterone development, and I started reading widely for fun, as she did, and went to the library to help carry the books she brought home. This change in behavior taught me to be more thoughtful and strategic in my pursuits, but I still had a lot of my dad in me.

Today, I have too many commitments to manage. I listen to music, but never as much as I should to develop my own skills. I write something every day and “coach” students of all ages how to place their own ideas on the written page. These activities are more important than my hobbies and short-term ambitions, and they force me to prioritize my life. I enjoy what I do so much that it does not feel like work.

The future is something I have been planning for many years. I used to have clear goals for what was to come on the highway of life, but as time went along, those objectives shifted, as did my interests, but my passion for words and typed pages did not fade. Black-on-white ideas compete with my dreams. Tossing the right words on paper helps clear my vision, so I can see my chosen path as I proceed during life’s third act.

“Hello, God”:

A man climbs to the top of Mt. Sinai to get close enough to talk to God.
Looking up, he asks the Lord, “God, what does a million years mean to you?”
The Lord replies, “A minute.”
The man asks, “And what does a million dollars mean to you?”
The Lord replies, “A penny.”
The man asks, “Can I have a penny?”
The Lord replies, “In a minute.” 

Recently, I experienced writer’s block. The flow of words stopped. I didn’t expect this to happen, because I liked my topic, and I could see a happy outcome further down the page. Why did my writing freeze? Why now? Why here?

After enough time passed to enjoy two cups of coffee, I realized the previous flow of words related to my past life and how I fled from the “old me” with its pain and frustrations. I could write about those ideas for a long time. The past is history. My future was the mystery.

I started thinking about my son’s great Australian adventure when he led fifteen people into the Outback for three months, and they received a semester’s worth of college credit for their time and effort. One day, his group was tired and thirsty, after walking for twelve hours in the summer heat. They knew they were getting close to a small river, and some of them let their guard down. They were thinking so much about getting water to drink, finding cool shade, and relaxing that they forgot about the dangerous creatures that lived there. The nine most lethal and venomous snakes on Earth live in that region, and so do larger animals who can eat humans for lunch. Brad reminded them of this and to keep moving quietly, while remaining alert. 

A short time later, as the group continued down the narrow trail they were on, the day’s student leader walked around a large boulder, while the rest of the group trailed behind him in single file. Because their forward vision was blocked by the narrow turn of the trail, they lost sight of the leader for a few seconds. To their surprise, they heard him yell, “Oh, good grief! Everyone, stop where you are!”

Brad hurried to the front of the group. As he came around the boulder, he saw a massive crocodile lying across the trail, asleep in the sun, and five yards away from the river. Now, that was a trail blocker, and Brad had to deal with it fast to keep everyone safe. Usually, when there is one croc, there are more nearby. The group’s thirst would have to wait, because everyone’s safety was the primary consideration on each day’s journey. This time, the huge croc took over as their main concern. Sometimes, a writer’s block is a small thing compared to a life block. All things are relative. There are blocks, and there are blocks.

“My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far, I’ve finished two bags of M&Ms and a chocolate cake. I feel better already.” -Dave Barry

“My husband wanted one of those big-screen TV’s for his birthday. So, I just moved his chair closer to the one we have already.” -Wendy Liebman

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” -Douglas Adams

Laughter is cheaper than a psychiatrist, and it is good medicine. It strengthens immune systems, diminishes pain, and reduces stress. Children laugh more than adults, and grownups who act childlike in this way live longer, have better relationships and achieve more happiness. A really good laugh every day lightens our burdens, creates hope, keeps us focused, releases anger, and lets us become more forgiving. Smiling is contagious. Count your blessings. Think positively. Adding playful people to our lives is good chemistry. Take a laugh break. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at situations. Let loose of the negative. Yes, there is such a thing as laugh therapy. There are laughter-based exercise programs, and humor in the workplace increases productivity. Ah, well, it’s not as bad as they say it is, and I wouldn’t be paranoid if everyone didn’t pick on me. People have one thing in common. They are all different.


A little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?”

The mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve, and they had children, so Mankind was made.”

Two days later, the girl asked her father the same question.

The father answered, “Many years ago, there were monkeys from which the human race evolved.”

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom, how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?”

The mother answered, “Well, dear, it is very simple. I told you about my side of the family, and your father told you about his.”

Aunt Nellie Schock was one of my favorite relatives. She got polio when she was six years old, was forever paralyzed from her waist down, and could never walk again without assistance. She learned to use wooden crutches to go from one chair to another, upstairs and down, and outside. She would sit under the big cottonwood tree in her front yard on a small chair that she lugged from the kitchen table, while deftly leaning to one side at just the correct angle, so she would not fall down, as she moved one crutch at a time. 

Always wearing full dresses that reached her shoelaces with full sleeves, the only skin not covered was her face and fingers. Her home in Falls City, NE, let the light breeze enter through the raised windows, while others equipped with blinds kept the sunlight and much of the summer heat outside. Before home air-conditioning, she was “the coolest” of my relatives.

She hired someone in town to construct a five-foot-wide fishpond in the shade of that large tree, and she fed her fish every day, while she talked to them. They became her little friends and seemed to know her shadow on the water meant mealtime. After months of conditioning, they were not afraid to eat out of her hand. Those swimming playmates were given names, and their unique colors and sizes helped her talk to them when she needed company. 

Like floating ideas, they would hide in the pool’s depths and then rise to the surface, when they felt her presence and the time was appropriate. Nellie and her swimming spirits bonded over the flakes of communion she scattered on the water, as they shared their time together. I always wondered if the size of that pond allowed these special fish to flourish more than their cousins trapped in fish bowls around town. Does the size of an individual’s world matter to our mental health and physical consciousness? “Time is but a stream I go a fishing in.” -H.D. Thoreau.

Newspapers, magazines, and books were also her friends. Nellie read, voraciously. She was a clipper of articles, a scrapbook queen, a collector of history, and a saver of mankind’s ideas. Often alone, she was never lonely. Most of her life was spent in meditation. When I think of her, I remember the following story.

The Mysterious Monks:

A man’s car broke down as he was driving past a beautiful old monastery. He walked up the drive and knocked on the front door.

A monk answered, listened to the man’s story and graciously invited him to spend the night. The monks fed the man and led him to a tiny chamber in which to sleep. The man thanked the monks and slept serenely, until he was awakened by a strange and beautiful sound.

The next morning, as the monks were repairing his car, he asked about the sound that had awakened him.

“We’re sorry,” the monks said. “We can’t tell you about the sound. You’re not a monk.”

The man was disappointed, but eager to be gone, so he thanked the monks for their kindness and went on his way.

During quiet moments afterward, the man pondered the source of the alluring sound.

Several years later, the man happened to be driving in the same area. He stopped at the monastery on a whim and asked admittance.

He explained to the monks that he had so enjoyed his previous stay that he wondered if he might be permitted to spend another night under their peaceful roof. The monks agreed, and so the man stayed with them again.

Late that night, he heard the strange beautiful sound. The following morning he begged the monks to explain the sound. The monks gave him the same answer as before. “We’re sorry. We can’t tell you about the sound. You’re not a monk.”

By now, the man’s curiosity had turned to obsession. He decided to give up everything and become a monk, for that was the only way he could learn about the sound. He informed the monks of his decision and began the long and arduous task of becoming a monk. Seventeen years later, the man was finally established as a true member of the order.

When the celebration ended, he humbly went to the leader of the order and asked to be told the source of the sound. Silently, the old monk led the new monk to a huge wooden door. He opened the door with a golden key. That door swung open to reveal a second door of silver, then a third of gold and so on until they had passed through twelve doors, each more magnificent than the last.

The new monk’s face was awash with tears of joy, as he finally beheld the wondrous source of the beautiful mysterious sound he had heard so many years before.

But I can’t tell you what it was. You’re not a monk.

Life has been busy at school. I feel like Gabby Hays, Roy Rogers’s sidekick, prospecting in Death Valley for my elusive vein of gold, as I plod over one sand dune after another leading my mule behind me, the one that looks at me and seems to say, “And you think I am the jackass?” 

Surrounded by thousands of students, literally, the few who are truly interested, good ones appear like a green oasis on the horizon, as I wipe the sand from my eyes. The struggle seems worth the effort, when I can talk to the curious and thoughtful, before they run away for classes, projects, extracurricular activities, sports, and jobs. I am lucky to have time with them, but I revel in those moments when I do. 

Today, we had a readers’ theater in creative writing class, when students volunteered to share their own work of the week. Some of their journal writings made me laugh, and some brought tears to my eyes. They were all good. The students know when a piece is worthy. They involuntarily clap, laugh out loud, and compliment each other. They are good audiences, 98% of the time. More teachers should see them read, perform, and listen to each other’s artistry. I am proud of these creative authors. Write on.

The field of science gives us seven reasons to laugh.

  1. Lowers blood pressure
  2. Reduces stress hormone levels
  3. Works your abs
  4. Improves cardiac health
  5. Boosts T-cells
  6. Triggers the release of endorphins
  7. Produces a general sense of well-being

The Prairie Wind: 

It was hot and constant. After two weeks of this natural inferno without rain, the ground cracked, the crops turned brown, and the small creek running through the farm dried up, Mom’s fingers remained hard and rough, as her face became blunt and raw. Dad never seemed to be in the house anymore. He was always outside helping the livestock survive.

I never saw so many turkey buzzards fly over our place before. Usually, when we saw them, they were too high to be noticed. Now, they were lower and often landed on the ground. This was not a good sign. Their ugly faces woke me up at night and became constant features in my dreams.

Lady was my first horse, and I rode her every day. We went down to the river to escape the heat. We both were eager to get into the water and cool off. She seemed to anticipate my next move on our journeys, almost like we were brother and sister, while growing up together. 

Once a thin, young coyote came to the stream to drink when we were there, and my pal noticed the loping animal before I did. It failed to notice us, because it wanted water so badly. Lady quietly moved over to me and stood next to my left shoulder, as we faced the wild creature that was only a few feet away. After the animal drank its fill, it turned and saw both of us. Surprised to see a human and a horse so close, it stopped in its tracks. Its ears shot up, and its back was arched in fright. It took a long, slow minute to determine that we were not a threat, and it quietly slipped back into the shadows of the Missouri River bluffs. Lady and I looked at each other, and in our own ways, we laughed together at what we just witnessed.

There are so many ways to see the world. Knowledge is good, but wisdom is better. Our exposure to this wildness will always remain with me, and the memories of this snapshot of another world just out of my sight reminds me there is so much we do not know about life. Someday, I hope we will understand its purpose, beauty, truth, and grace.

Mark Twain is known today as America’s favorite literary humorist. His stories, essays, and novels are filled with lessons learned while his readers laughed. He chuckled all the way to the bank in the nineteenth century, and we still read his great books today. During his lifetime, however, he felt he was plagued by tragedy and hard times. Many people he loved died early deaths. He was confident that laughter was necessary for him to go on in life after his tragedies to survive the days that followed. He told friends and readers that he was sure there was no laughter in Heaven. When people asked him how he knew this was true, he said there was no pain in Heaven, so laughter was not needed.

“If you love something, set it free. Unless it’s chocolate. Never release chocolate.” -Renee Duvall

“For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” -Abraham Lincoln