I have often been told that I take things “too seriously” and I suspect that is true. I have always been the one peering behind the corners, questioning what could go wrong, remembering that clouds with silver linings can also bring rain. I know I am not alone in this approach. We live in a world that feels pretty serious, after all. There is crisis, dissent, war, climate disasters, unrest—the list goes on and on.
And, yes, aging is serious business too. There is nothing easy or uncomplicated about growing older. There is nothing light about facing physical and mental changes, about loss, about decline. We all know that with certainty.
Yet, I think there is an opportunity for us to take aging less seriously, not to ignore the challenges but not to let them prevent us from enjoying life, from finding fun where we can find it, for encouraging levity as not just diversion or distraction, but as medicine.
The other day I watched one of our amazing staff in the Recreation Department with a group of elders. She had a circle around her and she was working the crowd, walking back and forth, gesticulating with enthusiasm and telling jokes. Some of the jokes were surprisingly risqué although with a definitely G-rated punchline. And I watched the faces as people erupted into laughter and the whole atmosphere brightened and lightened and shifted.
Years ago, Norman Cousins published his well-known book “Anatomy of an Illness.” Cousins detailed his battle against a life-threatening disease using, as one of his primary tools, the power of laughter. Cousins said that “10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” Cousins did recover, from that first illness and other subsequent health challenges, and his belief in the power of laughter never diminished.
I thought about Cousins’ work and what we know about the power of our emotional state on our physical beings. And I thought about how we approach older adults in our lives. Rather than trying to make them laugh, we speak in hushed tones. We keep the rowdy antics of young children away and we are quick to shush the excited puppy or move out of the bright sunshine and frolicking wind.
What if we worked harder to share joy and radiate positive energy? What if we did what my mother would call ‘putting on a happy face” and made an effort to make those happy feelings real? What if we remembered that aging is a part of life that can be as rich and full as any other time? In a serious world, where there is enough stress to go around, making an effort to not take ourselves too seriously, to not let the weight of life sag our shoulders, feels like just the kind of prescription we all need.