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Roger Fransecky

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Lighten Up!

Posted: 03/14/08 02:11 PM ET

What a week! Oil prices hit a new record with gas prices prodding people to a Prius, "Mr. Clean" Spitzer again surrenders to the seduction of power, informed by bouts of narcissism and obsessive-compulsive behavior, and we finally "get" that we are in a recession.

We need a laugh.

So many of us seem locked in terminal seriousness about our lives, and there are certainly reasons to feel discouraged: an imploding Middle East, Americans dying in the Iraq civil war, an inept Congress, the overall sense that America is underled and drifting from its world leadership, Vista slowdowns, and technology congestion. (As if that isn't enough, it's also been bad year for spider mites in our garden.)

Can't we learn to have more fun, to sit back and relax and, at least for brief periods, lighten up? Where do we "relax" now? In coffee bars that serve jolting caffeine and pit stops flush with superfast, high-fat, food! We take serious vacations, full of purpose, active leisure, and often exhausting agendas. We're going camping, visiting family, checking out Zagat's top 10, tackling the highest, fastest, longest, oldest, most expensive, least discovered. It's no wonder we need a vacation from our vacation.

I admit I could use some help with this. While I have learned to downshift and unplug, I still need to feel purposeful. I was raised with parents who told me to "get up, go out, and get busy". Are we caught up in a work ethic that has little to do with our current reality? Raised as we are with Old Testament teachings against sloth and sluggardliness, we have to be busy to be important, over-busy to feel successful. Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing, notes "everyone I know is in the same boat. We work way too hard and yet nearly not enough."

My own definition of having fun has changed. For years it was travel to an island beach, a night of New York theatre, or to shop for the next new gadget or car. I certainly enjoyed time with our family, but much of the daily management pressed "fun" out of the equation. We were "gritters," and we got it done. Fun fell into predictable patterns: dinner out, a movie together, entertaining friends, a Broadway opening. Fun had to have a destination and, more often, a purpose. Many of us, sadly, have to learn to have fun.

But living demands a sense of humor. Laughter is essential.

In the mid-90's C.W. Metcalf, called "America's Corporate Clown Prince," became a timely coach for me. His seminars and book, Lighten Up - Survival Skills For People Under Pressure, details how humor helped him cope with 37 rough years of "uneven work experiences" and his recovery as an addict/alcoholic. C.W. studied psycho-neuro-immunology, the body-mind connection, to confirm the essential link between laughter and survival, pain and perspective.

At Rutgers University, psychology professor Maurice Elias, Ph.D., leads humor workshops for budding clinicians. He thinks more of his colleagues are looking to mirth because the study of humor has "tapped into something old, something psychology has gotten away from in our efforts to be more cognitive and behavioral and more scientific. We've lost sight of the fact that we are emotional human beings."

Humor channels those emotions toward a positive effect, says Edward Dunkleblau, a Des Plaines, Ill., corporate consultant and trainer who often uses props such as stuffed bears and finger traps to elicit smiles during therapy. "But it's not a therapy," he cautions, "it's a complementary treatment. It facilitates that which we do as therapists. We're trying to help people problem-solve, to develop, to know they're alive. These are things that humor does."

Research and medical experts have demonstrated that laughter boosts the immune system, increasing natural disease-fighting killer cells and lowering blood pressure.

In his landmark 1979 book Anatomy of An Illness, Norman Cousins, a distinguished editor, detailed his partnership with his physician to beat the odds of a terminal disease using his own body's natural healing resources, and the healing power of laughter. Cousins watched and laughed at Candid Camera and comedy programs as part of his therapy and found fifteen minutes of laughter worked as well as an hour of pain medication. Cousin's book inspired much of the early research on the body-mind connection. In fact, there is now an Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor to "advance the understanding and application of humor for their positive benefits."

Sometimes humor pops up in the most unlikely times and places in an effort to ease tension. I recall a flight attendant's mischievous boarding announcement: "There may be 50 ways to leave your love, but there are only 4 ways out of this airplane."

Another time when I stood in a crowded boarding area waiting to my flight, an angry traveler marched up to the counter pulling his wheeled suitcase and demanded that he be given his boarding pass, and now! At first the ticket agent tried to ignore him, but he refused to be ignored. Finally, unable to contain his rage, he yelled, "Do you know who I am?" The agent took a deep breath, picked up her PA microphone and announced to the 200 assembled passengers, "There is a man at the ticket counter who does not know who he is. Anyone able to identify the man please step forward."

To "have fun" means suspending some old beliefs:

* that you need to be serious to survive and be taken seriously
* that you don't have time for fun
* that fun takes lots of money,
* that having fun is foolish, immature and irresponsible.

Here are some ideas for "fun" homework:

* Schedule something fun either by yourself, with your partner/spouse/best pal, family. Visit a zoo, a new gallery, or take a dance lesson.

* Explore events and experiences in the weekly Arts and Entertainment section of the newspaper or on-line and sign-up, attend, make an effort to do, see, test, play, watch, sing, dance, listen, ponder, explore. Just one new experience a week can jumpstart your fun quotient and give you a lift.

* Collect funny websites, quotes, quips you heard that day, and share them. Build a tape or DVD with favorite scenes that make you laugh. Learn to tell funny stories.

* Check out your local comedy club.

* Spend time with a person who makes you laugh.

* Watch funny movies. Check the on-line rental sources for recommendations.