“Always remember to laugh,” Lord Byron once said. “It is the cheapest medicine.”
While watching a 60 Minutes report, many years ago, I watched a career altering story about the healing power of laughter. Shortly after a trip to the Soviet Union, Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a progressive, degenerative disease of collagen tissue often affecting the spine. His doctors indicated heavy metal poisoning as a possible cause of his illness.
Mr. Cousins, on the other hand, suspected that a stress-induced condition of adrenal exhaustion lessened his body’s ability to tolerate repeated toxic exposure to diesel exhaust fumes during his travels. He then recalled reading about a research that concluded negative emotions caused biochemical changes that had deleterious effects on the body. He theorized that positive emotions might create changes in the body that would enhance his recovery process. With the assistance of his very open-minded physician, he checked into a hotel and laughed for hours watching Marx Brothers and Three Stooges movies, while an IV infused with large amounts of vitamin C flowed into his veins.
He reported that watching the films decreased his pain and helped him to sleep better. Significant changes in his blood chemistry were recorded. The sedimentation rate (an indicator of inflammation) was taken daily, before and after “laughter” sessions; significant decreases were noted after. Cousins’ controversial personal account was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It prompted an outpouring of disbelief and heated discussion within medical circles.
The Birth of Humor Therapy
His book, Anatomy of an Illness, became a best-seller and is now considered a classic in the world of mind-body medicine. Cousins is the father of humor therapy, and made significant contributions through encouraging and supporting the scientific investigation of humor induced physiological responses and the impact they have on our health.
Today a continually expanding body of medical research recognizes the benefits of laughter in preventing and reversing disease caused by the effect of stressful events on our lives. This finding isn’t actually as new as it appears to be. Throughout history, and for thousands of years, sages have recognized the importance of laughter, as recorded in the ancient scriptures. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” says the Bible (Proverbs 17:22).The medical world has studied humor and found that mirthful laughter, the type of laughter associated with humor, positively affects most of the body’s major systems: circulatory, respiratory, muscular, nervous (including the brain), endocrine, and immune.
The stimulation that laughter provides improves circulation because of its effects on the heart and the blood pressure. It helps the lungs to process oxygen more efficiently and improves the conditioning of the heart muscle. It also decreases the level of stress hormones circulating in the bloodstream and reduces muscle tension and pain. William Fry, now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, has conducted extensive research on the effects of laughter and concluded that several minutes of intense mirthful laughter is comparable to exercising for ten to fifteen minutes on a stationary bike or a rowing machine.
Laughter is a happy, pleasant experience that alters our emotional response to stress. It temporarily shifts our attention, allowing us to experience the lighter side of life even in the face of adversity or illness. It enables us to release painful emotions like anger, fear, and boredom. Through laughter, we can leave behind crying and feeling like a victim, instead moving toward health and feeling like a survivor.
The ability to appreciate humor can reduce the mood disturbances that are the response to negative life events. Psychologically, it somehow gives us a greater sense of control over our lives. Although we cannot control the outside world and the things that happen in it, we do have the ability to control how we view these events and how we respond to them emotionally.
There is an interesting difference between the effects on our health of appropriate and inappropriate humor. The basic rule is that appropriate humor is inclusive: it brings people together. Any humor that is exclusive—that separates, offends, or lacks consideration of the feelings of others—is inappropriate. Therefore, it’s no surprise to me that medical research has determined that appropriate humor is beneficial, whereas inappropriate humor is not.
Laughter Engagement Suggestions
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor defines therapeutic humor as “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.”
Laughter is an effective self-care tool. It improves the body’s function. Yet it is not merely a tool to be employed when you’re stressed or unwell; it a gift of your humanity to be thoroughly enjoyed every day of your life. We’re born laughing. Babies begin to laugh during the first few months of life. On average, children laugh about 150 times a day, whereas most adults laugh only 15 times a day. Laughing will help you to stay young at heart.
Stronger social bonds are formed when laughter is shared. Have you ever “caught” someone else’s boisterous laughter? Surely you have! Nothing beats the feeling that comes from being “infected” like this. Laughter definitely helps us raise our happiness quotient.
To bring more smiles and laughter into your life, try one of these humor strategies:
1. Consciously intend to laugh.
2. Identify what types of things you find funny.
3. Cultivate a playful attitude.
4. Learn to tell jokes.
5. Create your own verbal humor.
6. Look for humor in your daily life.
7. Laugh at the silly things you do.
8. Purposefully find humor in the midst of stress.
9. Hang out with people who make you laugh.
Let’s begin laughing!
SuperHealing: Engaging Your Mind body, and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being by Elaine R. Ferguson, MD Chapter 2