“Take two jokes and call me in the morning.” It’s the prescription of physicians and psychologists who are aware that, if we want to look and feel our best, we should laugh more. Joy and laughter are fundamental to health and healing. Some of these men and women work diligently in research institutes, measuring cortisol levels while subjects watch Marx Brothers films. Others lead seminars for healers, doctors and business executives, helping them increase effectiveness and heighten pleasure by learning to see the funny side of things. Many work with cancer patients and the families of the seriously ill. This new breed of professionals comes in many sizes and shapes. You will often find little signs posted on their clinic walls saying things like: “I thought I made a mistake once, but I was mistaken” or “The Joys of Hypochondria” or "'I’m not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens” (Woody Allen).
It is now well-known that our emotional state exerts a major influence on health and longevity. Laughing has a highly beneficial influence on the immune system. Thirty-four years ago, Normal Cousins wrote his still-famous book Anatomy of an Illness (New York: Norton). In it he describes how laughter, together with massive doses of vitamin C, brought about his complete recovery from an excruciating form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis—a crippling spinal disease. Cousins was a renowned American political journalist, author, professor and world peace advocate. While dangerously ill, he discovered that 10 minutes of rich laughter watching Laurel and Hardy or old clips from Candid Camera would bring him two hours of pain-free sleeping with no side effects. When laboratory tests were carried out to measure inflammation—a serious symptom of the illness—they revealed that inflammation was greatly reduced after each bout of laughter. This validated Cousins’ subjective experience and started a revolution in gelotherapy—the word for the therapeutic use of laughter.
After his illness had healed, Cousins was invited by Dean Sherman Mellinkoff, of the University of California at Los Angeles, to join the faculty as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities. Until this day at The Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, a task force of high-caliber scientists continue to map the ways in which the relationship between mind and body affects health and healing—especially the vital role that humor, laughter and other positive emotions and attitudes like determination, love, purpose, hope and the will to live can both heal and lengthen lives. Cousins wrote, “It becomes necessary therefore to create a balanced perspective, one that recognizes that attitudes such as a strong will to live, high purpose, a capacity for festivity, and a reasonable degree of confidence are not an alternative to competent medical attention, but a way of enhancing the environment of treatment. The wise physician favors a spirit of responsible participation by patients in a total strategy of medical care.”
LAUGHTER IS CONTAGIOUS
In Europe, Britain and the United States, many hospitals provide “humor rooms” where patients go to watch videos and laugh. Organizations like John Cleese's “Video Arts Program” offer courses which make use of laughter to teach managers how to handle difficult situations more effectively through humor.
American psychiatrist William Fry, M.D. is someone who has been investigating humor's beneficial effects on healing for decades. He says, "We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body.” A good belly-laugh which speeds up the heart rate, improves blood circulation and works muscles all over the body is every bit as beneficial as a bout of aerobic exercise. After the laughter is over, you feel wonderfully relaxed. It benefits the heart, increases the consumption of oxygen, reduces muscle tension, pulse and blood pressure. Fry believes that laughter is a kind of blocking agent—a buffer which helps to protect us from the damage that negative emotions (particularly those that arise during illness) do to the body. He says, “In any serious illness there's a sense of panic and helplessness that have direct psychological effects. Humor is one of the full range of positive emotions that help establish a new flux.” Fry has also discovered that laughter and humor diffuse rage—the violent emotion at the core of Type A personalities, with their high disposition to cardiovascular disease.
LAUGH STRESS AWAY
At Loma Linda Medical Center in the United States, Research Professor of Pathology Lee S. Berk carefully charted many of the ways in which laughter is good for you. Most of them revolve around humor’s ability to counter the ravages of the classic stress response. When we are under stress, certain hormones such as noradrenaline, cortisol and adrenaline shoot up. Adrenaline constricts blood vessels, raising heart rate and blood pressure. Over time this can lead to tachycardia, heart palpitations and hypertension. Frequent laughter significantly reduces these negative consequences. Berk finds that cortisol levels are also significantly reduced when we laugh. High cortisol levels tend to suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and premature aging. Humor lowers cortisol, modulating the immune system.
DO IT YOURSELF
Some wonderful organizations have grown up to help those of us who have forgotten how to laugh rediscover the art. One of the most highly respected is The Humor Project, founded by American educator Joel Goodman in Saratoga Springs New York. It acts as a clearinghouse for information and programs worldwide designed to help people find successful ways of applying humor in their lives. This was the first organization in the world to focus full-time on the positive power of humor. Right from its inception, their mission has been to make a difference to the lives of individuals, organizations and nations. They do a great job of it too. You can order books, DVDs, props and software to help you personally or professionally. They host teleseminars and international Humor and Creativity Conferences which attract health care professionals and groups of humorists from around the world, as well as ordinary people wanting to improve their health and the quality of their lives.
A month ago, Scientific American published an interesting article called “How Happiness Boosts the Immune System.” It examines some of the research now taking place, not only in respect to the influence laughter has on the immune system and healing in general, but on gene expressions.
Professionals working with laughter are quick to point out that laughter is not just for the ill and infirm. It is for everybody. One of the best things about humor is that it breaks through the tendency each of us has to take ourselves and our values too seriously. It breaks down the roles we play and liberates the essential being locked within. It is the tendency we humans have to identify with our own self-created image, fears, beliefs and assumptions that takes us away from the joy which is our birthright. We all need to seek out and spend time with people who make us laugh. It is high time we rediscover the art of being silly—like a child.
How Happiness Boosts the Immune System
Scientific Research on Laughter at Loma Linda University
The Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA
The Humor Project