The Laughing Cure
Why a hearty guffaw may really be the best medicine.
Cousins' Comedy "Cure"
It was Anatomy of an Illness, the 1979 memoir by late magazine editor
Norman Cousins, that put a potential humor/health connection on the mainstream
map. Cousins described how he recovered from a usually irreversible and
crippling connective tissue disease with a regimen that -- among other
therapies -- included laughing at Marx Brothers movies.
Of course, Cousins' success by itself is no proof. And researchers seeking
to put medical laughter on more solid scientific footing have faced serious
obstacles -- from a shortage of funding to the fact that guinea pigs don't
Lee Berk, DrPH, a pathology professor at Loma Linda University in
California, is among those who have tried. In a series of studies, including
one published in the December 1989 issue of the American Journal of Medical
Science, he examined before-and-after blood samples from subjects who had
viewed humorous videos and from a control group who had not. He found
significant reductions in stress hormones and enhanced immune function --
including increased natural killer cells -- in the video-watching subjects.
But the cost and logistics of such sophisticated blood analyses limited
those studies to small groups of five to ten people. Meanwhile, a Japanese
study published in the June 1997 issue of the journal Perceptual and Motor
Skills -- with all of eight people -- actually found a decrease in natural
killer cell activity after a group viewed a comedy video.
Even research on pain relief has shown complex results: For an Israeli
study, published in the November 1995 issue of the journal Pain, 20
people each watched either a funny, repulsive, or neutral flick. Before and
during the films, each underwent a standard test for pain tolerance -- they had
to keep one arm submerged in a tank of icy water and rate the discomfort. Humor
clearly helped (though repulsion actually increased pain tolerance most).
The same researchers later found comedy videos worked best when
"taken" a half-hour before pain testing and with at least a 45-minute
While it will be several years before the UCLA study delivers its first
medical punch lines, it has already solved a key riddle: Who will pay to see
whether laughter really is, if not the best, at least an effective medicine?
After all, drug companies, which spend billions to prove medications work, have
little stake in investigating laughter.
Instead, Hilber turned to Comedy Central. The television home of South
Park will fund most of the study's initial phases with a $75,000 grant.
"If in five years' time this study can determine that comedy is good for
you, we really have a marketing opportunity," says network executive Tony
Fox. "[Forget] an apple a day. Watch Comedy Central instead!"