A chuckle a day
A short history of therapeutic laughter
The concept of laughter being good medicine isn't new, of
course. It was mentioned in the Old Testament. ("A merry heart doeth good
like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." Proverbs
And it's been more than two decades since the late magazine
editor Norman Cousins published his 1979 "Anatomy of an Illness," in
which he describes how he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful
rheumatic disease, and how he managed it partly by watching funny videos. Now
there's more scientific evidence to buttress Cousins' intuition.
What a good laugh can do
Lee Berk, DrPh, a pioneer in laughter studies, says laughter
has been found to decrease or attenuate cortisol and other "distress"
hormones, although not everyone agrees. And laughter may improve the immune
system, adds Berk, associate director of the Center of Neuroimmunology at Loma
Linda University School of Medicine and associate professor of health promotion
and education in the university's School of Public Health.
In his oft-quoted study, published in the American Journal
of the Medical Sciences in December 1989, he found that laughter is a good
kind of stress: It reduces blood levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and other
substances. Increased cortisol and epinephrine levels tend to suppress the
immune system, so decreasing their levels is believed to be beneficial.
Laughter may go a long way to reducing pain, too. At UCLA, a
five-year program called UCLA/Rx Laughter, in which researchers are studying
the effects humorous videos have on young patients' perception of pain, is
entering its second year, funded in part by TV's Comedy Central.
Laughter also may help a patient who already has had a heart
attack, Berk says. In a study he and his colleagues presented at the 4th
International Conference on Preventive Cardiology in 1997, 24 cardiac
rehabilitation patients who watched a 30-minute funny video each day for a year
had fewer heart attacks than 24 cardiac patients who did not watch such videos.
In the video-watching group, only two had subsequent heart attacks, compared to
10 in the other group.
It would be easy enough to add laughter to a traditional
cardiac rehabilitation program, says Veronica Polverari, RN, board certified in
holistic nursing and manager of cardiac rehabilitation services for Santa
Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Currently, many programs include lifestyle
modifications such as having people watch what they eat and exercise more.
Adding advice on how to laugh more would be simple, Polverari says.
Learning the art of laughter
Laughing more often and seeing humor in stressful situations
can be learned. Larry Wilde, a former standup comedian who founded the Carmel
(Calif.) Institute of Humor, makes a living as a motivational humorist,
teaching people to laugh. At 72, he says he is free of heart disease.