Laughter truly the best medicine?

by Leslie Bek

Q. Why do ducks have webbed feet?
A. So they can stamp out fires.

Q. Why do elephants have round feet?
A. So they can stamp out burning ducks!

grimace-388987_640If you just reacted with a laugh, a chuckle, a smirk or smile, you could be on a path to better health.
Mirthful laughter has been known to play a role in overall personal well being and even make sick people feel better. Laughter activates the chemistry of the will to live and increases our capacity to fight disease. Laughing relaxes the body and reduces problems associated with high blood pressure, stroke, arthritis and ulcers. In short, a good hearty laugh can foster instant relaxation and make you feel good.
In the traditional field of medicine, there are rigorous standards that need to be met before something is considered “proven.” For example, I’m sure that after more than fifty years of clinical study, there still are people out there debating the correlation between smoking tobacco and the development of cancer or heart disease. So, to say the least, at first blush, traditional medicine may have responded to the connection of laughter and improved health as well—a joke.
In the 1960s, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (Minnesota) gave personality tests to 447 people to identify optimists and pessimists. Thirty years later, they examined the health of those people and found that the optimists had lived longer, suffered fewer ailments and generally enjoyed life more than those with a grim outlook.
Researchers at Loma Linda University School of Medicine believe that because a patient is more than just a disease, it’s important to look at the whole person when providing medical treatment. The “humor therapy movement” may have begun when the school’s late 1970s studies on exercise showed laughter not only boosted the immune system, it decreased stress hormones in the body. Research at Stanford University targeted the positive effects of laughter on blood pressure and heart rate.
The Loma Linda University Cancer Institute has begun stocking humor materials for patients to check out. University researchers doctors Berk and Bittman have developed a humor profile called SMILE (Subjective Multidimensional Interactive Laughter Evaluation), which is based on the idea that each person has a different humor preference. Participants taking the SMILE profile answer a few questions about how they’re feeling and what types of humor they enjoy, and then receive a “humor prescription.” Imagine receiving an Rx containing a list of suggested reading materials, videotapes and audiotapes that the person might enjoy.
Two names quickly come to mind at the mention of a “Humor Therapy Movement”: Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams and author Norman Cousins.
Adams, is a physician, social activist, citizen diplomat, professional clown, performer and author. His story was told in the 1998 film “Patch Adams,” with actor Robin Williams in the lead role. His life path takes him to medical school, where he finds a callous philosophy that advocates an arms-length attitude to the patients that does not address their emotional needs or the quality of their lives. Adams is determined to find a better way to help them.
Adams is noted for his beliefs that the health of an individual cannot be separated from the health of the family, community and the world. Equally essential is the necessity of personal interaction with patients. Each year, he organizes a group of volunteers from around the world to travel to various countries where they dress as clowns to bring hope and joy to orphans, patients and the community.
Marquette is home to a Patch Adams-trained professional clown—Bill Waters. According to Waters, his first awareness of the importance of laughter in life came to him during his first career. Serving as a professor in the criminal justice department at NMU, Waters made a career altering observation. While humor was evident in the field of criminal justice practice such as a police station as a coping mechanism, it was scarcely found in the academic setting. Waters set off to become a mechanism of mirth and has traveled the world with Patch Adams teams.
Noted author Cousins also served as adjunct professor of medical humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California—Los Angeles, where he did research on the biochemistry of human emotions. He long believed they were the key to a human being’s success in fighting illness. It was a belief he maintained, even as he battled heart disease and arthritis. He fought both by taking massive doses of Vitamin C and, according to him, by training himself to laugh. Cousins wrote a collection of best-selling nonfiction books on illness and healing, as well as a 1980 autobiographical memoir, Human Options: An Autobiographical Notebook. His personal health struggles are detailed in the book and movie, Anatomy of an Illness.
Told that he had little chance of surviving, Cousins developed a recovery program incorporating megadoses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films.
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he said. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
Research aside, doesn’t it feel good to laugh from the top of your head to the tip of your toes?
Time for a laughter break from Henny Youngman:
“Doctor I have a ringing in my ears.”
“Don’t answer!”
The doctor says, “You’ll live to be sixty!”
“I am sixty!”
“See, what did I tell you?”
You might think about adding humor to your next workout. Laughing uses more muscles at one time than any other activity. In fact, fifteen muscles are required just to smile. Laughing while eating may be a bit messy, but is known to help with digestion.
According to performer/educator Michael Pritchard, “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.” Research estimates a child laughs up to ninety-five percent more times a day than an adult.
Humor has many positive universal applications in life. It can help diffuse conflicts, redirect actions of discipline, serve as a coping mechanism and improve numerous communication objectives. The dark side of humor is that it can be harmful and hurtful if not used as originally intended. Can you relate to the feelings of being the “butt of a joke?” In an effort to perhaps salve the wounds of hurtful humor, how many times growing up did you hear, “We’re laughing with you, not at you”?
Thus, there is appropriate and inappropriate humor. Timing and setting have a lot to do with it. You may not think of church as a setting for a good laugh; however, our pastor often has made us laugh and acknowledges that humor is very much present in his ministry.
Like most health improvement behaviors, it seems there are barriers to engaging in healthy laughter, such as “I don’t tell jokes well,” “I can’t remember the punch-line” or “I’m just not funny.” Counter those notions with a joke book, laugh-a-day calendars, recordings of comedians, or asking children whether if they have heard any good jokes lately. Here’s one:

Q. How do you catch a unique rabbit?
A. Unique up on him.

Q. How do you catch a tame rabbit?
A. The tame way. Unique up on him.

We can’t end without one of these:

Who’s there?
Candace who?
Candace be the last knock-knock joke?

While it is comforting to know that research does support improving your health through positive outlook and laughter, it’s also good to know you don’t need a prescription other than one you can write for yourself.

— Leslie Bek
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