Think the idea of laughing your way to better health is a joke? Turns out, there’s plenty to smile about.
Laugh and be well, wrote Matthew Green way back in the 18th century and from a health perspective, current research would appear to support Green’s wisdom. The concept that engaging in regular laughter and actively assuming a positive attitude not only influences general health and well-being, but also assists in disease management and recovery, is gaining widespread respect throughout the medical community.
Finding something to laugh about is another matter. Switching on the news or glancing at newspaper headlines can have a dampening effect on the staunchest of optimists. Amidst a world climate of war, poverty, disease, and clashing ideology, is there really any place for laughter? According to the experts, the pursuit of humor may prove to be more than a mere coping mechanism it could, perhaps, help heal the world.
Go Ahead and Giggle
A study revealing the stress-relief benefits of mirthful laughter published in the March 2003 edition of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine also found humor to have a significant influence on immune system functioning. In April of 2005, a separate study examined the use of humor in treating patients with cancer (Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing). This study showed the positive influence of laughter in decreasing levels of discomfort and anxiety, improving pain thresholds, and creating an enhanced sense of well-being. The biomedical changes that occurred in patients during the study included improved physical stress response along with an increase in the body’s natural killer cell activity (healthy cells that combat cancer cells).
C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D., and author of numerous books including 90 Days to Stress Free Living (Vega, 2002), Sacred Healing: The Curing Power of Energy & Spirituality (Element Books, 1999), and Life Beyond 100: Secrets of the Fountain of Youth (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005), expresses no surprise at the results of these studies. In 1971, Shealy, a neurosurgeon, founded The Shealy Clinic, the first clinic dedicated to holistic pain and stress management. He points to the growing body of research that documents the mind-body connection, and how our thoughts, life-view, and intention can influence the body in both positive and negative ways.
“If I had to name the single most important thing about health, it would be attitude,” says Shealy. “As far as I can tell, at this time, 80 percent of Americans are depressed, or on the edge of clinical depression. That leaves only 20 percent of the population who are reasonably happy. Attitude is the most important component. I don’t think you can afford not to laugh.”
Shealy points out that experiential proof of humor’s healing potential was offered as long ago as the 1960s by Norman Cousins, celebrated writer and editor of Saturday Review. Shealy explains that Cousins gave an account of his own battle with disease and recovery, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, which detailed how Cousins left the hospital and checked into a hotel to pursue alternative treatment. “This treatment,” Shealy continues, “centered around intravenous delivery of vitamin C coupled with daily doses of belly laughter from watching old movies and funny videos.” As was famously documented in Anatomy of an Illness, this course of treatment was successful.
Shealy himself was introduced to laughing meditation techniques years ago by a dermatologist in Holland. This experience prompted him to conduct his own studies in 1992, during which subjects watched Abbot & Costello movies. He found that during sustained laughter, the brain and body release neurochemicals called beta endorphins, which induce feelings of well-being and effectively help the body to manage pain.
“There’s too much negative out there in the world,” says Shealy. “Unfortunately, a lot of what’s being shown on television and in films is less than uplifting, and this includes the news. Back when I was doing some of my early research on the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and its role in stress management, a couple of my research subjects simply weren’t responding. It turned out they were watching the evening news, and this was actively influencing the study results.”
Adds Susan M. Lark, M.D., author and renowned expert in women’s health issues and preventative medicine, “I think the scientific research and my own professional experience supports the theory that attitude has a huge influence on disease management and recovery. It’s been shown than as much as 80 percent of diseases are caused by stress, negative attitude, and general feelings of unhappiness. That’s been my experience with the thousands of patients I’ve worked with over the past 31 years. When people talk about the factors that push them over the edge into disease, they talk about stress.”
The Butterfly Effect
Laugh, said Ella Wheeler Wilcox, and the world laughs with you. Evidence of the truly contagious power of laughter can be found in the host of laughter clubs that have sprung up throughout the world. Credit for this phenomenon is usually given to the laughter yoga organization created in India during the early 1990s by cardiologist Madan Kataria. Now numbering over 5,000 clubs in 40 countries, group facilitators use a blend of playful techniques to lead groups of people of varying ages, professions, and backgrounds through sessions that include breathing, stretching, meditation, rhythmic clapping, and chanting the words ho ho ha ha ha in unison. Though initially the laughter may be forced, it usually isn’t long before participants are laughing freely and without restraint.
Ellen Brown, who holds laughter workshops and conducts weekly laughter yoga classes in Boulder, Colorado, trained with Kataria. She believes that choosing to adopt a positive attitude, whether taking part in a laughter group or looking for humor in everyday exchanges, is particularly important in this day and time. “We have a lot of fear,” she says. “Laughter helps to put things into perspective. This is a subtle, simple, gentle activity but it is also very powerful.”
Often, says Brown, a free flow of laughter spontaneously erupts during the meditation portion of her classes. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a store clerk or a stockbroker,” she emphasizes. “We all have a lot of stress. But once you start laughing, you wind up laughing more. Something happens that I can’t describe and don’t have the vocabulary to explain. It’s as though laughter allows us to dismiss so many things. During the class, acupressure points on the hands are stimulated as we clap vigorously with our palms open. Physically, blood vessels expand, there’s a surge of oxygen. When you’re falling down laughing, it’s because your muscles have relaxed and you’ve let down your defenses.”
Humor as a Tool
At 73, retired Denver-based psychologist H. John Lyke, author of Walking on Air Without Stumbling (Ripon Community Printers, 1982), and creator of the humorous board game Gone Bananas, believes that it’s vital to our health as human beings that we find a way to laugh at the human condition.
“It’s important to recognize how very little control we have over the external things that happen in life,” says Lyke. “This becomes especially apparent as we grow older. Having a sense of humor can go a long way toward helping us cope with stress. There are so many issues in this world that require serious attention if you have a sense of humor, you are already a few steps ahead of the game.”
Lyke, who answered to the nickname of Smiley during his university days, has taken part in Brown’s laughter workshop. He admits that effort is required when searching for sources of amusement in today’s world and adds that in his opinion, the effort is a worthy one.
“I think that the essence of life is love,” he says, “and one of the ways you can get closer to love is by smiling and laughing and not taking yourself too seriously. I think whenever you laugh, it’s from your heart, whether the laughter is spontaneous or manipulated.”
Although he admits that he approached the workshop setting already believing that laughter was important to the psyche and physical health, Lyke feels that anyone even skeptics can benefit. He explains that what at first may feel forced, eventually will become a natural reflex.
Jean Costa Smith, 67, of St. Augustine, Florida, has spent more time than she cares to remember in hospitals. Diagnosed with meningitis at an early age, Smith was confined to a wheelchair for a long time and has since undergone multiple surgeries on her spine, along with additional surgeries that have removed her gall bladder and several large, non-malignant tumors. She has survived two husbands and spent years as a single mother raising five children. In her job for a major retail chain outlet, she says she not only dealt regularly with rude clients, but also with a corporate management structure that seemed bent on requiring that even the simplest tasks be carried out in the most convoluted manner possible. Today, she is challenged with failing eyesight, but she still approaches life with a joyful outlook.
“It would have been easy just to get depressed,” acknowledges Smith. “But I decided long ago to find the brighter side of any situation the love of my family and children and the realization that I have so much when so many in this world are going without adequate food, medical care, and simple shelter. You have to make a conscious decision to choose a positive outlook. I tell my children that if I couldn’t laugh, I’d probably cry all the time. Having a sense of humor helps me make it through each and every day.”
Whether your personal style is to chortle, snicker, chuckle, or giggle seems to matter less than a willingness to embrace an attitude of joy while making a conscious effort to find pleasure in everyday life regardless of newspaper headlines, your mean-spirited boss, or knowledge of one of the world’s many painful truths.
Perhaps Mark Twain was on to something when he wrote, Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. Perhaps, suggest Shealy, Brown, and Lyke, the laughter that ripples outward from your heart into the world at large can have a kind of butterfly effect, with the sound of one person’s joy touching a stranger, and enabling them to respond in kind, with each expression of glee growing exponentially, eventually affecting the mood of the entire world. Now there’s a happy thought.
The benefits of a good, deep belly laugh are immediate: lowered blood pressure, reduced stress, a boost in immunity, and an increase in the release of beta endorphins, which result in enhanced feelings of well-being. Since science has yet to identify the exact location of the human funny bone, here are a few resources that might prove useful.
Laughter clubs nationwide and abroad
Laugh for No Reason (Madhuri International, 1999) by Madan Kataria, M.D.
Walking on Air Without Stumbling (Ripon Community Printers, 1982) by H. John Lyke
90 Days to Stress Free Living (Vega, 2002) by C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D.
Sacred Healing: The Curing Power of Energy & Spirituality (Element Books, 1999) by C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D.
Life Beyond 100: Secrets of the Fountain of Youth (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005) by C. Norman Shealy, M.D., Ph.D.
Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration (W. W. Norton & Company; reprint edition, 2005)
by Norman Cousins Movies with uplifting messages