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The healing power of laughter.

"You cannot feel depressed if you are laughing. You cannot get an ulcer while you are laughing. Laughter, even forced, can produce endorphins, and you become cheerful."

Less than half a century ago, the suggestion that laughter or any other positive emotion could have medical or psychiatric value would have been laughable.

With the realization that stress and anxiety might have physical consequences, only then did some health professionals begin to take seriously the importance of positive emotions.

The new open-mindedness toward humor as therapy may have been given impetus by the publicity generated by Norman Cousins' book, Anatomy of an Illness, in which he recounted the restorative powers of laughter. Cousins was suffering from a collagen degeneration for which doctors predicted no hope. By checking himself into a hotel and surrounding himself with joke books, comedy films and the administration of large doses of vitamin C, he managed to avert total collapse.

Partly as a result of this book, and to the credit of the emergence of holistic medicine, physicians began to see the value of viewing the patient in complete terms, including emotions interacting with bodily functions.

Although Hippocrates and other healers of his time recognized the value of joyfulness, during long periods of human history laughter was considered to be impolite. Many in the clergy pronounced it to be sinful.

The Pilgrim settlers, for example, looked upon laughter with disdain. They permitted it only when it served to illustrate a moral lesson.

Robert Barclay, the author of Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676), wrote "It is not lawful to use games, sports, plays, nor among other things comedies among Christians under the notion of recreations, since they do not agree with Christian silence, gravity, and sobriety."

As early as the thirteenth century, however, Henri de Mondeville, a French surgeon, proposed that laughter be used as an aid to recovery from surgery. He wrote: "The surgeon must forbid anger, hatred, and sadness in the patient, and remind him that the body grows fat from joy and thin from sadness" (A.R. Moody, Jr., The Healing Power of Humor, Headwater Press).

A nineteenth century German professor wrote: "Laughter is one of the most important aids to digestion ... the nourishment received amid mirth and jollity is productive of light and healthy blood..."

Although much evidence exists that affirms circumstantial evidence of laughter's therapeutic value, few studies have been made to prove the long-term medical and psychological benefits.

Many reports have hailed laughter and humor to be beneficial in restoring homeostasis (balance) in bodily functions, stabilizing of blood pressure, oxygenation of blood, stimulation of vital organs and improving circulation, facilitating of digestive processes, and inducing relaxation. The best documented studies correlate the benefits of laughter with improved heart rate and respiration.

Laughter's relation to longevity has been noted by W.F. Fry, Jr., a behavioral scientist and clinical psychiatrist. He has reported that persons who displace anger, anxiety, and hostility with a sense of humor qualify more often for a longer life.

Rene Dubos, another eminent researcher in the field of clinical psychiatry, speculated that the then newly discovered pituitary gland secretes endorphins that are related to laughter and its beneficial effects.

Endorphins are chemically related to opiates, such as morphine and heroin, and act to reduce pain and generate feelings of well-being. They are produced in the body to reduce stress and pain, but are also regarded as effective in contributing to a sense of euphoria.

People who can laugh at their own problems rise above the pit of self-pity; they begin to feel uplifted, encouraged, and imbued with a sense of power.

Comedy writers know the power of humor. So do comedians and cartoonists. Interviews with these purveyors of mirth often reveal that the practitioners are usually people susceptible to depression but manage to ward off their moodiness by joking about their difficulties. It is a gainful way of grasping power over their problems.

Allen Klein, in his book The Healing Power of Humor, uses the following example of comedians who rose above their tragedies: "Totie Fields' mother died when she was five; David Steinberg's brother was shot down in the war; Jackie Gleason's father deserted him; Joe E. Brown was abandoned as a child; W.C. Fields ran away from home because his father threatened to kill him; Dudley Moore was born with a club foot; Art Buchwald's mother died when he was very young; and Carol Burnett's parents were both alcoholics who were constantly embroiled in family warfare.

"Charlie Chaplin, too, found solace in humor," Klein recounts. Raised in the slums of London, he was five years old when his father died of alcoholism; after that his mother suffered insanity. Chaplin used these gloomy memories in his films and turned them into comedic gems. Who can forget the scene in The Gold Rush, for example, where he eats a boiled leather shoe for dinner because no other food is available?

"One of the great leaders of our country, Abraham Lincoln, lost his job, failed in business, was defeated for the legislature, lost his renomination to Congress, twice lost a bid for the Senate, and was defeated for nomination for vice-president of the United States. In spite of all of these setbacks, his bouts of depression, and the death of three sons and a sweetheart, Lincoln continually summoned his sense of humor to gain the strength and the power to go on."

Much of the pain we suffer from life's setbacks is either heightened or diminished by our attitude toward disappointments. Humor and laughter are coping mechanisms. Seeing humor in distressing situations is more effective than drugs or alcohol.

Dealing with anger and fear, the aforementioned Dr. Fry commented: "Rage is impossible when mirth prevails."

"To have a sense of humor is to have an understanding of human suffering and misery ...," psychoanalyst Martin Grotjahn said in his seminal work on the subject, Beyond Laughter.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Narrow, Conrad
Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:987
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