Can laughter really help us heal? Anecdotal evidence and some studies seem to point in that direction. Scientists aren't sure. But why wait for them to figure it out? Just yuck it up. It certainly can't hurt.
Scientists know that laughing increases the rate at which the heart beats and the muscles contract. Laughter stimulates the cardiovascular, circulatory, and endocrine systems. Some studies have even shown that laughter bolsters the immune system, reduces stress hormones, and increases our tolerance to pain.
In his book Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins likened laughter to "internal jogging." Suffering from a painful degenerative illness, Cousins found that twenty minutes of hearty laughter gave him two hours of pain-free sleep. Interest in the topic of laughter and healing was piqued again when the movie Patch Adams was released. Medical schools are beginning to incorporate humor training into their curricula while all over the country, seminar leaders teach medical personnel how humor can relieve job stress and enhance their interactions with patients.
Laughing It Off
While the scientific community seeks to understand and prove the beneficial physiologic effects of laughter, there are some undisputed benefits.
"There are three ways humor and laughter help us when life gets bumpy," says Steve Sultanoff, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. "The first is that humor gives us perspective and changes the way we see the world," allowing us to positively change our attitudes when the going gets rough. Secondly, humor changes our cognitive state, which is directly related to our physical well-being. You can't experience humor and be distressed at the same time, Sultanoff says. Finally, humor triggers laughter, which gives us that internal workout Cousins spoke about.
The bottom line, Sultanoff says, is that after we laugh, we feel good.
Humor and Aging
As we grow older, we begin experiencing things that are definitely not funny, including aches and pains, illnesses, losses, diminished abilities, etc.
"Serious illness is not funny. Death and dying are not funny. But funny things happen in those situations," says Allen Klein, author of The Healing Power of Humor. The key, he says, is to focus on those small things that make you laugh because they can give you a new perspective and help you cope. Klein has found that people who can laugh seem to be more resilient.
"Poke a little fun at yourself," he suggests. "I do. At my age, my back goes out more than I do," he jokes. "Humor is all around. You just have to look for it."
Attitude Is Everything
Katherine Russell Rich, author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer and Back, had been told she had a year to live when she saw a TV program claiming that people who were happy coped better with illness.
"I put myself under medical orders to be happy," she says. "It wasn't easy. I made gratitude lists. Read Norman Cousins. Fell totally and unexpectedly in love with a good friend. He's got a wicked sense of humor and so do I. I've never laughed so hard in my life."
That was several years ago.
"When you're told you have a year to live and that you'll die an extremely painful death, you have two choices: you can either prepare to die, or you can say, 'Oh hell, might as well have the best time I can with what I have left.' For me, laughter tipped the balance," says Rich. "I truly believe a positive attitude helped save my life."
Humor also distracts us from our aches and pains. Pain sensation, Sultanoff says, doesn't come from just the physiologic sensation, but also from your attitude regarding that sensation. Your attitude can increase or decrease the pain you feel.
The ability to cultivate friendships—in which humor plays an important part—is particularly important to aging people because friendships are so important to maintaining independence and good health, says Virginia Cornell, author of The Latest Wrinkle and Other Signs of Aging. Plus, it's hard to laugh alone. Klein suggests we find ourselves humor buddies to laugh with.
Looking for "good and funny stuff" about growing older can boost your attitude. Cornell says that for one thing, growing old means no longer having to cough up the kids' lunch money every morning.
"As you get older," she says, "you must give up the constant fussing about things you can do nothing about, so you learn to see the small funny things about them."
Timing Is Everything
Everyone likes a good joke, but few of us are very good at telling them. Fortunately, there are (at least) 57 varieties of humor out there, says Joel Goodman, Ed.D., founder and director of The Humor Project and author of Laffirmations: 1,001 Ways to Add Humor to Your Life and Work.
Here are some of his favorites:
• Asking yourself how your favorite comedian or cartoon character would portray your situation.
• Exaggerating a situation until it takes on absurd proportions to lighten a stressful moment.
• Keeping a file of cartoons or jokes that make you laugh and sharing them.
• Looking for the humor around you. Road signs, for instance, can be very funny. Sultanoff cites one he's found alongside a California freeway that reads: "Cruise Ships Use Airport Exit."
When Things Get Serious
If you find yourself facing a frightening medical diagnosis, prepare a "mirth kit," suggests Goodman. Fill it with things that make you laugh—videos, audiotapes, photographs, books, funny props, etc.
"Give yourself a shot in the arm with whatever tickles your funny bone," he says. "Humor and laughter aren't substitutes for medical care, but they can be adjuncts. Humor can be a tremendous liberating source for coping in tough times."
When using humor to help a loved one through a difficult time, Goodman points out that having a good sense of humor means having a good sensitivity to humor. Gauge how receptive your loved one might be before you jump in feet first and end up with those feet in your mouth. If the time seems right, plan to share fond, funny memories, or photos. Let your knowledge of what makes them laugh or brings them joy dictate your approach.
What about black humor? It helps some people cope with adversity. Rich once said to her mother, "Mom, you know, according to statistics, I'm supposed to be dead in a month." Her mother responded, "Well, I guess you better hold your breath if you're going to make that deadline."
Don't feel put off, ashamed, or guilty when black humor is used to ease tense situations. It's cathartic, says Rich. "I think maybe black humor is a form of bravado, and also a release for the buildup of painful emotions."
We should take humor seriously, Goodman says. "It can add life to your years and, possibly, years to your life." And you won't have to fight your HMO to pay for it. Based on writings of Tina Coleman