Humor Therapy

Here's a joke: A man tells his friend about a dinner party he had at his house the night before. "I made a real Freudian slip," he says. "I meant to tell my mother-in-law to pass the butter, and instead I said, "You silly cow, you ruined my life!"

Is humor good for my health?

You've probably heard countless warnings about the dangers of negative emotions. Stress, anger, and depression can sap your immune system, encourage heart trouble, and slow your recovery from almost any illness. But how often do you hear the positive side of the story? Research consistently shows that positive emotions, including love, humor, and hope, may help your body fend off disease.

Norman Cousins, an editor of the Saturday Review, is sometimes called "the father of laughter therapy." He didn't feel particularly mirthful when he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a crippling and intensely painful form of arthritis. But as he said in his 1979 book The Anatomy of an Illness, humor was definitely part of his recovery plan.

Soon after the diagnosis, Cousins vowed to tackle his disease with confidence and laughter. He set up a movie projector in his hospital room and frequently watched Marx Brothers movies and classic episodes of "Candid Camera." (On the downside, his constant laughter bothered some of the neighboring patients.) In between reels, he stayed upbeat and relaxed. Over a period of months, he regained motion in his joints and felt the pain disappear. He eventually made a nearly full recovery from his "incurable" disease. Cousins went on to help establish a department at the University of California at Los Angeles medical school that investigates the connection between illness and the mind.

What effect does humor have on the body?

How does humor foster healing? One clue came from a study at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. Researchers found that people who watched a funny 60-minute video experienced a significant drop in so-called stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Scientists say these hormones can contribute to a wide range of stress-related illnesses including depression and heart disease. Other studies suggest regular doses of humor and laughter can enhance breathing and circulation and even stimulate T-cells, the vanguard of the immune system.

Humor may also ease pain. Laughter can unleash a flood of natural painkillers called endorphins, and a good joke helps the mind focus on something besides pain. The effects might be dramatic: Cousins found that 10 minutes of belly laughs while watching Groucho gave him an extra two hours of pain-free sleep.

In 2005, scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore found another clue: Laughter may be tied to the healthy function of blood vessels. Laughter appears to cause the tissue in the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand in order to increase blood flow. The researchers also found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.

"The endothelium is the first line in the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, so given the results of our study, it is conceivable that laughing may be important to maintain a healthy endothelium, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease," said principal investigator Michael Miller, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in a news release. "At the very least, laughter offsets the impact of mental stress, which is harmful to the endothelium."

What if I don't feel like laughing?

Humor may be healthy, but that doesn't mean you should brush aside grief and sadness. It's natural to cry at the discovery of a serious disease or the loss of a loved one. In fact, there's some evidence that brief periods of sorrow -- besides helping you express your emotions -- stimulate the immune system. But when these feelings become a way of life or give way to depression, any health benefits quickly fade.

Can the mind overcome any illness?

Norman Cousins's story, and many others like it, make it seem as if the brain can conquer anything. These accounts have even made some ill patients feel guilty that they didn't use their minds to stay healthy. But some illnesses are so severe that no thoughts or emotions -- or shots or surgeries -- can restore health. As the American Cancer Society points out, available scientific evidence does not support claims that laughter can cure cancer or any other disease, but it can reduce stress and enhance a person's quality of life. Keep an open mind and an optimistic attitude, but beware of people who promise complete cures through "positive thinking." On the other hand, remember: A cure may be beyond your reach, but a joyful mind isn't.

References

"Laughter is the Best Medicine for Your Heart," Maryland Medical Center, updated July 14, 2009.

"Laughter Helps Blood Vessels Function Better," University of Maryland, news release, March 7, 2005.

American Cancer Society. Humor Therapy. November 1, 2008.

Weisenberg M, et al. The influence of film-induced mood on pain perception. Pain 1998 Jun;76(3):365-75.

Berk LS, et al. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci 1989 Dec;298(6):390-6.

Joshua A. et al. Humor and Oncology. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 23(3):645-648. January 2005. http://www.jco.org/cgi/content/full/23/3/645.

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