2016-06-30
Q: I've been reading your series, and I am wondering about the effects of humor on healing. Do you have any research or information about this?

A:

Just over 20 years ago, long-time editor, writer, and humanitarian Norman Cousins was widely reported to have cured himself from a painful disease through laughter. "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 wrote in his book "Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient."

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

Cousins is not the only one in history to have felt there to be a strong connection between humor and healing. In "The Taming of the Shrew," Shakespeare writes: "And frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life." And perhaps you are familiar with Proverbs 17:22: "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones."

Folk wisdom and anecdotes abound with the healing power of humor. In my own circle of friends, I think about Sally. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, she was going to get the soup-to-nuts treatment: mastectomy, chemo, and radiation. Sally has always had a great sense of humor, so it was no surprise to me when she told me of a decision she had made.


Carol Orsborn is the author of 10 books on spirituality, healing, and success, including "The Art of Resilience" and "Inner Excellence at Work." She is co-author of "Speak the Language of Healing." You can reach Carol through her website.

"I can go through treatment depressed, anxious, and victimized--or I can have the best time possible. I choose the latter," she announced. True to her word, she set herself the challenge of not only coping with treatment--but thriving through it.

One of my favorite stories about Sally is the day about halfway through her radiation treatments that she decided to have a little fun. It was around Christmas, and she had been rummaging through an old box of ornaments, stumbling across an old favorite: a battery-operated Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer light-up nose. When it came time for her radiation treatment, she could hardly suppress her glee. The technician had no idea what Sally was laughing about, but she was nearly beside herself, anticipating what was coming next. A quick trip to the lady's room, then a visit with her favorite oncologist.

"Doctor," she said, when he came through the door for her examination. "I believe your technicians have made a big mistake and have been giving me too much radiation. I'm having a very strange side effect. See here."

With that, Sally threw open her gown, revealing the bright red bulb that she had affixed to her chest, flashing on and off. As Sally tells it, both she and the doctor had never laughed so hard in their lives.

With her positive attitude, you'd expect Sally to be making the most of whatever life sends her way--and you'd be right. Last time I saw her, she was thriving, making up new fiendish pranks to play on her doctors. That's enough proof for me: Whenever I can, I try to follow her lead.

But as for the scientific evidence that humor can actually heal: The evidence is mixed. Research shows that following a bout of laughter, there is a brief period during which blood pressure drops and heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle activity decrease, resulting in relaxation.

On the other hand, scientists report that they can find no empirical support for the notion that laughter triggers the release of endorphins. As far as lowering the threshold of pain, humor has shown to be about on par with other "distractions."

Here's the best scientists can do right now: Laughter is one of a number of positive emotions that have some kind of therapeutic value. However, it's not a replacement for chemo, radiation, and other medical treatments. (For an excellent summary of the studies on humor and healing, see Dr. Diana L. Mahony's article " Is Laughter the Best Medicine or Any Medicine at All?

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We should try to be happy, we are told. Keep your spirits up, at all costs. But what about the broader spectrum of human emotions?

So where does all this leave us? Here I return to Norman Cousins, the man who started the whole laughter-as-healing craze. "The newspaper accounts had made it appear that I had laughed my way out of a serious illness. Careful readers of my book, however, knew that laughter was just a metaphor for the entire range of the positive emotions. Hope, faith, love, will to live, cheerfulness, humor, creativity, playfulness, confidence, great expectations--all these, I believed, had therapeutic value."

To this I would add that if I can find humor in a situation, I always want to go for it! However, an upbeat attitude is not always possible or desirable. I believe that we have come to an incorrect understanding of what it means to fulfill human potential. Most of us embrace only the narrow band of emotions one calls "positive." We should try to be happy, we are told. Keep your spirits up, at all costs. But what about the broader spectrum of human emotions: righteous anger, bittersweet sadness, and even an occasional justified wrestle with heartfelt despair?

For myself, I have come to appreciate authenticity and honesty as the most direct route to a life of meaning, including emotional and spiritual healing, regardless of what we are facing. What I wish I had all the time is joy and laughter. What I have come to value most is permission to be myself. And you know what? Just knowing that I don't have to fake or force laughter when I'd rather be crying--well, it's enough to make me smile!

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