Doctors Find Laughter as an Aid to Recovery Is Nothing to Joke About
A good laugh and a good sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. --Irish proverb
Laughter is an age-old elixir that modern healers should both practice and prescribe, a growing number of humor-oriented health professionals maintain.
Humor’s assistance in modern medicine is no joke, says Dr. William Fry, a leading researcher into the psychology of laughter at Stanford University. He says the body gets a healthy “mini-workout” from a good guffaw.
Throughout history, philosophers and writers have noted the benefits of humor on the sick. Arnold Glasow called laughter “a tranquilizer with no side effects.” Voltaire wrote: “The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.”
Cousins Cites Healing
Philosopher Max Beerbohm noted, “Nobody ever died of laughter,” while present-day scholar Norman Cousins said he was healed of a diagnosed “incurable disease” by the curative powers of hard laughing, which he dubbed an exercise akin to “internal jogging.”
Fry said that 20 seconds of intense laughter, even if faked, can quickly double the heart rate for three to five minutes, an accomplishment that would take three minutes of strenuous rowing exercise. Studies also show that muscles in the chest, abdomen, shoulders, neck, face and scalp get a beneficial workout and that other parts of the body are more relaxed during a laughing session.
Cousins, editor emeritus for Saturday Review, has attended several conferences touting the beneficial effects of humor. He says that although he was diagnosed as having incurable ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that would make him an invalid, he was able to laugh himself into the pink by watching Marx Brothers movies and episodes of “Candid Camera.”
Interest in programs that jest for the health of it has increased significantly over the past few years, says Fry, a clinical psychiatrist who has been studying humor’s effects on the body since 1952.
In Los Angeles, a “humor wagon” makes weekly visits to hospitals to entertain children afflicted with cancer. Visualization and humor are employed to help cancer patients at the “Wellness Community” in Santa Monica, a program recently highlighted on CBS television’s “60 Minutes.” Similar clinics are sprouting in other parts of the country.
Fry said that physicians have been slow in showing any strong professional interest in humor as an adjunct to health care, a situation he thinks is improving.
“Humor’s an important part of the bedside manner for doctors,” Fry said, adding that he recently gave his first talk to a physicians’ group in Palo Alto. “I’m seeing increasing interest on the part of physicians.”
Doctors, and particularly nurses, said Fry, also need humor in their own lives to boost morale and combat emotional “burnout” from the demands and pressures of working with the sick.
Fry’s two-part prescription for people who want to inject some humor into their funny bones consists of, first, recognizing what their humor profile is and second, collecting a humor library of the things that make them laugh.
“I personally like Laurel and Hardy movies,” Fry said. “I go into convulsive laughter, but some people don’t find them funny. There are broad overlaps of what one might consider humorous.”
Alison Crane, a former nurse at a large Chicago hospital, is now president of Crane Communications in Skokie, Ill., a firm that develops programs on the therapeutic value of humor. She says interest in humor-oriented approaches to health care has skyrocketed since she entered the field three years ago.
“I focus on educating health care professionals and lay people about the value of humor in our lives,” Crane said. “Health professionals can use humor to deal with stresses. They’re often in high-anxiety situations and humor is a coping mechanism that can cut through tensions.”
Even hospital “gallows humor,” she said, can be a safety valve for releasing pressure among the nurses and staff. However, she adds, the telling of “sick jokes” should only be done in appropriate settings and never in front of patients.
Humor can often be generated simply by changing the perspective on a situation and making it more ludicrous, Crane said. “Laughter allows objectivity and distancing. It lets us see the absurd and comical side of things that might otherwise be swallowing us.”
Crane is producing a conference on humor in health care this October in Chicago and says the “interest is phenomenal.” One thing she plans to tell the health professionals is the importance of listening to the humor that comes from patients.
“Hospitalization is not funny, it’s anxiety-producing, even if you’re just having a baby,” she said. “People have no control over their situation and they’re separated from their family. They often respond to such a stressful event by using humor.
“What they’re usually saying is, ‘Notice who I am, I’m different. My humor tells you something about me.’
Jokes Reveal Feelings
“A patient’s humor often packs a lot of punch and has pretty much been ignored until recently. If you listen closely to the jokes, you may be able to discover your patient’s underlying feelings, gain his trust and open up the lines of meaningful communication.”
“Humor prevents a hardening of the attitudes,” says Joel Goodman, director of the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and editor of the magazine, Laughing Matters.
Goodman said he had one hospital begin a weekly “staff laugh” for its workers and that morale picked up tremendously.
The Hospital Satellite Network of Los Angeles has even created a television service specializing in humor for hospitals. Called “Patient America,” the program beams classic comedies and other entertaining features to recovery rooms.
Program for Hospitals
“Patient America is interested in supporting the philosophy that laughter and comedy might enhance a patient’s healing process,” said Dr. Ronald J. Pion, the network’s vice president. “By combining these ‘feel good’ movies with wellness and health promotive programming, we think Patient America will augment our hospitals’ total patient treatment programs.”
Annette Goodheart, a psychotherapist who carries a teddy bear and counsels people who were sexually abused as children, practices from a sailboat in Santa Barbara. She also teaches advanced laughing classes and says a little hilarity is good for the entire cardiovascular system.
“If you can laugh a little, it improves the vision of things,” said Goodheart, who often shows up at humor conferences and does nothing but laugh for long periods of time. “If you laugh a lot, it puts things into context.”