And What Makes You Think Life Isn't a Laughing Matter? : Health Experts Say We Need to Have More Fun in Our Daily Lives--Especially at Work

TIMES HEALTH WRITER

All I wanna do is have some fun 'fore the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard. --Sheryl Crow

Think about it. How many times a day do you laugh? Not necessarily big belly laughs--just chuckles, giggles, yuks?

For the average adult, it's 15 times a day (down from about 50 for the typical child). And 15 pauses for a little mirth and merrymaking are not nearly enough to feed the human spirit, say the clowns and comics of the world who attended a conference on the Healing Power of Laughter & Play, which concluded here Sunday.

Sponsored by the Institute for the Advancement of Human Behavior, the conference on how to have fun has attracted a growing number of therapists, doctors, nurses, social workers and offbeat others since its humble origins aboard the Queen Mary in 1982. More than 500 people registered for this year's conference.

The meetings are held every few years to remind health professionals that fun is an essential component of wellness, said conference organizer Erin Sommerville. But adults today, who find it harder than ever to escape from work--thanks to cell phones, lap-tops, home PCs and fax machines--are having a tough time lightening up.

"Whenever you find someone up against the wall and who is evaluating their life, what is truly important, what they say is: 'Somewhere along the line I stopped enjoying my life. I forgot what it's like to play,' " said Sommerville, a Palo Alto hypnotherapist. "In our culture, we're starved for laughter and play. Play is thought of as too frivolous."

Persuading his patients that they need to spend part of every day playing is often one of his most difficult challenges, said Dr. O. Carl Simonton, a pioneer in the study of emotions and health and medical director of the Simonton Cancer Center in Pacific Palisades.

"We need to balance our lives between work and play. But play is not valued. It's considered by many people to be, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, a sin."

But laughter and play are coming back into vogue after some years of being considered inconsequential to health, Sommerville said. With the 1979 publication of the Norman Cousins book "The Anatomy of an Illness"--which detailed his quest to overcome health problems through a positive outlook--laughter was quickly embraced in sickbeds nationwide. But hard questions soon followed: Does it really help? Does it matter if we laugh five times a day or 50?

Scientific studies, to some extent, have proved that laughter is helpful, Simonton said. He called psychoneuroimmunology--the study of how emotions and thoughts affect our health--"the richest area of science right now."

"When we change our attitudes, we change our body's basic chemistry, and we change it in a way that promotes healing," he said.

For example, many studies have shown that a positive attitude can bolster the immune system.

Studies show that laughter unleashes chemical neurotransmitters and hormones throughout our body, contributing to an overall sensation of well-being in much the same way that exercise does, said Barbara Dossey, director of Holistic Nursing Consultants in Santa Fe, N.M. This is why Cousins called laughter "internal jogging."

"There is this massive chemical shift going on," said Annette Goodheart, a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and the author of a book on laughter therapy. "When you laugh, your cardiovascular system gets a workout. You take in massive quantities of air. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up at first then settle down at a rate lower than before you began laughing. Even the anticipation of laughter shifts your body's chemistry."

People seem to understand intuitively that laughter is a stress-buster. And yet, too few people engage in that technique, Goodheart said. For example, adults who screw up will analyze the event and label it; children will laugh or cry.

Many adults become expert at listening to an "internal critic" in their heads while failing to see that humor and laughter is an equally powerful voice that can counter that negative voice, Dossey said.

"There is nothing wrong with an internal critic, but we also need to think of the other counselors in our bodies," she said. Laughter is one such "counselor."

But while humor can augment individual health, it is perhaps most powerful in its effects on a group, Goodheart said.

"Through laughter, we are connecting with ourselves, our environment and each other," she said. "That's why it's contagious; it gives the feeling of connection. Laughter breaks through feelings of isolation and alienation."

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Humor may become more treasured as society becomes increasingly isolated by technology and the chances for human interaction diminish.

"We are all desperately trying to connect. We have almost lost the art. Everyone is waiting in the wings for someone else to do something a little bit playful so that they can come out and play, too," Goodheart said.

Humor has served many societies well, she noted. For example, some Holocaust survivors say that the ability to laugh together was a catharsis that preserved their will to live.

Shared laughter is especially needed in two places, health experts agreed: the workplace and marriage.

"Laughter and play are a way to make the workplace more human," said Matt Weinstein, founder of Playfair Inc. of Berkeley, a company that helps corporations realize the benefits of fun. "And we deserve to have joy in the workplace--it's the place where we spend the most time. Work as drudgery is an idea whose time is long past."

But, he noted, fun at work doesn't just happen. "You have to work at it." Through his company, Weinstein has helped employers and employees to yuk it up on the job. Among the techniques his clients have tried: Every employee's birthday is celebrated with a party; a champagne toast is held every two weeks to honor the company's recent accomplishments; cash bonuses are given to each employee who is then asked to give the bonus to a co-worker who has been especially kind and helpful.

The concept is simple, Weinstein said.

"When you feel good you are more likely to do good."

Marriage is another place where laughter is the best medicine (like you weren't expecting this line to show up somewhere in this story). But few people consider humor when they choose their mates, Goodheart said.

"When you laugh with someone or cry with someone, you experience a connection. But we don't often choose a mate we can laugh with because marriage is so serious. In our culture, we say things like, 'John and Sue are getting serious .' "

It's one of the many myths surrounding laughter that you can't laugh and be serious at the same time, Goodheart said.

"There are a lot of restraints and controls that we put on laughter and that our culture puts on laughter," she said.

Some people, for example, can't fathom Cousins' concept of laughing through the pain.

" Cure is a medical term. Laughter is about healing. You can heal and die. You can rebalance and be in harmony and still die. Sometimes people laugh and die," Goodheart said. This concept has been widely accepted among AIDS patients, she added.

For people battling chronic illness or pain, she advised: "You have to make laughter a priority in your life. You don't play when you feel better, you feel better when you play."

It's common for miserable people--whatever the circumstances of their misery--to decide that they cannot laugh unless they are feeling happy.

Wrong.

"Laughter has to come from somewhere else," she said. "It comes out of stress, tension and pain. If you're too serious about your stress, tension and pain, you can't laugh."

Another myth that keeps us from laughing is that we need a reason to laugh, Goodheart said.

"If you want to have a reason you aren't going to laugh very much," she said.

And you don't have to see yourself as the next Jerry Seinfeld to laugh a lot, the giggling gurus noted.

"It's by no means necessary to have a good sense of humor to bring joy, fun and play to work," Weinstein said.

If it's a healthy type of humor, it won't be at the expense of anyone else, noted several conference speakers, some of whom blasted the vulgarity and mean-spiritedness of some of today's most popular comedians.

"Laughter comes from a happy, healing place--not at the expense of someone," Goodheart said.

And besides, she noted, a Michigan study showed people that who consistently used put-downs in their humor end up sicker and died younger than other people.

He who laughs best, laughs last.

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