Laughter Can Be Helpful Medicine
By D.J. Moore

The biblical maxim, "A merry heart doeth good like a medicine but a broken spirit drieth the bones" (Proverbs 17:22) has a special significance for Norman Cousins. Suffering from a collagen disease, Cousins was given a 1-in-500 chance for survival. But with the support of his family, he put himself on a strict regimen: watching comedies.

He recovered and today he serves as adjunct professor at the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine, conducting further research on humor and health.

Laughter has therapeutic value, says Cousins. When someone first finds out they're seriously ill, they experience what he calls a "panic cycle." This cycle causes constriction of the blood vessels and harmful biochemical changes in the body. Laughter counteracts this cycle. "It serves as a bullet-proof vest that protects you against the ravages of negative emotion," says Cousins.

Just as negative emotions can produce ulcers, headaches and high blood pressure, positive emotions can relax nerves, improve digestion and circulation and stimulate the entire cardiovascular and respiratory system.

Mirth also stimulates the production of the catecholamines (hormones) and endorphins (natural opiates in the brain). Says Dr. William F. Fry, Jr., a psychiatrist and associate clinical professor at Stanford University Medical School who has studied the physiological effects of laughter for over 30 years, "Laughter gets the endocrine system going."

The hormones, sometimes referred to as "chemical messengers," each have a specialized job to do. The catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine) are what Dr. Fry calls the alertness hormones. "They are the fight or flight hormones. When they are released, there are many effects throughout the body -- effects on the eye pupils, dilation of the blood vessels, movements of nutrition to the muscles and other good things that adrenaline does."

Other research shows that increased levels of catecholamines help fight inflammation. Theoretically, then, mirth could be good medicine for arthritis, allergies, headaches, and backaches.

Endorphins are also the body's natural pain-killing enzymes and may help explain why some athletes are able to continue their strenuous activity even when they are in pain, says Vera Robinson, M.D., author of "Humor and the Health Profession," and chairwoman of the nursing department at California State University in Fullerton, California (it's also these enzymes that some say are responsible for the runner's high).

And Cousins adds that his regular laughter workouts acted as an anesthetic that allowed him painless sleep for two hours at a time.

A vigorous burst of laughter can also increase heart rate, oxygen to the brain, raise systolic blood pressure from a normal 120 to 200, raise pulse rate from 60 to 120 and then immediately drop them to low levels again. "This is all similar to the desirable effects of athletic exercise," says Dr. Fry. Thus, laughter is like "stationary jogging."

And of course, a sense of humor is also a psychological boon. "When you're laughing, you can't think about whatever it is that is troubling you," says Dr. Robinson.

"Humor can also be beneficial in the classroom," says Dr. Fry. "Laugher stimulates a more active metabolism of the brain or central nervous system, and it is very valuable to having people laughing when they are learning."

The major mechanism whereby this happens, says Dr. Fry, is through the effects of the catecholamines. "What we have is an alertness stimulation which helps us learn quickly and a little more effectively. There are a lot of professors and lecturers who introduce humor into their presentations because empirically they've found that humor helps people absorb the presentation," adds Dr. Rosenfeld, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, the Behrend College.

We also laugh and smile more when we're in the presence of another person than we do when we are alone. Dr. Rosenfeld conducted a study with 30 males in a university cafeteria and asked them to evaluate the "funniness" of a cartoon. The participants rated the cartoon as more funny when someone else laughed at it, too. Dr. Rosenfeld calls this "impression management."

"In general," explains Rosenfeld, "people wish to be perceived as friendly, intelligent and morally

good. Part of laughter is to impress other people. If you laugh at somebody's jokes, they tend to like you more, and the more people like you, the more they tend to be rewarding. I think it is probably a good idea to laugh at the boss's jokes," chuckles Rosenfeld. Put another way, when the boss tells a joke, he who laughs, lasts.

Although there is still a lot of research to be done, Dr. Fry believes that laughter could play a role in the prevention of some life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease. For example, fear and rage are two emotions frequently responsible for heart attacks. "Mirth defuses rage," explains Dr. Fry. "It diminishes the impulses of hostility. If mirth is experienced, rage is impossible."

Studies with infants and young children show that everyone is born with a sense of humor. So why does one person retain their sense of wit while another loses it?

A lot depends on one's environment. "In families where we see humor as a form of communication, as a way to deal with what is happening, we see children growing into adults who have a better sense of humor," says Dr. Robinson.

However, in our society, there is a tendency to squelch humor. And according to research by psychologists Marty Lumpkin and Joseph B. Ray, most adults believe that fun and play are for children. Real adults, after all, are hard-working, serious and responsible.

Nevertheless, one study found that people who see themselves as in control of their lives laughed and smiled more than those that felt themselves to be controlled by external events.

And contrary to what some workaholics may tell you, humor does have its place on the job -- even in somber places like hospitals where misery and tragedy abound. "The health-care world is a deadly serious business, yet humor occurs all the time," says Dr. Robinson, who teaches a continuing education course for nurses called "Humor and Health Care."

Both the patients and staff need a little bit of laughter because this is a traumatic, stressful area. Humor becomes a necessary coping mechanism.

So who laughs at what? To find out, two Boston University researchers, James Hassett and John Houlihan, asked 14,500 Psychology Today readers to rate 30 jokes. The joke categories were: sexual, wordplay, ethnic, hostile and silly. Their findings are as follows:

  • Sexual humor was the most popular category, especially for men.
  • Ethnic jokes rated second highest.
  • Men were more responsive to all jokes.
  • Feminists were less amused by sexual jokes than people who held traditional views toward women's issues.
  • People who enjoyed the jokes rated themselves as funny, socially aggressive, pleasure-oriented with above-average sex drives.

Can anyone develop a sense of humor? Yes. "First of all, you must understand that humor is healthy and viable," instructs Dr. Robinson. "Then you need to understand how to use it."

"Sarcasm and ridicule are not the kinds of humor that are helpful. It is the other kind of humor that helps people get rid of their negative feelings and emotion." Humor, she says, is a face-saving way to communicate anxieties, fears and all kinds of hidden but troublesome emotions.

"In my workshops," says Dr. Robinson, "I stress that there is a humorous way to approach every situation. You just have to work at finding it, that's all.

"To help my students develop a healthy sense of humor, I encourage them to collect humorous materials, anecdotes and things that others have said. I also tell them to write down a joke when they hear it, and then repeat it to someone else immediately so it becomes a part of them."