As I See It: Keep Laughing
November 8, 2004 Victor Rozek
Most people inhabit some part of the stress continuum, ranging from minor to debilitating. The workplace is nothing if not a stress manufactory, and stress is the on-ramp to illness. Exposure to chronic or acute stress has been shown to, among other things, suppress immune functions, leaving the organism vulnerable to disease and infection. The popular solution, contrived by the advertising and pharmaceutical industries, is to keep the nation perpetually drugged, in a state of numb equilibrium. But gelotology researchers claim there may be a cheaper, more natural option.
Type the word gelotology, and your spell-checker will flag it. Look it up in the dictionary, and you won’t find it. Gelotology is a new field of scientific study, although its subject is as old as humankind itself. When the first Neanderthal slipped on a pile of dino dung, to the simian guffaws of his fellow troglodytes, the seeds of gelotology were planted. Gelotologists are serious people who study laughter, and they’d be the first to tell you that the result of their research is very much a laughing matter.
Journalist Norman Cousins is credited with popularizing the notion that laughter has healing properties. In 1978, suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a painful degenerative disease of the connective tissue, Cousins published Anatomy of an Illness, in which he described watching funny movies and finding relief through sustained laughter. The common assumption was that laughing released endorphins in Cousins’ system and, like a marathoner, his pain was masked by an endorphin high.
Much more was going on, however, and twelve years later two researchers from Loma Linda University began to examine the scientific underpinnings of laughter’s benefits, while coincidentally giving credence to Cousins’ experience. Dr. Lee Berk was the associate director of the Center for Neuroimmunology, and Dr. Stanley Tan was an assistant professor of medicine. As reported by Bill Strubbe, writing in Body Sense, Berk and Tan “began a series of studies on how laughter changes the levels of epinephrine, cortisol, and natural killer cells responsible for the early recognition and removal of virus and tumor cells.” (Epinephrine and cortisol are so-called stress hormones, which, among other things, increase the number of blood platelets that can clog arteries.)
Berk and Tan monitored two groups of people: one that was shown an hour-long humorous video and another that was not. “Blood samples were obtained from each subject before, during, and after the viewing.” In every case, the natural killer cells increased significantly in the viewing group, and the levels of stress hormones decreased. Strubbe reports that Berk and Tan also conducted experiments that showed “that laughter increases levels of gamma-interferon (a disease-fighting protein); T-cells, which are a major part of the immune response; and B-cells, which make disease-destroying antibodies.”
Not bad for something that doesn’t require a prescription and can be used generously without fear of overdosing. Plus, none of those charming little side effects the friendly announcer is always warning us about in the drug commercial disclaimers. You can laugh all you want and not have to worry about kidney failure or rectal bleeding.
But here’s the funny thing, if you’ll pardon the expression: you don’t have to laugh at something comical to get the benefits of laughter. As far as the body is concerned, humor is optional; the act of laughing itself produces the desired results. Strubbe recounts the story of Dr. Madan Kataria, who incorporated the benefits of laughter in his medical practice in India. So impressed was he with the results his patients were getting that he integrated what Strubbe describes as “thought free” laughter in a daily yoga class. There are now over 1,500 such classes in India, which combine deep breathing with a mixture of deliberate laughter. But why not simply use humor? “Indians are so depressed,” Kataria is reported as saying, “that if we waited for them to get a sense of humor they’d never get laughing.”
Most Americans are much too skeptical and believe themselves to be far too sophisticated to laugh without provocation. We are the land of the stand-up comic and prefer to be entertained. As Tom Masson once remarked, “Think what would happen to us in America if there were no humorists; life would be one long Congressional Record.” Well, there are times when life is comprised of long periods of boredom, punctuated by meaningless declarations. We call it commuting while listening to the shrill and predictable diatribes of AM radio. Even a small dose of the fear and hatred that passes for talk radio these days is a clear reminder that most of us could use a little more humor in our lives. So while driving to another day of workplace stress, or returning home to the stresses that await us there, instead of adding to them, why not enjoy the healing elixir that is laughter in the privacy of your own car? While others around you rage in their automobiles, listen to a tape of your favorite comedian and brace for the coming day, or decompress after a hard one. As Milton Berle said, laughter is an “instant vacation.”
Adults, especially, hold stress within their bodies and manage their anxieties by self-medicating with such things as drugs, alcohol, and television. Children, however, seem to naturally adopt laughter as a cleansing strategy. Preschool kids, according to Strubbe, laugh “up to 400 times a day; the average adult chuckles a mere seven to 15 times.” Small wonder kids don’t hold on to things for long. One moment they’re crying, and the next moment they’re laughing and playing. But an adult slighted by his manager may brood about the incident for months, recreating the event and the attendant negative emotions over and over again in his mind. Self-medicating may numb the experience, but laughter can serve as a purge valve, releasing negative energy and literally flooding the body with the chemistry of healing. Hey, it worked for Patch Adams.
Although a relatively new notion, therapeutic humor is beginning to find support as an adjunct curative tool. Practitioners have successfully used the concept in such settings as cancer support groups, military family support groups, schools, the workplace, and even prisons (which some people believe are one and the same). Personally, I don’t know of any workplace that starts and ends each day with laughter, but wouldn’t that be refreshing?
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, founded in 1988, defines therapeutic humor as “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.” Okay, so defining humor isn’t funny. In fact, these folks are so serious about their humor that in 2005 they are holding a conference in Florida, where, one assumes, they will work diligently to find the absurdity in hurricanes. I can see it now: a breakout session called “The Yuks of Destruction.” Sounds like a Sixties band. But why not? Perhaps with a little practice we can find the humor even in the disasters of our lives. As e.e. cummings observed, “the most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”
If healing the world one “ha!” at a time seems absurd, well, that’s the idea. And, who knows, it may catch on. Mel Brooks (a man who understands a thing or two about humor, but whose mother probably wanted him to be a doctor) once offered this medical opinion: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”
May the farce be with you.