The Healing Power of Humor

Patient Expert

What's so funny about Fibro?

Current research is confirming what biblical wisdom told us centuries ago - that laughter is good for us. Proverbs 17:22 observed, "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones."

You know that laughing makes you feel better emotionally, but now scientific studies are also revealing positive physiological effects. Laughter:

  • Reduces pain by triggering the pituitary gland to secrete endorphins, a natural painkiller.
  • Stimulates your immune system to fight infection.
  • Gives a feeling of well-being brought on when the endocrine system secretes hormones called catecholamines.
  • Aides brain function by improving circulation and oxygenating your bodies.
  • Improves discernment by stimulating your hypothalamus.

Well-known author Norman Cousins was the first to document the physiological benefits of laughter, giving validity to the adage that laughter is the best medicine. In 1964 Cousins was diagnosed with a painful, degenerative connective tissue disease and given a one-in-500 chance of recovering. He theorized that if stress and negative emotions could increase the body's susceptibility to illness, then surely laughter and positive emotions could improve the body's ability to heal. Cousins discovered that ten minutes of good "belly laughter" seemed to have and anesthetic effect on him, allowing him two or more hours of pain-free sleep. He began watching Marx Brothers comedies and Candid Camera

episodes for his self-prescribed daily doses of laughter. Cousins eventually laughed himself back to health, beating the odds and making a full recovery.

Cousins so firmly believed in the benefits of laughter that he provided funds to launch a pilot study investigating the healing power of humor. In this study led by Lee Berk, DrPH, Associate Director at the Center for Neuroimmunology at Loma Linda University Medical Center, patients' blood was monitored before, during and after sessions of mirthful laughter. They found that mirthful laughter can reduce stress hormone levels and increase the secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of key immune responses. Dr. Berk explained, "The biological effects of a single one-hour session of viewing a humorous video can last from 12 to 24 hours, while...daily 30-minute exposure to such humor and laughter videos produces profound and long-lasting changes in these measures."

Take Yourself Lightly

Fibromyalgia (FM) is not a laughing matter - but maybe it should be. While the illness itself is a serious subject, dwelling on how miserable you feel serves no purpose except to make you feel worse. I once had a t-shirt that said, "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly." Take a lesson from the angels and learn to take yourself lightly. FM certainly offers you many opportunities to practice laughing at yourself. Relating the fibro-fog experiences alone could keep an audience rolling on the floor. I'll bet you can share a "cloudy" moment when you put the milk in the cabinet or your car keys in the freezer. What is important is how you react to those experiences. You can cry and get depressed about your increasing forgetfulness or laugh at your silly mistake and feel better. It is your choice. Here are some "observations" to help you start seeing the funny side of FM.

You know you have FM when...

  • Everything hurts - and what doesn't hurt, doesn't work.
  • You feel like the morning after but you didn't have a night before.
  • Your little black book contains only names ending in M.D.
  • You get confused playing checkers.
  • You finally have all the answers but you forgot what the questions were.
  • You look forward to a dull evening.
  • You sit in a rocking chair and can't get it going.
  • After painting the town red, you have to take a nap before applying the second coat.
  • Your back goes out more often than you do.
  • You consider a discussion of bowel problems interesting conversation.
  • You know what's on TV at 3:00 a.m.
  • Dialing long distance wears you out.
  • You stop to think and forget to start again.
  • You find yourself smiling at this list.

Fill Your Life With Laughter

How can you bring more laughter into your life? Taking yourself lightly will put a smile on your face and give you an emotional boost, but to kick the healing effects of laughter into high gear, you need some out-loud, double-over laughter.

The first step is to find out what makes you laugh. Not everyone responds the same way to humorous material. While one person may find the Three Stooges hilarious, another may think they are silly and childish. You may crack-up watching Saturday Night Live while your neighbor finds it offensive. Do you like physical humor like slapstick or do you prefer relationship humor like Friends? Or maybe dry humor tickles your funny bone. Think about what makes you laugh out loud, then set out to incorporate that kind humor into your daily life.

Today there are seemingly unlimited sources for humorous material of all types. Cable and satellite TV offer 24-hour comedy stations as well as movie channels devoted solely to the comedy genre. Video and DVD rental stores have comedy sections with hundreds of movies to choose from. There are thousands of humor books available at the library or bookstores, both locally and online.

And, of course, there is always the Internet. A Yahoo search of the word "humor" yielded more than 41 million sites! You can find general humor sites as well as sites specializing in a particular category of humor. A quick scan revealed sites devoted to philosophical humor, college humor, psychological humor, political humor, Christian humor, garden humor, humor in the news, science humor, twisted humor, police humor, sports humor, kids humor, farm humor and dozens more. There are even sites where you can sign up to have a joke e-mailed to you every day. One such site, www.AjokeAday.com, promises clean humor and claims to be the number one full-time, professionally maintained joke site since 1995.

A Joke a Day Keeps the Doctor Away?

Laughter is not a cure-all and Dr. Berk does not suggest that patients discontinue their medications or other treatments. However, laughter can help you harness your inner healing resources. It can essentially convert the negative, destructive effects of stress into positive, healing energy. So let yourself go. Let that smile give way to a giggle, then let that giggle burst into a wholehearted laugh!

To get you started, here are some of my all-time favorites...

Laughing at Life

For many years I have kept a file folder labeled "Giggles." Whenever I come across a joke, a cartoon or a story that strikes me as funny, I drop it into the file. On days I am feeling a little down or discouraged, I pull out my file and have a good laugh. Being a writer, I particularly enjoy the real-life linguistic bloopers. Below are some of my favorites.

Actual sentences from letters to a county welfare department:

  • I cannot get sick pay. I have six children. Can you tell me why?
  • This is my 8th child. What are you going to do about it?
  • I am forwarding my marriage certificate and my three children, one of which was a mistake as you will see.
  • You have changed my little boy to a girl. Will this make any difference?
  • I want money quick as I can get it. I have been in bed with the doctor for two weeks and he doesn't do me any good. If things don't improve, I will have to send for another doctor.

Excerpts from real church bulletins:

  • On Sunday, a special collection will be taken to defray the expense of the new carpet. All those wishing to do something on the new carpet, come forward and get a piece of paper.
  • Thursday, at 5 p.m., there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All those wishing to become little mothers, please meet the pastor in his study.

Real notices from around the world (in English?):

  • In a Paris Hotel elevator - Please leave your values at the front desk.
  • Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop - Ladies may have a fit upstairs.
  • In a Bangkok dry cleaners - Drop your trouser here for best results.
  • From a car rental brochure in Tokyo - When passenger on foot have in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.

Quotes from actual medical records dictated by physicians:

  • The patient has been depressed ever since she began seeing me in 1983.
  • Discharge status: Alive but without permission.
  • She has no rigors or shaking chills, but her husband states she was very hot in bed last night.
  • The patient refused an autopsy.
  • The patient expired on the floor uneventfully.
  • Patient has left his white blood cells at another hospital.
  • Between you and me, we ought to be able to get this lady pregnant.
  • The patient was in his usual state of good health until his airplane ran out of gas and crashed.
  • While in the ER, she was examined, x-rated and sent home.

Reprinted with permission of the National Fibromyalgia Association from Fibromyalgia AWARE, March - June, 2004

© Karen Lee Richards, 2008

Last updated: 12/10/08