Laughter, says Cousins, really is the best medicine

AN EASY PILL TO SWALLOW

October 19, 1990|By Randi Henderson

Norman Cousins got off a plane yesterday afternoon not laughing but grumbling.

Unfortunately I do a lot of traveling," said the man who for the past 12 years has spread the message that laughter is the best medicine. "And people who design airports have a collective conspiracy against me to put as much distance as they can between the gate and the curb."

But Mr. Cousins was grumbling good-naturedly and allowed that BWI is not that bad, as airports go. He was in Baltimore to accept the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, a $10,000 award given annually by the Alexander von Humbolt Foundation and administered by Johns Hopkins University.

The award was established in 1986 by German industrialist Alfred Toepfer, to advance the cause of humanitarianism in the United States. It could not have gone to a better recipient than Mr. Cousins, said Jerome Frank, a Hopkins psychiatrist who has worked with Mr. Cousins in a number of different arenas. "Norman Cousins represents the voice of humanism in American life to an extraordinary degree," Dr. Frank said of his colleague.

Editor of The Saturday Review for 35 years and the author of 22 books, Mr. Cousins gained his greatest prominence for his 1979 book "Anatomy of an Illness." The slim volume traces the course of his own battle 26 years ago against a degenerative and painful arthritic-type disease that was causing the breakdown of the connective tissue between his joints.

Despite a medical prognosis that gave him little chance of survival, Mr. Cousins charted his own therapeutic course, sensing empirically that a positive attitude and healthy daily doses of laughter might do more for him than what the doctors were offering. He recovered, wrote up his experience first in the New England Journal of Medicine, then in a book, and has been sharing his findings with the world ever since.

"It's rather ironic," he said, "that this little book I did about personal illness should have had a greater impact than all the books I've written about the illnesses of the world."

His books -- and the columns he now writes twice a month for the Christian Science Monitor -- have covered subjects from the evils of nuclear weapons to funding for the arts to the decline of neatness. But his primary focus these days remains in the field of holistic healing. Since 1978 he has been an adjunct professor at the University of California Los Angeles medical school.

His work is two-pronged. As part of the school's program studying psychoneuroimmunology -- the science that considers how psychological input can influence the immune system -- he helps design and conduct research projects. He also works as a counselor for patients.

"I've become a sort of cheerleader for people who have catastrophic illnesses," he described. "I mobilize them to do their part of the job."

At 75, Norman Cousins exudes a feeling of well-being. "My health is first-rate," he said confidently. He is completely recovered from his debilitating illness of the '60s, as well as

from a heart attack he suffered 10 years ago. (Another book, "The Healing Heart," documents that recovery.) In fact, he has an even more recent miracle to share.

"I'm the damnedest healing machine you ever saw," he began. "A few weeks ago I was in a car crash. I had whiplash and damage to my brachial nerves [nerves in the arms]. They told me I'd have to wear a neck brace for at least several months and cut down on all activity."

Pointing to his neck -- no brace to be seen -- Mr. Cousins was obviously enjoying telling this story. "Last weekend I played golf and tennis. So much for cutting down my activity."

Mr. Cousins was also feeling good about the speech he was to give last night accepting his award. He described the content as "a career retrospective," noting that yesterday was a particularly fitting day for him to give such a speech.

"It's the 50th anniversary of my first appearance on the public platform," he said. The date was October 18, 1940, and he was speaking to a local literary group in Illinois about Ernest Hemingway, specifically the "pugilistic strains in his writing" -- the way boxing keeps recurring. "And afterward a woman came up and disagreed," he remembered. "It was Hemingway's mother."

That anecdote suggested another. "I've had my share of adventures on the platform," he said. "Once I had to pay my way in to hear myself. I was inclined to protest -- but then I thought, 'If this country's lecturers had to pay to hear themselves, we might have a better class of lecturers.' "

Mr. Cousins has achieved a high enough recognition factor these days that he is not likely to be charged admission to his own lectures. He frequently speaks to medical students, delivering the message that "we are becoming a society of hypochondriacs and weaklings.

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