Having The Last Laugh

October 26, 1993|By Susan Goodman | Susan Goodman,Contributing Writer

Q: Why did Norman Cousins cross the road?

L A: To go to the Marx Brothers movie shown on the other side.

Not a very funny joke, perhaps, but a guy like Norman Cousins could manage a chuckle or two. Cousins eked out enough giggles and guffaws to find his way back to health after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness in 1964.

Cousins, former owner and editor of the prestigious intellectual magazine Saturday Review, imported copies of the Marx Brothers' movies and reruns of "Candid Camera." He found that 10 minutes of hearty laughing gave him an hour of pain-free sleep. Better than that, it started to restore his health. And tests proved it. He continued laughing until all his symptoms disappeared.

At first, the doctors told Cousins he had a disease that gave him only a 1-in-500 chance of survival. Then, after his recovery, many claimed that his disease went into spontaneous remission. Cousins laughed at both statements and continued to chortle at "A Night at the Opera" until his death in 1990.

Medical science is beginning to research the effects that laughter has upon people's health and has found plenty to smile about. Studies have revealed that a good belly laugh will help fight infections, stress, hypertension and headaches.

Without laughter, people would get sick more often and more severely, according to an interview with Dr. William Fry in Science Digest magazine. Dr. Fry, a psychiatrist from Stanford University Medical School, believes that "humor stirs the insides and gets the endocrine system going, which can be quite beneficial in alleviating disease."

In fact, laughter is just about the best medicine known. On a

physical level, laughter is good exercise, described by Dr. Fry as "stationary jogging." A hearty laugh will stimulate your chest, thorax and abdominal muscles as well as your diaphragm, heart, lungs and liver. Your pulse can shoot from 60 to 120 as your blood pressure rises from 120 to 200. An increased supply of oxygen courses through your bloodstream.

Once the giggles subside, your pulse rate and blood pressure will dip below normal. Skeletal muscles become deeply relaxed. Other muscles relax as well, which often relieves headaches. All these processes reduce stress and hypertension.

One psychologist, Jeffrey Goldstein of Temple University in Philadelphia, speculated that laughter's ability to lessen stress may be related to people's longevity. Just look at two platinum-age funny men -- Bob Hope and George Burns.

Laughter's chemical effects upon the body are leading scientists to think that it can serve as a natural tranquilizer. Mirth stimulates the brain to produce catecholamine, a complex hormone which, in turn, causes the release of endorphins. Endorphins are the body's natural opiates. They work as internal painkillers by decreasing your perception of your discomfort.

Research suggests that laughter is especially effective for inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis and gout, or chronic allergies.

For all of these reasons, some professionals are beginning to prescribe laughter as what Carl Sandburg called "medicine for weary bones."

Raymond A. Moody, author of "Laugh After Laugh: The Healing Powers of Humor," reports an amazing testimony of laughter's power. One of his patients, a 12-year-old female, had been hospitalized as a catatonic schizophrenic. After a visit from a clown, she began to recover. She smiled and repeated the clown's name over and over again. Eventually, she returned to full health.

So bring a little more health and humor into your life. Adopt a strategic attitude like that of Mel Brooks, who says, "Humor is just another defense against the universe." Or the lifesaving philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. -- "The biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears."

TAKE IT LIGHTLY

If you can laugh at Woody Allen's jokes but can't see anything funny about your world, it's time to develop your own sense of absurdity. Take some of the following tips from Laurence J. Peter's book, "The Laughter Prescription": * Adopt an attitude of playfulness so that your mind is open to silly, uncensored or outrageous thoughts.

* Laugh at the incongruities in situations involving yourself and others.

* Take your responsibilities seriously, but don't take yourself so seriously. This will lighten life's anxieties and burdens.

* Make others laugh. By creating happiness for them, you will experience a joy that only a generous sense of humor can bring.

* A sense of humor sees the fun in everyday experience. It is more important to have fun than to be funny.

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