The Healing Power of Laughter

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: What does the field of psychology say about the importance of laughter in recovering from illnesses, or even from such things as depression?

I ran a search of the APA Psychnet, a research database of the American Psychological Association, and found only one abstract that seemed to endorse a relationship between laughter and good health.

The abstract of an article by Leo Michel Abrami stated, “Humor and laughter are natural mechanisms that help one to confront the often harsh realities in daily life. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being. Research in neurobiology has shown laughter increases autonomic nervous system activity, there is also some evidence that mirthful laughter in response to humor reduces stress hormones while increasing immune cell activity.”

Probably the best-known story on the benefits of laughter comes from the book Anatomy of an Illness, the autobiography of Norman Cousins, the man who claimed to have laughed his way back to health. In 1964, Cousins was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a condition in which the connective tissue in his spine deteriorates. His chance of survival was estimated to be approximately 1 in 500.

Facing the prospect of impending death, he took control of his treatment. Researching his condition, he found a physician who would take him off all medication and inject him with high doses of Vitamin C because the condition was depleting his body of the necessary vitamin.

Second, he checked himself out of the hospital to remove himself from an environment that he concluded was a place of “haphazard hygiene practices, culture of overmedication, general feelings of negativity, and routines that disrupted basic sleep patterns.” He believed that a hospital was “no place for a person who is seriously ill.”

The third thing Cousin’s did was laugh. He obtained a movie projector and he had it brought to his hotel room. Along with a movie projector, he procured a large supply of funny films, including numerous Candid Camera tapes and several old copies of Marx Brother’s movies.

That first night, he laughed so hard that he was pain free for several hours. Apparently, the laughter stimulated the production of endorphins, which in turn, relieved him of pain. When the pain would return he would turn on the projector and the laughter would result in less pain and a return to sleep.

Cousins measured reduction in inflammation in his body by changes in his blood sedimentation rate. Laughter resulted in a reduction in his blood sedimentation rate, indicating a reduction in the inflammatory processes at work in his body.

Off every medication, except Vitamin C and laughter, Cousins dramatically improved. Within a few weeks, he was able to return to his position at the Saturday Review. Though not totally healed, his body continued to recover.

One must wonder how this happened, and why he ran into such resistance from the medical community in his day. Cousins hypothesized that “if negative emotions such as anger and frustration could contribute to poor health, why couldn’t positive emotions such as joy and laughter have the opposite effect?” Though given a terrible prognosis in the 1964, Cousins lived until 1990. It could be said that he had “an optimistic attitude that may very well have saved his life.”

Though empirical evidence on the benefits of laughter is scant but may be supported by further research in the field of endorphins, most of us can think of a time in which a headache, or depression, or pain in some part of our body was relieved by laugher. So, go ahead and laugh. You will probably feel better and it’s almost guaranteed to add to your “face value.”

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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