The more I live, the more I think that humor is the saving sense Jacob August Riis
Somebody – okay, everybody – once said that laughter is the best medicine.
Granted, back-fence physicians also claim that enough chicken noodle soup can cure everything from plantars warts to irritable bowels to ebola. But even as a blind pig will occasionally turn up an acorn, so a spoonful of sugar really can help the medicine go down, and may even offer an apple-free method for keeping the doctor away. Nothing personal, Doc.
Trouble is, sickness comes in a broad range of styles and colors. While a discount clown and a few balloon animals may easily divert a child in bed with the measles, a person diagnosed with cancer can be a tougher audience. From the moment the word “positive” is first uttered, the cancer patient quickly becomes caught up in a whirling, slow-motion cyclone of medications and doctors, neither of which are especially funny. Throw in a blizzard of insurance forms, a sea of cast-down eyes and the shadowy specter of awaiting Charon, and one might sooner crack a coconut with a hard stare as crack a smile.
But one must try, and not just because a cheerful disposition is about the only thing an HMO can’t charge a co-pay for. As it happens, laughter works.
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones Proverbs 17:22
Fact is, folks in the leech trade recognized humor’s restorative properties long before a diapered Hippocrates licked his first candy thermometer. Greek physicians of old commonly prescribed convalescent cases a trip to a “house of comedians,” and better Roman hospitals often kept comics on staff to cheer the sick. In medieval times, surgeons told jokes to distract their patients during surgery.
Of course, ancient medicos also believed that bat poop, taken internally, effectively cleansed the body of poisonous vapors, malevolent demons and Syrian spears. Fortunately, modern research amply supports their conviction that good spirits are good for what ails you.
Before anyone does anything rash, like blow the rent money on a Monty Python boxed-set, it should be noted that laughter doesn’t actually cure anything, at least not directly. But studies cited by the American Cancer Society strongly suggest that a hearty chuckle now and then confers numerous physical and psychological benefits. For starters, the simple act of laughing increases breathing, which spurs oxygen use and raises the heart rate. Next, even mild hilarity decreases the level of neuroendocrine and stress-related hormones in the body. Less stress means more laughter means less stress and so on ad infinitum.
Another study links laughter to an increased tolerance for pain, perhaps through the release of as-yet-unidentified endorphins in the brain that inhibit pain transmission. And a bunch of people who make it their business to know these things report that regular doses of mirth can stimulate the body’s immune system, which is a very useful system that should be stimulated at every opportunity.
More remarkably, humorless scientists exploring the biological impact of humor on the brain have discovered that even pointless musings of self-described humorist Bob Saget can have unexpectedly sanguinary – if not particularly humorous – results. To hear them tell it, as a joke begins, the left hemisphere of the cortex immediately begins processing words. The action then moves to the frontal lobe where it’s registered that what’s about to happen will be “funny.” Moments later, the brain’s right hemisphere synthesizes those two factors and searches for a pattern. In a trice, activity in the occipital lobe hits the roof as one “gets” the joke and – except in the case of Bob Saget – laughter ensues. The point of that tiresome recitation being that humor invites the entire brain to the party, or, in psycho-speak, tends to integrate and balance activity in both hemispheres of the brain. And that’s good.
Geez. In clinical terms, even fun doesn’t sound all that fun. Still, the movement to add humor to medicine’s accepted canon of treatments is steadily gaining ground, to the point where it’s been granted a tag – humor therapy.
According to the ACS, hospitals across the country now offer humor therapy rooms chock full of funny books, funny magazines, funny videos and, sometimes, funny people – whatever it takes to turn that frown upside down. In other cases, treatment centers simply detail volunteers to sit with patients and act as friendly foils for the kind of spontaneous laughter that comes naturally with casual banter. There’s a good reason behind those hospital hi-jinks, too. Statistically, folks who look on the sunny side get better faster and stay that way longer. Who knew?
There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor Tomas W. Higginson
As any author of limericks will attest, humor’s principal boon is spiritual. Merriment eases the heart, calms the mind and reduces great and terrible issues to more manageable dimensions. Laughter takes the starch out of life’s many stiff collars, so to speak. In her book, Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Guidelines to Success, critical care nurse and tireless therapeutic humor champion Patty Wooten explains thusly:
The ability to laugh at a situation or problem gives us a feeling of superiority and power. Humor and laughter can foster a positive and hopeful attitude. We are less likely to succumb to feelings of depression and helplessness if we are able to laugh at what is troubling us.
At bottom, it’s about quality of life, and life is never sweeter than when punctuated by heartfelt giggles, snorts, hoots and guffaws. And it isn’t only the ill who could use a good laugh. The families and friends of the suffering carry their own freight of anxieties, and humor shines its beneficent light evenly.
Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage Erma Bombeck