by Marcia Singer, MSW, CHt
"Humor is our greatest national resource." — James Thurber
How do you spell relief? H-U-M-O-R, nature's own best remedy for the blues, the blahs, and anything else that gets you down. Healthy humor (not the kind that intends harm) is a lighthearted, playful perspective on a situation, a vantage point that lets us breathe. Natural play can tickle funny bones quite, um, naturally, dissolving tensions instantly. And it's free.
Humor is anathema to our fears, to our beliefs that life is unsafe and unwelcoming of us. For that reason alone, seeing the funny or silly side of hardship—even a life-threatening illness—opens up the possibility for hope and healing to intercede. The word disease comes apart easily into dis-ease—a serious, grim lack of ease and certainly the absence of play. Inviting playfulness in to transform dis-ease brings to mind two men who have proved the power of humor and its sidekick laughter in the healing process: Norman Cousins and Dr. "Patch" Adams.
I found details about Cousins in a book written by my humor expert friend Terry Braverman (When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up: How To Be Happy in Spite of It Al). Cousins was perhaps the person best known for bringing to mainstream attention the power of humor to heal. A UCLA professor and former editor of The Saturday Review, Cousins cured himself of a so-called incurable collagen disease. Given only six months to live, Cousins determined that he would die laughing, requesting that his visitors bring "funny books, tapes, cartoons, gag gifts, and anything else that might provoke laughter." His disease went into remission after just a few weeks of self-prescribed laughing therapy, added onto his other medical treatments. He managed to live another 15 years, receiving a humanitarian award for his works shortly before his death.
Equally inspiring is the evolving tale of physician Patch Adams, made public via the 1998 box office film, Patch, starring Robin Williams. At first severely criticized during his medical school years for his penchant for wearing a red clown's nose during patient visits, and finding other seemingly outlandish ways to brighten and lighten the load of his patients, Patch went on to make medical history. Graduating in 1971 and determined to revolutionize the way medicine is understood and practiced, he founded the Gesundheit Institute, which ran as a free community clinic for 12 years. The center was funded by private donations, proceeds from Adams' books (Gesundheit! and House Calls), and "The Wellness Show," a traveling production in which Adams plays a 19th century snake oil salesman selling nutrition, exercise, wonder, friendship, and love.
Today, Patch and his cohorts are building a hospital and health care center on a 320-acre farm in Virginia. His dream is a model for a "happy hospital," continuing his practice of charging no money, carrying no malpractice insurance, no third party reimbursements, and integrating all the healing arts, including performing arts, crafts, farming, nature, friends, and "fun." He remains a dedicated clown doctor, spreading humor and laughter wherever he goes.
Also a fan of wearing red clown noses is Terry Braverman, a West Coast "recovering stand-up comedian." In his lectures to health care professionals, Terry emphasizes the relationship between humor and health. East Coast play expert Cathy Raphael (itsourturntoplay.com) agrees. Both cite scientific evidence for the power of a humorous take on things to benefit physical, emotional, and psychological healing. Laughter releases endorphins, "like chocolate and exercise," says Raphael. Braverman tells us that laughter increases blood circulation, aids digestion and elimination, and "amplifies respiration." In fact, "a good belly laugh can elevate oxygen intake. . . fivefold," he says.
Laughing also boosts our immune systems, according to the new science of psychoneuroimmunology. Energy Times magazine (May 2003) reports that "mirthful" laughter that's not "sarcastic or bitter" can "increase NK cell activity, raise the number of other immune cells called T-cells, and lower output of cortisol," a hormone released during stress. Braverman, Raphael, and Energy Times also reiterate the power of humor and laughing (endemic to play) as a stress and burnout antidote; as a bonding element for human connection, communication, and teamwork; and as a lube for creative wheels.
In a similar vein, Diane Loomans, co-author of The Laughing Classroom: Everyone's Guide to Teaching with Humor and Play (H.J.Kramer, 1993), offers "The High Fives of Humor.” Included on her list are various physical and social benefits for players in learning situations.
Humor and laughter are part of the joyful side of life. They make learning fun and healing and connection more likely for everyone who embraces the Tao of "en-lightening-up."
AFFIRMATION: Today I prevent disasters by not taking them seriously. I breathe into the present moment, meeting each challenge with a lighter heart, willing to find deLight along de way.