“Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs. He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”

                                    – Freidrich Nietzche

       There you are lying flat on your back in bed, your body wracked with pain. You want one thing – relief. However, you hurt so much you just can’t relax, and forget about getting any sleep, it is NOT going to happen. The pain medication you took has given you little or no relief. Then there’s the kids, the phone, the pets — even your mother-in-law! And Calgon refuses to take you away. You wouldn’t be able to get in the tub, anyway. You’re in such a state, that Death by Chocolate is beginning to have a strange appeal.

     Now, before you reach for that chocolate, have you ever considered that humor and the laughter that accompanies it, might possibly have therapeutic value in easing your pain, and could even be a potent force for healing? Could a laugh a day keep the doctor away? You many be wondering if laughter could help you maintain health and avoid illness? Could a daily dose of humor and laughter improve the human condition?     
    That’s not funny, you say. When Norman Cousins (1979), author of Anatomy of an Illness, found himself flat on his back, wracked with pain from an acute inflammatory illness, he had this to say regarding his situation, “Nothing is less funny than being flat on your back with all the bones in your spine and joints hurting”(p.39). But he did think that positive emotions – hope, love, faith –  might enhance his body chemistry, though he had his doubts about laughter until he   began to view some very funny movies. Cousins (1979) discovered that watching “ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect,” and allowed him “at least two hours of pain free sleep” (p.39). When he needed more sleep, the nurse would turn on more movies (p.39).

     I was in a similar situation myself, flat on my back in bed with a “pinched” nerve. I had previously heard of Cousins’ humorous approach to easing pain, and with an old back injury, as well as the challenge of living with a long-term intractable pain condition, I wanted to give laughter a try. I NEEDED to give laughter a try!  

     After begging my husband to rent a funny film that we could both enjoy, I slowly made my way into the family room. He had rented “The Money Pit” with Shelley Long (of Cheers fame) and the hilarious Tom Hanks. The film featured a couple who had moved into a house that was the ultimate fixer-upper from Hell.

Watching this film caused me to have almost nonstop belly laughter and actually eased my pain.  I felt a whole lot better, and my own “fixer-upper” seemed more like a palace.

     Although this particular incident happened nearly twenty-five years ago I still successfully use humor for pain relief.

Today, growing numbers of enthusiastic medical practitioners, their patients, and health-minded individuals are embracing the use of humor and laughter as a beneficial healing modality. 

Why? Because of the positive results! And in this time of ever escalating health care costs, with a reliance on expensive technologies, I would like to examine therapeutic humor to see if a low-tech, low cost, non-invasive “technique” such as laughter, has a place in the health care system, and is really a “best” medicine. Can healing with hilarity really work? My own life experience says yes, yes, yes.

     What exactly is humor? And what is therapeutic humor?  Providing an exact definition for humor apparently, is not an easy task, as Thomas L. Kuhlman, Ph.D.(1994) discovered. In his book Humor and Psychotherapy, Kuhlman quoted an historical ‘great thinker’ from the ranks of philosophy or science as proof, “As Sully (1902) observed about humor, ‘hardly a word in the language — and it seems to be exclusively an English word — would be harder to define with scientific precision than this familiar one’” (p.9). Dr. Kuhlman believes that “Trying to define the essence of humor is like trying to define ‘learning’” (p.10). While stating that “we remain hard pressed to say what humor is,” Kuhlman explains; “a definition of humor is not attempted; rather, humor is conceived as a putative link between certain classes of responses and certain classes of stimuli that occurs under certain contextual conditions” (p.10). Uh,huh. You might want to call a psychologist for a translation or clarity! Now, I would define humor as an energy of fun, or as a kind of “wacky wisdom” which works on the body, mind, psyche, and spirit. And, it’s something I crave.

     For a bit more scholarly definition of humor, however, an encyclopedia remains a valuable resource.  The New Standard Encyclopedia(1969) published by Standard Educational

Corporation, defines humor simply and with words that really resonate with me, “Humor, the quality in writing, speech, art, or music that arouses mirth or induces laughter. A person with a strong ‘sense of humor’ — the faculty of finding something laughable or mirth- provoking in a great many situations or circumstances — has a decided advantage in life” (p.H-236). I don’t think Thomas Kuhlman could argue with that!

     Now that that humor has been defined (as if you needed a definition), you’re may wonder how scholars define therapeutic humor? The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH, 2009), has this definition on their website: 

     Therapeutic humor is defined to be: Any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations. This intervention may enhance work performance, support learning, improve health,  or be used as a complementary treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social, or spiritual (p.1).

     This sounds like it would be a valid definition for humor in general. My own belief is that almost any kind of humor, when used in a fun, loving, or holistic manner, has therapeutic potential. And what I’d really like to know is what the AATH means by “Applied” humor? Do you apply humor to the body (you may have heard of applying donuts directly to the hips, since that is their ultimate destination), like “quips for your hips?”

Could humor be fattening? We need to know. There are many kinds of humor at work in the world. “Most lists include cartoon, clowning, comedy, farce, jest, joke, parody, pun, riddle, ridicule, sarcasm, satire, and slapstick” (p.9), says Thomas Kuhlman (1994).(He should have added wacky to the list!)  

     It appears the therapeutic use of humor has been at work in the world since ancient times. Norman Cousins (1979) informs us in Anatomy of an Illness, that “The Bible tells us that a merry heart works like a doctor”(p.83), and notes the number of physicians, philosophers, and scholars whose minds have been stimulated by the healing power in humor for centuries (p.83). Cousins (1979) mentions Sir Francis Bacon, who examined “mirth,” as well as Robert Burton, who in his nearly 400 year old book Anatomy of Melancholy, made an observation that ‘humor purges the blood, making the body young, lively, and fit for any manner of employment’(p.84).

     Anyone over the age of 40 or 50, and certainly the AARP, will salute the wisdom of that man! Cousins (1979) surprised me with the information that Sigmund Freud, who I never thought of as being even vaguely humorous, “believed that mirth was a highly useful way of counteracting nervous tension, and that humor could be used as effective therapy” (p.84).(And if you don’t believe Freud, it could be you hate your mother, or vice versa, I bet.)