Category: Healing with Hilarity


Seeking evidence that humor and laughter can be healing, was the reason for the annual meeting of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor held in San Francisco five years ago (Schorr,2004). Although this growing organization was holding their yearly conference practically in my own backyard, I had scant knowledge of the AATH’s prominence in therapeutic humor. But my intense passion for humor and healing –and the lure of a dirt-cheap student rate- later inspired me to become a member in 2008. One of its appeals to me was the myriad resources available for humor research that this organization provides to its members.

Melissa Schorr (2004), then Daily News columnist for the former Alameda News Group Newspapers wrote this about the SF humor conference in my local paper: “Although there is compelling evidence that humor and laughter are effective,” (p.1) Schorr explained that “much is still unknown,”(p.1) and further research is indicated (p.1). But Allen Klein, who attended the conference, believed that “We’ve been laughing for 5,000 years. We know it feels good. Do we need science to tell us that? I’m not going to send it to the lab” (p.1). Way to go, Allen! Let’s listen to this wise “jollytologist.”

It was a privilege to attend the 2009 AATH humor conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, which was sponsored by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. “Healthy Humor: Hitting the Wellness Jackpot!” was the name for this latest international conference, and nearly 2000 members of this fun organization gathered from around the globe for the annual chuckle fest. Oh yeah, Las Vegas really rocked with laughter while the AATH was in town! My favorite “Jollytologist,” Allen Klein was deservedly given an AATH Lifetime Achievement Award. The world could use more jollytologists like the inspirational Allen Klein.

Klein might consider joining the Hollister Laughter Club, “an organization that promotes fitness and relaxation by combining the ancient practice of yoga with the therapeutic benefits of laughter,”(2004,p.1) as I learned viewing the now- defunct Sunday, April 11th, 2004 SF “Bay Area Backroads” television program, hosted by Doug McConnell. The Clubs instructor, a trained yogic laugher(over 700 in the country), guides participants in each twice/weekly session, “where each laugh works out a different part of the body” (BayAreabackroads.com,p.1).A guru giggling group? To find out, call the Hollister Laughter Club at (831) 637-0949, or find a laughter club in your own area at http://www.laughteryoga.org. I’m glad I did!

Finally, am I suggesting that humor and laughter are the best way to cure what ails you? Of course, I’m not. As long ago as the seventies, Moody (1978) voiced his concern. Moody believed, “laughter could not replace the medical techniques that we already have … I propose only that it could be used to supplement them” (p.120). If only that were true, because medical techniques have become increasingly high-tech (and more impersonal, as a result) since Moody wrote those words. Don’t wait for the scientific community to give you the final word on humor and laughter’s healing potential. Be informed regarding your health concerns, and do your own research. You could start with the San Francisco Main Library’s Schmulowitz Humor Collection.(Appendix C) The librarian in Special Collections is eager to help. (Her chicken costume was a real gas!)

Humor and laughter won’t help in every situation. But I know what humor and laughter do for me. It makes me feel so good I take a mini vacation for awhile. And I personally believe that humor and laughter stimulate my “amuse” system, which may then strengthen my immune system.

See for yourself. Health is about balance, I believe.  We need to balance the serious stuff with the silly stuff. I’m convinced there is a laugh force. Let’s use it and experience this healing power. Get out there and get your funny bone tickled -and tickle the funny bone of someone you love. This “magical moment of laughter”(Wooten, p.xx) might make you feel so good, you’ll find that laughter really is a “best” medicine.

Healing with hilarity works!

“There ain’t much fun in medicine, but there’s a heck of a lot of medicine in fun.” (Josh Billings, 19th Century humorist)

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This brings me back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this project. I wanted to examine therapeutic humor to see if a low-tech, low cost, non-invasive “technique” like laughter has a place in the health care system, and may really be a “best” medicine, and investigate the transformative power of healing with hilarity. The healing efficacy of humor therapy, was adequately proved, I believe, by relating personal experiences with humor and laughter (including my own), and discussion of the ample physiological, psychological, and spiritual benefits on the body.

Although research on the therapeutic effects and healing benefits of humor and laughter is a continual process in the medical and scientific communities, much of modern humor research began with Norman Cousins (1979), who provided the impetus, as well as the inspiration for the serious study of laughter. We owe Cousins a great deal of gratitude. Nearly everyone who authored books on humorous and alternative healing techniques – from physician Patch Adams (1993), to Stress psychologist Jon Kabat-Zin (1990) – agree that Cousins provided invaluable information from his personal pain-reducing experiments and ignited interest in the subject.

In Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins (1979) ground-breaking book, a follow-up to his previously published medical article,1976) which resulted in a barrage of letters (over 3,000) from interested physicians who had read it. Cousins infamous coping strategies set a new standard:

How scientific was it to believe that laughter- as well
As the positive emotions in general- was affecting  my
chemistry for the better? If laughter did in fact have a
salutary effect on the body’s chemistry, it seemed at
least theoretically likely that it would enhance the
system’s ability to fight the inflammation. So we took
sedimentation rate readings just before as well as several
hours after the laughter episodes. Each time, there was a
drop of at least five points. The drop by itself was not
substantial, but it held and was cumulative. I was greatly
elated by the discovery that there is a physiological basis
for the ancient theory that laughter is the best medicine.
p.40) To me, Cousins remains, the true for the ancient
theory that laughter is Lord of Laughter.

Now that you have been educated about the amazing role of endorphins in pain relief by well-known researchers like the Becks’ (1987), Cousins (1989), Adams (1993), and Greenfield 2000), I believe it’s easier to understand the appeal of endorphin moments, even with possible risks. And remember, the Becks believe endorphins are potentially “one of the most significant discoveries of our time”(p.9). Some of the risks associated with using therapeutic humor and laughter, including situations where it may be deemed inappropriate, or even dangerous, were extensively discussed. Next, came some reasons for why you may avoid humorous situations, or feel uncomfortable engaged in intense laughter, or have a fear of appearing foolish before your peers. “Remember,” says Allen Klein on his website, “that you are not becoming a comedian, you are seeking humor for balance and perspective,”(Allen Klein.com, p.3) so why not give therapeutic humor a try, I say.

My own ‘inner clown,’ became active during my undergraduate service project at JFK University. Joining the Gesundheit! House calls Team is a way for the health care professional (I’m not) or anyone with an open, caring heart, to spread joy and laughter where there’s a need. I knew the need was great in convalescent hospitals or nursing homes as they are more commonly called. A nursing home was an obvious choice to spread some joy and share some laughter. And I was SO ready to Gesundheit! Really. Even with Patch’s books Gesundheit! (1993) and Housecalls (1998) for guidance and inspiration, I still felt very apprehensive about my service decision. The staff and patients might think I was goofy. But that was the whole idea! So I tried to fuggetaboudit, and had the time of my life dressed like a tie-dye clown. It was a great way to make a difference.

The medical staff and dedicated volunteers at the El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California, have discovered that humor used in a therapeutic manner, is a great way to make a difference. This Silicon Valley hospital obviously understands the need for humorous healing. A visit to this hospital’s website (www.elcaminohospital.org) will introduce you to their unique program in Healing Humor:

Dr. Siskel, a pathologist at El Camino Hospital, is also an amateur standup comedian. He became convinced nearly a decade ago that humor enhances healing. After researching the literature he began to give lectures about pathology, humor and health, promoting the idea that, ‘When people are hurting, a little humor can make a huge difference’ (2009, p.1).

At El Camino Hospital, volunteer jester Melissa Parker cheers up patients with her stock of jokes and cart full of stuffed animals, bumper stickers, cards, bubbles, games, windup toys and funny glasses. She roams the hospital floors, connecting with patients and distracting them, for a few moments, from health problems and the hospital routine (2009, p.1).

For more information on El Camino Hospital’s humor program, call (650) 988-7767, and then call your Doctor. Tell your personal physician you want a humor therapy program placed in your hospital, because laughter has proven therapeutic value.

And while you are at it, tell any doctor who will listen, that Laura Jensen Walker (2003), a former newspaper columnist, author, and breast cancer survivor, found that “Joking with doctors and nurses is one of the few fun by-products of surgery”(p.146). (Patients ought to have SOME fun, I say!)

Joking with the pioneering nurses who publish, and contribute to the newly resurrected, Journal of Nursing Jocularity, would be great fun. These humor-promoting nurses just want to have fun! So I’ve included two hilarious cartoons from their earlier magazine in Appendixes A and B (not human appendixes, folks!), to give you a sense of their publication.

Reading about the importance given to the value of humor and healing at El Camino Hospital was encouraging. El Camino Hospital is a fine example of applying fun in a medical setting, and in our current health care industry, a sense of fun and humor is sorely needed (pun intended!). Some hospitals depend on caring clowns to administer zany doses of fun and humor to their patients. Writer and Editor, Katharine Whittemore, informs us about the Clown Ministry program at the St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapid’s, Iowa, and tells us about “the Big Apple’s Circus’s Clown Care Unit, the largest hospital clown program in the country, which visits hospitals in such cities as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.” (as cited in New Age, The Journal For Holistic Living, 1998, p.132)

Christian Hageseth III, M.D.(1992), board-certified psychiatrist and author, understands this risk well.  In the Journal of Nursing Jocularity, he informs the Nursing professional of their need to understand the “anatomy and psysiology of humor “(p.43), if they wish to practice it. Hageseth says we tend to imitate the humor we’ve previously witnessed, which often has negative consequences. Because the humor that worked in one situation doesn’t transfer as well to others, we may be puzzled by blank faces or uncomfortable quiet (p.43).

Even worse, humor may be something they decide to ignore (p.43). Hageseth (1992) explains, “They fear negative consequences and thus unnecessarily deprive themselves of a healing, mature psychological defense mechanism” (p.43). This concerned psychiatrist offers a guideline to reduce the risk associated with negative humor:

What determines whether a humor attempt is negative or not are the four elements for successful humor (or for any successful communication for that matter).  They are:

1. RELATIONSHIP

2. RAPPORT

3. SETTING

4. TIMING

Pay attention to these four and your humor will be successful. Fail to account for any one of these and your humor is likely to fail – it is likely to hurt another person’s feelings (1992,p.43)

I would agree.  This is a great guideline for achieving responsible humor, and for living life.  I conscientiously strive for successful, negative-free humor, for ‘stuff’ that makes me want to laugh at the absurdity of life.  You can do this, too.

But suppose you’re inexperienced in the art of creating humor, an unsure novice in getting laughs. Perhaps, you’re fearful of appearing foolish.  Most of us are, with Patch Adams, being an over-the-top exception. I’ve met the man, he’s loony!  Allen Klein (1989) obviously understands this:

There are many deterrents to laughter: embarrassment, pain, anger, rejection, worry, anxiety, risk, fear, criticism, and more. The list is long, and it started when we were young. Many of us remember being told, ‘Wipe that smile off your face,’ ‘Stop smirking,’ or ‘Settle down.’  Often we were asked, ‘When are you going to grow up?’ We learned that there was something wrong with laughing. Laughter meant that we were immature. Seriousness Represented godliness; laughter was more the work of the devil (pp.23-24). Wow. Now THAT would explain the hellish torment I experienced for thirteen, long years in Catholic School with the infamous Sister Mary Holywater!

No wonder, bouts of laughter – especially uncontrollable laughter, where we may be unable to return to our serious selves – scare some of us so much. Do you recall Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers singing, “Don’t be afraid to lose control?” In the beginning, looking and acting like a silly fool makes one feel uncomfortable, but once you rev-up those amazing endorphins, you’ll be SO glad you lost control, and played the fool.

If you are ready to learn to laugh, Patty Wooten (1996), can help you get started. In the journal, Holistic Nursing Practice, Wooten suggests searching for “people with that special flair for seeing the funny side of a situation,” (p.4) and she encourages us to “use the talent available to aid in the quest for laughter and comic release” (p.4, http://www.JestHealth.com). But you don’t need to seek out Robin Williams to see the ‘funny side.’ There are tons of funny folks out there. “Stay in touch with your ‘inner clown’”(p.4), Wooten requests.

Psychotherapist, Elcha Shain Buckman (1994), believes that only Lawrence Kubie (1971), psychiatrist and author, thinks of therapeutic humor as a “dangerous weapon” (p.20) and quotes him cautioning that “the mere fact that it amuses and entertains the therapist and gives him a pleasant feeling is not evidence that it is a valuable experience for the patient” (p.20). Provine (2000) is inclined to believe that even if “Kubie’s reservations are legitimate and generally shared by many other humor critics and proponents, his cure {cure?} seems worse than the disease” (p.204).

It’s hard for me to understand this type of thinking.
Fortunately, Buckman (1994) informs her reader, “Kubie’s stance is the only one that purports humor to be a non-viable intervention in psychotherapy. All other authors recommend consideration and caution as they do for other therapeutic intervention strategies” (p.21). Thank you, Doctor.

However, social and research psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, provides his own negative view of laughter: Psychologically, laughter may indicate self-deprecation, hostility toward others– as in racist joking, defensiveness, closed-mindedness-or a preoccupation with scatology or sex. I would not want to label these these attitudes and dispositions ‘pathological’, but only wish to point out that psychologists have often treated laughter as a reflection of underlying attitudes, afflicts, and cognitions and that these attitudes, feelings, and thoughts may always be those we think of as healthy or desirable. (as cited in Fry and Salameh, 1987,p.8) (Racist Jokes are unhealthy, I think we would all agree).

I’d like to point out my own obligation to include an opposing point of view in this humor research paper. In my own humble opinion, many of these psychologists would be better-off lightening -up, already! They have acquired an attitude that is much too serious. Would they even know how to have fun? They’re in desperate need of a few laughs, I feel. Sorry, if all this unfunny stuff depressed you. I’ll bet we could benefit from a few snickers, chortles, giggles, cackles, hoots, and guffaws, right about now (Wooten,2002,p.3).

In matters of humor, what is appealing to one person is appalling to another. (Melvin Helitzer, comedy writer)

Humor and laughter will involve risk. Many authors caution that using humor is risky business (Not the movie!). Klein (1989) explains that we have no idea what kind of response our comic ‘shticks’ will bring, and how we might respond to the ‘routines’ of others (p.33). And “When dealing with people who are in the midst of a difficult passage, even more risk is involved, it being such a vulnerable time”(p.33), says the author (p.33).

Yes, I’ll admit there is risk involved, especially when someone is in a vulnerable state. But I believe that anyone, with an open, caring heart, will find the guidance they need to effectively use humor and laughter in a therapeutic manner.

Now, as for smiling, Allan Klein (1989) says that “a smile is the quickest way to get rid of your doldrums” (p.95).  He quotes Dr. David Bresler, who proclaims that “Smiling can help us take the first half-step away from our physical and psychological pain. It is only part of an overall picture, but when we can smile in spite of our pain, we begin to focus away  “from our discomfort” (p.96.). Yes! A smile is an umbrella that can catch our teardrops when they fall. “Smiling even helps strengthen the thymus gland, an important contributor to a healthy immune system,” according to Dr. John Diamond (p.96.).

Wooten (2002) tells us that “laughter is a smile’ that involves the whole body” (p.3). Just reading her very funny, “rib-tickling” words may make your face break into a smile: “Laughter is a smile that engages the entire body.  At first, the corners of the mouth turn up slightly, then the muscles around your eyes engage and a twinkling appears. Next you begin to make noises, ranging from controlled snickers, escaped chortles, and spontaneous giggles, to ridiculous cackles, noisy hoots, and uproarious guffaws…”(p.3)!

Gosh, my own snickers are now out of control, my chortles have escaped, and I can’t stop laughing.  But I’d volunteer to go cackle and hoot with Wooten. (If you’re gonna go hootin’, do it with Wooten!)

“A merry heart doeth good- like medicine –
But a broken spirit drieth the bones.”

-The Holy Bible, Proverbs 17-22

If you’ve ever seen an image of the Laughing Buddha, or are at all familiar with the Dalai Lama’s rollicking laughter and great sense of humor, then you’ve  probably guessed that laughter may be an effective healing balm for the spirit. Just look at the radiant joy they express, it’s contagious! You may never have considered laughter and humor as medicine for your spirit or how it can help you open your heart. Although it’s commonly known that laughter –or humor- can “lift the spirit”   (laughter and humor do for me), I never really considered the profound spiritual dimension of these “techniques.”

It’s obvious that Lenny Ravich (2002), director of The Gestalt Institute of Tel Aviv has given the spiritual dimension of laughter or humor some serious thought.

Writing about “spiritual laughter” in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Enlightenment, he informs us that “Humor is spirituality and spirituality is humor” (2002, p.63). Ravich continues, telling us that “A wise, old Arab once proclaimed something about God being a humorist playing to an audience that’s afraid to laugh” (p.63), and “Once we all get to see this whole thing we call ‘life’ as one huge cosmic joke, we have no other choice but to laugh” (p.63)

I’ve no doubt that Swami Beyondananda, aka Steve Bhaerman (wakeuplaughing.com) would agree with Lenny Ravich (2002). The Swami sees laughter as “a transformational tool that used wisely can bring not just physical healing, but emotional release, mental flexibility and spiritual perspective” (p. 4, On-line Mini-Book). In the Swami’s view, there’s also an “insight that follows in the wake of laughter“(p.4), as “the spiritual perspective that comes from levity helping us ‘rise above’ the situation and see it from a higher perspective” (p.4).

Author and funny guy David Jacobson (2007) dishes up details on his own new perspective which he’s named “Humor Spirit Theory” (p15). Jacobson’s “HST” is “a new theory of humor that states humor has a spiritual component as important as any other part of its definition” (p.115). Jacobson (2007) believes that “We laugh mostly because of our humor spirit” (p.115). If only these three writers were speaking about laughter, humor and RELIGION instead of spirituality. (But that could require a genuine miracle.)

I’d like to conclude this section on laughter, humor and spirituality with something from the amazing “jollytologist” Allen Klein (1989). He comes from a Jewish tradition, which “encourages the benefits of laughter in painful times” (p.166).  Klein wisely explains that “Life is hard, but it also is to be enjoyed; times may be bad, but that does not mean we must have a bad time. If we are to see good times, we are told, we must survive the bad” (p.166).

Allen Klein (1989) offers the Jewish prescription for surviving these bad times and the accompanying aching hearts: “Laugh it off” (p.167). I think of hearty laughter as kind of a “silly soup for the soul.” In my opinion you need not be Jewish to get spiritual benefits from a thick and delicious “laughingstock” (cited in Klein, 2006, p.95).

Now, if you are anything like me, you had no idea there were so many varieties of laughter. And you never would have imagined all the positive effects on the body/mind/spirit that therapeutic humor and vigorous laughter can exert. Surprisingly, there are instances where laughter isn’t always positive, is not a healthy sign, but a symptom of disease (Moody, 1978). Moody(1978) acknowledges it sounds rather strange, when he states that “there can be sicknesses involving laughter, or illnesses affecting the sense of humor, but in fact there are many”(p.41) he claims, often a manifestation of neurological diseases like “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and multiple sclerosis” (p.41).

Scientific researcher and author, Robert R. Provine (2000), appears to agree in a way with Moody. Provine, mainly discusses the use of humor in psychotherapy, saying that “Although humor may seem rather benign, not everyone believes it to be so, including such philosophical masters as Plato and Aristotle who long ago warned of laughter’s dark side” (p.203). But leave it to a few mental health professionals, to give us dire warnings on the clinical dangers of humor and laughter.

Now that you know you’re releasing endorphins into your system when you laugh, I’d like to discuss the physical and psychological effects of humor and laughter on the body. It wasn’t until Norman Cousins wrote about how his experience with laughter changed his life that the scientific world began to take humor more seriously (p.18). Patch Adams, M.D., describes the physical effects of laughter, which Cousins once referred to as “inner jogging” (cited by Klein, 1989,p.18).

Although humor itself is difficult to evaluate, the response to humor- laughter- can be studied quite readily. Research has shown that laughter increases the secretion of the natural chemicals, catecolamines and endorphins, that make people feel peppy and good. It also decreases cortisol secretion and lowers the sedimentation rate, which implies a stimulated immune response. Oxygenation of the blood increases, and residual air in the lungs decreases. Heart rate initially speeds up and blood pressure rises; then the arteries relax, causing heart rate and blood pressure to lower. Skin temperature rises as a result of increased peripheral circulation. Thus, laughter appears to have a positive effect on many cardiovascular and respiratory problems. In addition, laughter has superb muscle relaxant qualities. Muscle physiologists have shown that anxiety and muscle relaxation cannot occur at the same time and that the relaxation response after a hearty laugh can last up to forty-five minutes. (cited in Adams,1993,   p.67).

Yow! Patch is one clown-doctor I can really believe in.

Fellow “jollytologist,” Allen Klein (1989), says the following regarding the physical effects of laughter: “Cousins calls laughter ‘inner jogging.’ That is because when we are engaged in a good, hearty laugh, every system in our body gets a workout” (p.18). Klein asks you to recall your last good belly laugh, “the kind where your sides hurt when you finished” (p.18). Do you recall my funny movie episode?  For me, it was “extreme” inner jogging; it was an exercise workout that even Richard Simmons could love; and it was the most healing belly laugh that I’ve had the pleasure to experience.

Barbara Dossey, director of Holistic Nursing Consultants in Santa Fe, N.M., further informs us of the various physical effects of laughter, as she explains there are studies which show that laughter unleashes chemical neurotransmitters and hormones throughout our body, contributing to an overall sensation of well-being in much the same way that exercise does (as cited in Roan, 1995,p.5H).

Annette Goodheart (Roan,1995), a Santa Barbara, California psychotherapist, and the author of a book on laughter therapy, educates as well:

There is this massive chemical shift going on. When you laugh, your cardiovascular system gets a workout. You take in massive amounts of air.  Your heart rate and blood pressure go up at first, then settle down at a rate lower than before you began laughing.  Even the anticipation of laughter shifts your body’s chemistry (as cited in Roan,      1995,p.5H).

If you need more medical evidence that shows you a healthy dose of laughter does the “body’s chemistry” a lot of good, and is an awesome full-body exercise as well, then perhaps Dr.

William Fry, Jr. (1989), well-known in humor research circles as “the granddaddy of laughter research in the area of physiological response”(Wooten, 2002,p.1), might be the one who convinces you to give up that over-priced gym membership, and let laughter do all the work! (Let’s go join a gigglegym!)

As Fry relates:

Mirthful laughter affects most, if not all, of the major physiologic systems of the body. Your cardiovascular system was being exercised as your heart rate and blood pressure rose and then fell again. Your heavy breathing created a vigorous air exchange in your lungs and a healthy workout for your respiratory system.  Your muscles released tension as they tightened up and then relaxed again.  And, finally, opiates may be released into your blood system, creating the same feelings that long-distance joggers experience as ‘runners high’ (as cited in Klein 1989,p.19). Wow!  Watching a wacky comedy did all this for me, and I didn’t even have to get off the sofa!  Imagine what it might do for you.

Humor and laughter have proven psychological benefits as well. “Humor,” says Allen Klein (1989), “gives us power”(p.4).

This wise “jollytologist” states that “In laughter, we transcend our predicaments”(p.4). Klein says that “We are lifted above our feelings of fear, discouragement, and despair.” He then concludes that “People who can laugh at their setbacks no longer feel sorry for themselves. They feel uplifted, encouraged, and empowered” (p.4). How can you argue with that?

“Psychologically, humor forms the foundation of good health”(p.66), says physician, Patch Adams, M.D.(1993).  He believes that “People crave humor as if it were an essential amino acid” (p.66). When our trials and tribulations begin to weigh us down, we desperately seek a comic antidote for relief, in the view of this clown-doctor. Patch feels that if a person is humor deficient, there may be “underlying problems like depression or alienation” (p.67). And if laughter can truly make people feel “peppy and good”(p.67), as Adams’s claims – it could also mean that “humor is an excellent antidote to stress” (Adams, Mylander,993,p.67).

I absolutely love, the almost lyrical-sounding way in which Patty Wooten (2002) informs her reader of the many psychological benefits of laughter. Wooten says, “At that magical moment of laughter, we feel relaxed, hopeful, open and forgiving. We no longer feel anxious, hostile, depressed, or alone”(p.xx). This clown -nurse truly embodies the compassion she liberally “doses” her readers and patients with, and helps us awaken compassion for ourselves and others. In her article in Jest for the Health of It!, Wooten (1994) conducted an interview with Dr. William Fry, for the Journal of Nursing Jocularity, which until recently was out of print. (You canceled your over-priced gym membership because of him, remember?)

She asked him to speak as a psychiatrist (which he is), and asked if he could ‘clarify the connection between humor and mental health?’ Dr. Fry believes that “humor is both a contributor and a manifestation of our mental health. It reflects a positive orientation to life and a sense of well being. Humor is not just a maneuver or a joke. It gives us a broader, deeper view of life. It influences the relationships between human beings, as well as their relationship to the world” (p.1). Fry claims that “Humor offers a kind of protection when we witness or encounter a painful event” (p.1).

Back in the seventies, a bit of laughter helped me to cope with the extreme stress and discomfort I was experiencing during neurosurgery, while under local anesthesia, without any tranquilizers to soothe my psyche. I now realize, after many years, that this was a healthy response to what was a very traumatic experience. I know I suppressed a few giggles, but I could not erase the smile from my face.

Author and “Jollytologist” Allen Klein (1989), informs his reader in The Healing Power of Humor, that the idea of humor being beneficial to our physical health is nothing new (p.17).  The Greeks knew it, he says. They sent the ill to visit the “home of comedians”(p.17) as part of their healing process, while the Native American Ojibwa Indian tribe had clown -doctors perform antics to cure the sick” (p.17). Raymond Moody M.D.(1978), states that although the Ojibwa clown -doctors -known as the windigokan – had many “social functions,” the most important one was curing. Moody explains that these clown-doctors were equipped with a “traditional license to engage in hilarity that was so complete that it extended even to their behavior”(p.39). In my opinion, a requirement that the practice of therapeutic hilarity be added to The Hippocratic Oath would be a great step in improving the practice of medicine.

In the early part of the Twentieth Century, author Alanson Skinner (1914) provided an astounding description of the windigokan method of healing:

When a sick person’s case had been diagnosed by the doctor or seer as one of infection by disease demons, word was sent to the leader of the windigokan who brought his troop into the patient’s lodge where they danced before the invalid, pounding their rattles on the ground, singing, whistling, and dancing. They approached, looked at the sufferer, started back, ran away, and reapproached with all manner of grotesque and fantastic actions, until the demons of ill health had been frightened away (cited in Moody, 1978,p.39).(MUST be crazy wisdom!)

It’s interesting to note that while the Objibwa windigokan were allowed to exhibit their extreme-sounding healing behaviors, nearly all of the other tribal members emotions were held in check except for laughter, as stated by authors H.E. Driver and A.I. Hallowell (as cited in Apte, 1985,p.257).

Laughter, it would seem, finds a way to express itself, as I’ve found from my own personal experience. It’s a real “sparkling” energy that cannot be easily contained. Laughter just might be life’s champagne, and the vintage doesn’t matter!

Patty Wooten, R.N. (2002), a professional humor speaker who has spent over twenty-five years as a nurse, and more than twenty years engaged in therapeutic clowning, offers additional information on the sacred clowns of Native American tribes. According to Wooten (2002), “Clowns have enhanced the sacred ceremonies of many cultures throughout history. They shock the audience with behaviors that are considered taboo, or actions that are backwards or contrary to expected behavior. Clowns capture the attention of the audience and allow them to forget petty concerns, opening them to a new experience” (p.124). If you thought of clowns as merely a bunch of “Bozos,” it might surprise you to learn that many present-day Native American tribal members still hold the belief that some ceremonies and rituals cannot begin “until everyone present has started to laugh” (p.124).

From the ancient Greeks, to tribal clown-doctors, the use of humor and laughter for good health and healing purposes, appears to be as old as Methuselah. (Hmmm… You think old Meth might have laughed his way through the 969 years he lived?)  As previously stated, the use of therapeutic humor and laughter is nothing new, says Kuhlman. According to Kuhlman, “Physicians since the 13th century have prescribed laughter as a means of maintaining healthy bodily functions and avoiding illness” (cited in Goldstein, 1982, p.22).

Could a laugh a day keep the doctor away? You may be wondering by now, how laughter can help you maintain health and avoid illness. What can laughter do to improve the human condition? How can laughing possibly ease pain, you may ask?  What’s the point of laughing? Remember Norman Cousins (1979), and how laughter helped him attain pain-free sleep? In the follow-up to his inspiring book describing his severe illness, he exclaimed, “At that time, of course, nothing was known about the ability of the brain to produce or activate secretions called endorphins that have painkilling capabilities” (Cousins, 1989,p.14). Just what are these endorphins produced by laughter? They are “the body’s natural endorphin like chemicals,”(p.154) which author and well-known neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield (2000) tells us, “induce a state of well-being” (p.154).

And how do Endorphins accomplish this? Husband and wife endorphin researchers, James and Deva Beck (1987), both R.N.’s, explain that these chemicals “create euphoria and pain relief by acting as biochemical messengers, enhancing or diminishing our cells’ capacity to communicate with one another, storing and sending information within our brains and throughout our bodies” (p.9).

Although the Becks’ believe that endorphins are potentially “one of the most significant discoveries of our time”(p.9), and also are a vital mind/body “connecting link” (p.9), they have their down-side as well. Some Endorphins can be hundreds of times more potent and powerful than morphine, and the Becks’ say they can also have “addicted side effects” (p.1). Because of the strong potential for addiction, “Endorphins now are implicated in the mysteries of heart disease, smoking, alcoholism, depression, arthritis, ulcers, and burn-out – some well-known maladies of our stressful times,” according to the Becks'(p.1).  Until I hear concrete evidence that tells me that ‘endorphin moments’ are dangerously addictive, and will lead to my premature death- and even then, I will continue to get my endorphins ‘going’ anyway I can! I’ll continue including cartoons, clowning, comedy, farces, jests, jokes, parodies, puns, riddles, satire, slapstick, and wacky (especially wacky) in my humor repertoire (Kuhlman,p.9). In my opinion, a great deal of the medical information that is disseminated today -supposedly for our own good is toxic, itself.

TO BE CONTINUED

“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.) 

For a very serious academic study of humor, let me introduce British theorist Alastair Clarke (2009), whose latest eBook is The Faculty Of Adaptability: Humor As The Assessment And Manipulation Of Information. As a free gift from the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and Pyrrhic House, the book’s British publisher, members were able to down-load this prolific academic study. Even though I find Clarke’s (2009) scholarship difficult to comprehend, I was very impressed with the first paragraph on his book’s back cover:

Human adaptability is unparalleled elsewhere in the animal kingdom. By an advanced ability to select the best possible tool for the job and to put resources to the widest possible range of applications, the ingenuity of the species has led to exponential intellectual and cultural development. This ability, claims evolutionary theorist Alastair Clarke, arises due to a facility with the recognition of patterns which, in turn, has been encouraged by the cognitive processes known popularly as humor. In short, humor has made the species what it is today. (2009,jacket) Wow. Alastair Clarke (2009) really does take the academic study of humor seriously, as his book title suggests.  Somebody has to study humor this seriously, I suppose.

Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.

-Bumper Sticker spotted by Professor R. Bruce Baum

Due to the fact that I’ve been engaged in a somewhat-serious study of consciousness for the past several years, I feel some obligation to report on research done on humor and laughter as states of consciousness. This proved no easy task, as I soon discovered after hours of Internet searches. Numerous websites contain little or no suitable material for my particular area of research. Finally, I found a mini treasure trove. One especially worthy of mention is “The Consciousness Raising Connections Group” in Tempe, Arizona, guided by David Weston (2009, david_weston@yahoo.com, www, TempeSocrates.com)., Weston has had careers as an improvisational comedy instructor as well as a year as a Peace Corps high school teacher.

When the group gathered on January 21, for a first meeting in 2009, “Laughter and Humor to Raise Consciousness” was their topic du jour: “What is consciousness?”, “How do you raise consciousness?”, and “How does laughter and humor raise consciousness?” are just a few of the questions that David posed (2009,p.1). Unfortunately, Weston notified me by e-mail that he is “exhausted from all this raising of consciousness” (D. Weston, personal communication, May 11, 2009)). Apparently, he’s run out of steam, and this group will likely lose his leadership. How disappointing. Not only is a group that desires to raise consciousness signify a collective leap, but inquiring into how one can use laughter and humor to raise consciousness (laughter and humor already ARE states of consciousness) may  be a gigantic planetary step which could mean better health for all, Mother Earth included.    

Humor and laughter are known by many to lead to an altered state of consciousness (even if there isn’t much written about it), which differs from the state we’re normally in (whatever it means to be “normal”). Humor and non-stop laughter (with “feel-good” chemicals) are likely responsible for many altered states of consciousness I’ve experienced and enjoyed. However, there are a variety of activities that can cause this dramatic “shift” in consciousness: Hypnosis, dancing, drumming, praying, meditating, singing or listening to certain music (the Beatles, yeah!), and chanting to name a few.

While searching for relevant information on humor and laughter as states of consciousness was frustrating, my research results for humor or laughter as altered states of consciousness were dismal. Despite my visiting a research librarian, as well as seeking the assistance of several knowledgeable professionals in the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor(AATH), I came-up empty. There appears to be an appalling lack of scholarship available on this important state of consciousness.

Eventually, I was relieved to find a sole reference to humor and altered states in the writing of David Jacobson (2007), author, social worker, and genuinely funny guy from Tucson, Arizona. (I met him at a recent AATH conference.)  Jacobson’s (2007) choice of words positively raised my consciousness up a notch: “If you have to be addicted to something, I recommend an addiction to humor. It is one of the only addictions that can alter your consciousness without damaging your health, and can actually improve your health” (2007,p.87). You’re right on, David. Alas, I was unable to connect with him, because I was interested to hear about his experiences with humor-induced states.

So it looks like I’ll have to step-up to the plate, and try and describe my own experience with laughter or humor as an altered state of consciousness. Although I’m short on credentials in this area of expertise, let me state that since we’re all so very unique, every individual’s experience will be different.  Consciousness is- at least for me- the ever-deepening flow of Mystery, I feel this flow and I just know it contains laughter– and joy. It’s such a powerful force. I love to laugh, and I’m convinced this heavenly gift from the gods must be used with a healing intention for myself and others.

David Jacobson (2007) began using humor and laughter for the same reason I do. He suffers severe pain from a particularly debilitating form of arthritis and needs the relief that humor provides. Although I cannot share his personal experience of altered states from using humor, my whole being really resonated reading David’s emotional poem “A Place for Pain” (p.9). After reading this moving poem I believe I had an Ah-ha-ha moment.  His metaphoric words are quite telling. I’m convinced that his poetry beautifully illustrates a process that may occur when I’ve entered this glee –filled state of consciousness.

His poem is rather lengthy, so I’ve focused on the verses that led me to reach my unproven theory: “I open the door, pain walks in filling my home with darkness and discontent” (p.9). A chilling prospect for anyone, I must say. I’m all too familiar with this unhappy scenario, as I’ve learned the hard way that chronic pain will continually knock loud, louder, loudly on your door despite your best efforts to silence it. In the poem, David has joy walking in his door as well (p.10). Jacobson (2007) speaks to this “joy”: “I explain that she has the wrong address/ She should be next door/ She comes in anyway/ Joy, like pain knows not of manners or proper protocol./ I open the door, humor walks in/ It fills the empty spaces/ Pain is still here/ But it has little room” (p.10).

THIS could be the reason why consciousness “shifts” to an altered state (shift happens!). There’s way less space for pain to mess with me while in this state, as a fun feeling of exhilaration, this ecstatic experience of joy, floods my system with endorphins and other beneficial chemical goodies.  Further engaging in robust, sustained laughter only intensifies this effect, I imagine. If I’m correct, whenever laughter or humor makes its grand entrance, I must be filled with a massive amount of bright shiny, healing light and an abundant radiant joy that temporarily crowds out pain, and pushes it way back into the deepest, darkest nook ‘n cranny in my psyche. Pain is likely left dazed and numbed by the power of this healing force for awhile, and sometimes long after the flowing laughter (or humor) ends. Maybe you can create less room for pain in your body with laughter and humor as therapy. I become so jazzed, rejuvenated, and reborn while in this state of consciousness, I feel completely whole and so alive for quite some time after. I hope David Jacobson (2007) has a similar experience to mine.

Before I finishing this introduction, I’d like to tell you why I believe laughter could be relevant to a holistic understanding of consciousness. Laughter Yoga’s Dr. Madan Kataria (2008) posted this brief statement on his website (laughteryoga.org/drkataria/press/world-laughter-day/) that helps me understand how vital this particular state could be for the chaotic world we live in:

Laughter is a universal language, which has the potential to unite humanity without religion. Laughter can establish a common link between various religions and create a new world order. The idea may sound over-ambitious, and maybe it is. But maybe it is not. It is our deep belief that laughter and only laughter can unite the world, building up a global consciousness of brotherhood and friendship. (p. 4 of 6)

Soon you’ll learn how laughter works on the body, mind, and spirit. And that’s holistic. However, if laughter alone holds the transformative power to unite our world as Dr. Kataria claims it does, then it truly is relevant (and necessary) for a holistic understanding of consciousness. Laughter IS one vital, transformational state of consciousness that we don’t want to live without. Read this project before you form an opinion.

To be continued.