The Priceless Prescription

By Al Keith


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MARCH 2007 EDITION OF SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VICTORIA BC


"And now go and rent some funny videos! Have some good laughs tonight. Then call me in the morning and tell me if you feel better!"

Is this strange advice coming from a doctor? Well, perhaps not, since more and more Health professionals - in and out of hospital settings - are "prescribing" laughter as medication. When one-time *Saturday Review* Editor, Norman Cousins, fell ill with a life-threatening illness, he checked himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room. This, he stocked with humorous books and funny videos, including the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

"If all fails, at least I'll die laughing," Cousins quipped. But he was dead serious. And it didn't take him long to discover that 10 minutes of good belly laughter resulted in several hours of painless sleep. It was his Marathon laugh sessions, and his growing sense of humour, that helped Cousins beat long odds and heal himself, as he recounts in his book, *Anatomy of an Illness*. "There is little doubt that the human body is its own best drugstore," he stressed.

A growing number of independent studies have found that the immune systems of test subjects strengthen after watching funny videos - and even remained stable during the show of more serious films afterwards, according to M. Berger, MD, author of *The Immune Power Diet*, and *Forever Young*. Because of the growing evidence showing that laughter may be among the simplest and possibly the most powerful health boosters, more and more health professionals are looking seriously at laughter as medicine.

Dr. Lee Berk and fellow researcher Dr. Stanley Tan of Loma Linda University in

California have also studied the effects of laughter on the human immune systems. Their published studies have shown that laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexibility and boosts immune functions by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells. Even Freud viewed a sense of humour as one of body's best defense mechanisms, describing it as "a rare and precious gift."

More astonishing evidence of laughter power comes from a 1997 study of 48 heart attack patients. Half of the group watched comedic shows for 30 minutes every day, while the rest served as controls. After one year, 10 patients in the control group suffered repeated heart attacks, compared with only two in the groups that watched the funny videos.

"Make a silliness check at 4 p.m. each afternoon," suggests Steve Allen, MD, son of comedian Steve Allen, and assistant professor of family medicine at the State University of New York Health Science Center.

Psychiatrist William F. Fry, MD, associate clinical professor emeritus at Stanford University School of Medicine, is another strong proponent for the power of laughter. "When you laugh, your body responds," he says. "You flex, then relax 15 facial muscles, plus dozens of others all over your body. Your pulse and respiration increase briefly, oxygenating your blood. And your brain experiences a decrease in pain production due to the creation of pleasure giving endorphins."

Psychotherapist Joyce Anisman-Saltman teaches executives, teachers and others to take responsibility for putting more laughter into their lives. An assistant professor of Special Education at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, she stresses that laughter brings on a whole host of beneficial changes, including breaking the cycle of psychological negativity that people tend to fall into at times.

Not surprising, the good news about laughter is spreading. In Germany, seminars and workshops on laughing teach no-nonsense, serious-minded executives and politicians the importance of learning to laugh more freely, and more often. They teach that humour is a survival skill that relieves tension and keeps people fluid and flexible, instead of becoming rigid and breakable in the face of repeated and severe changes.

But laughter is also a social activity. Research has shown that in the company of others people laugh 30 times more than when they are alone. Mrs. Keith, an upbeat person all her life, who lived to 96, knew all about the power of laughing. Even during the terror of wartime, with the bombs and the general hardship, she and her friends met each week for their coffee klatches, where only positive topics were discussed, and funny stories and the latest jokes produced such healthy bouts of hilarity, that even the neighbours had to smile.

Laughter helps people forget their problems and fears, and allows them to lose themselves for a moment. Psychologists confirm that individuals who laugh easily and frequently have better self-esteem and a more positive outlook on life.

"Focus on the funny stuff and try to find humour in everyday life," is the way Joe Goodman, Ed.D. director of the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, New York, puts it. Goodman advises people to collect jokes and funny stories to amuse themselves and others.

So, develop humour in day-to-day life and remember to laugh. Early childhood memories may include bouts of belly laughter brought on by circus clowns. After all, court jesters and clowns have been the purveyors of laughter in the old Roman Forum, and at the courts of the high and mighty of yesteryear. Just as they still do at rodeos and other happy gatherings.

"When it comes to the people's health, it would be far better if a troupe of clowns entered the city, than a caravan loaded with all the treasures of Egypt."

Keep on laughing! It's good healthy fun!

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