Healing with Humor: Those Who Laugh, Last

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"Once you find the humor in a situation, you can survive it." — Bill Cosby

“Life is too serious to be taken too seriously.” — Joel Goodman

When Joel Goodman, a New York organizational consultant, learned that his father had a life-threatening aneurysm, he flew to Houston to be with him. Every morning, Goodman took a van from his hotel to the hospital. “The driver was a comedian,” Goodman recalls. “I was rigid with fear, but on the drive to the hospital, he told jokes. He made me laugh. For a few moments, I relaxed.”

When Allen Klein’s wife, Ellen, was dying of cancer, somehow, a copy of Playgirl magazine found its way to her hospital room. She asked her husband to tape the male nude centerfold to the wall.

“Someone might object,” Allen said.

“Well,” his wife replied, “Take a leaf from that plant and tape it over the genitals.”

The leaf worked for two days, but by day three it had begun to shrivel — and slowly revealed what it was supposed to conceal.”Whenever we glanced at that dried-up leaf, we laughed,” Klein recalls. “It made our troubles easier to bear.”

“A sense of humor makes a person healthy, wealthy and wisecracking.” — Henny Youngman

Eventually, Goodman got serious about humor, and launched The Humor Project, an organization that has helped more than 500,000 businesspeople laugh in the face of life’s challenges.

“Humor fit right into my work,” he says. “Organizations run better, and people solve problems more creatively when they don’t take things too seriously.”

The Humor Project is not a school for comedians. It encourages people to see the comedy all around them. “When you look for humor, you find it. You enjoy life more — and become more productive.”

After his wife’s death, Klein went to work for a hospice. He was struck by the way the residents appreciated humor — and were able to laugh despite the fact that the Grim Reaper hovered so close. Klein became a self-styled “jollytologist,” and eventually wrote The Healing Power of Humor and The Courage to Laugh.

The Emotional Benefits of Humor

“God gave us humor to compensate for the law of gravity.” — Henny Youngman

Take a moment and smile. Not the tight grin you might give a coworker who touts a dumb idea, but a big, toothy grin.

How does that smile make you feel? Probably a little better. Why? Because mental health is a two-way street. Smiling is not just a result of happiness. It also causes happiness. It coaxes the brain toward positive emotions.

“Humor keeps us balanced,” Klein says. “It offers a refuge from negative emotions before we become desperate. Once we can see the comedy in our chaos, we are no longer so caught up in it. Our problems become less of a burden.”

The Physical Benefits of Humor

“A merry heart doeth like a good medicine.” — Proverbs 17:22

Laughter is nature’s own ho-ho-holistic medicine. Scientists are not sure why we smile and laugh, but smiling and laughter are innate and presumably confer some evolutionary survival advantage. In one study, researchers rated the dispositions of a group of medical students, then followed them for 25 years. By age 50, 14 percent of those rated “hostile” had died, but among those rated “easygoing,” the death rate was only 2 percent.

Babies start smiling when only a few weeks old, and typically laugh by nine weeks. At four months, healthy non-abused babies laugh several times an hour, and they keep it up until adults tell them to “get serious.”

Adults often go days or weeks without laughing. Some people seem to lose the ability to laugh and need help relearning it.

Psychiatrist William Fry, M.D., professor emeritus at Stanford and an expert on the physiology of mirth, notes that a hearty laugh exercises a surprisingly large number of muscles. He estimates that 100 hearty laughs provide a workout equivalent to about 10 minutes on a rowing machine. He especially recommends laughter to those who are bed-ridden or unable to exercise.

Laughter also stimulates respiration, which increases the blood’s oxygen content, helping all body systems work more efficiently. Hearty laughter also reduces blood pressure and triggers a wave a relaxation.

Like other exercise, laughter releases endorphins, the body’s own feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals.

Researchers at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, subjected volunteers to increasingly painful electric shocks while watching one of two videos — a program about gardening or a comedy routine. Participants could turn off the shocks when they became “too painful.” You can guess which group withstood more discomfort.

Humor also enhances immune function. Psychologist Kathleen Dillon, Ph.D., of Western New England College in Springfield, Mass., measured immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody in the mouth that fights colds, in healthy volunteers before and after they viewed two videos: a lecture about anxiety and the comedy, Richard Pryor Live. After the former, IgA levels showed no change. But after the comedy, IgA levels increased.

How to Bring More Humor into Your Life

“The arrival of a good clown exercises more beneficial influence upon the health of a town than 20 donkeys laden with drugs.” — Thomas Sydenham, 17th century English physician

Why don’t we laugh more? Because we’ve learned not to. Parents and teachers tell children: “Stop acting silly.” And “Wipe that smile off your face.”

In addition, laughter requires both spontaneity and surrender of control. As people become adults, they feel ambivalent about spontaneity and place increasing value on self-control.

But mature adults benefit from levity. When Steven Spielberg was filming the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, he became so saddened while on location in Poland that he called comedian Robin Williams and asked him to run through some stand-up routines.

If you have a particularly funny friend, you might do the same. If not, Goodman and Klein offer these suggestions:

  • Know your audience. Humor is individual. Psychology Today once published 30 jokes and asked readers to rate them. Responses were all over the map. Every joke was rated “very funny” by some, and “not funny” by others. As the late comedian Henny Youngman once said, “Humor is a form of communication understood by some, and misunderstood by most.”
  • Laugh at yourself. “Those with no sense of humor,” Youngman quipped, “can be very funny.” Of course, they don’t mean to be. When people begin laughing, those who are unintentionally funny may become embarrassed or insulted. If this happens to you, try to step outside yourself and see your gaffe the way your audience sees it. Laugh at yourself and people laugh with you, not at you.
  • Keep it tasteful. Don’t poke fun at anyone’s race, ethnicity, gender, weight, occupation or anything else that’s potentially offensive. Avoid sarcasm and ridicule. If the joke needs a butt, target yourself or an inanimate object.
  • Keep a joke book handy or bookmark a humor Web site, for example Funny Times funnytimes.com and dip into it several times a day.
  • When friends are ill, instead of flowers or food, give a joke book, comedy video or gag items.
  • Look for the absurdities of life. If you look for them, you’ll find them.
  • Encourage others to laugh. Mirth is contagious.

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy. We’re happy because we laugh.” — William James


The Humor Project.

The Healing Power of Humor and The Courage to Laugh by Allen Klein. Available from Amazon.com.

Funny Times. This newspaper scours the media for cartoons, jokes and humorous stories.

Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor. An organization of nurses, psychologists, clergy and social workers who use humor in their work.

Michael Castleman is “one of the nation’s top health writers” (Library Journal). Visit mcastleman.com.