When Norman Cousins lay dying in 1964, his doctors at UCLA had given up on him, but friends of the journalist, author and professor had other ideas. They brought in a movie projector to Cousins’ room, hung a sheet for a screen and watched comedies.
He not only laughed and got better, but he went on to write "Anatomy of an Illness" and founded the department of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) at UCLA, says Dr. Murray Grossan, founder of the Grossan Institute, an online resource for ears, nose and throat health.
"Laughing increases immunity," says Grossan. While the science of how and why laughter helps heal is still out, presumably it’s a survival factor. "However, clinically I can assure you that my recipe for an acute cold works: Use Netflix, turn on a funny movie and drink lots of green tea with lemon and honey."
In fact, laughter has been shown in studies to have positive quantifiable health results. Its physiological, psychological, social, spiritual and quality-of-life benefits have been documented in numerous studies. One such review used laughter in cancer treatment and found it slowed the advancement of gastric cancer. You may even be able to laugh fat away since humor shows potential in warding off stress and emotional overeating.
Now laughter therapy is touted as a beneficial way to recover from certain mental and physical health problems. Laughter therapy is the simple act of incorporating humor into your daily routine. There's even laughter yoga, which combines self-induced laughter with yogic breathing and stretches for added relaxation.
How laughter is prescribed
"What we do during the cognitive behavioral part of therapy is assign homework to patients, and the homework can be reading a funny book, watching a funny movie or going to a comedy club," says Ildiko Tabori, a clinical psychologist known as the Laugh Factory Shrink for her work with comedians from the famed Laugh Factory comedy club in Los Angeles. "Laughter provides downtime and takes you out of that head space where when you're upset about something and you ruminate about it over and over."
Laughter forces a patient to focus elsewhere. Tabori says laughter therapy can decrease stress and anxiety and improve mood. "You can’t be sad when you're laughing," she says.
Do try this at home
"A lighthearted approach to serious matters often is the most productive one," says Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage." "Laughter will lower your blood pressure, calm your pulse and generally help you and your partner to release a lot of stress."
Subscribe to cartoons or jokes that appear in your email every day, share a joke you heard via a friend or relative or share the funny part of a sitcom or movie you've seen. Tell your partner the cute thing your kid said (or your pet did), or talk about a funny incident, exchange or mishap. It will lower your blood pressure, soothe frazzled nerves and generally help you release stress.
"Laughing with your partner is good for your heart, gives you a little bit of aerobic exercise and reminds both of you about how good you are for each other," says Tessina. Plus, shared laughter can evoke an overwhelming feeling of warmth and caring.
How to use laughter to feel better
Tabori doesn't make people laugh in the middle of a therapy session (she's not a comedian, after all) but she often encourages her patients to go out and find humor in everyday life. Funny books, articles, movies, comedy shows, cartoons — anything bound to make you laugh can work. Tabori says laughter therapy is a great antidote to work stress, situational or mild depression and possibly other health issues.
One of the things she does in response to the road rage that patients often feel living with L.A. traffic is to remind them to listen to funny audio books or comedy satellite radio shows during their commute. "It helps get you out of the mindset that traffic won't move any faster." Chalk laughter up as an antidote to road rage.
No matter what people are going through, laughter can't hurt, and it just might cure what ails you.