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Humor: The Human Gift for Coping and Survival

Laugh—or fake it 'til you make it.

Cat with a lime peel on head

High gas prices and global warming got you down? Humor is a natural stress-reducer and symptom-reliever that has been related to improved health, increased life expectancy, and overall well being. Whether you get a deep belly laugh from watching a comedy routine or “you fake it ‘til you make it”—it’s all good.

The recent deaths of comedians George Carlin, Harvey Korman, and Dick Martin remind me of how much I rely on humor to get me through my own life dramas. I freely confess that I can repeat almost the entire dialogue in “Blazing Saddles” and have in my possession copies of all three Austin Powers flicks and a complete set of Marx Brothers movies. I list “Flight of the Conchords” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as special interests on my LinkedIn profile. I force my art therapy and counseling graduate students to watch funny cat videos at the beginning of class.

Humor therapy [or laughter therapy] is officially both complementary and mainstream medicine—and it’s a thriving business for healthcare, too. “Clown care” is part of bedside treatment, using juggling, magic tricks, and gags and making “clown rounds” with novelty store rubber chickens and other paraphernalia to promote laughter in nursing homes, cancer units, and even hospice settings. There are “laughter coaches” and seminars teaching healthcare professionals how to use humor with patients. There is even a Chuckle Channel, a film subscription service for hospital environments featuring humor therapy specialists such as Hawaii’s Hob Osterlund, RN [alter-ego: Nurse “Ivy Push”]. Osterlund is one of many clinicians studying the effects of humorous media on patients in the field of arts in healthcare.

Research on the positive effect of humor on health and perceptions of wellness has helped to identify why laughter helps us cope. The late Norman Cousins, well-known author of “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient,” watched old Marx Brothers movies in addition to traditional medical intervention and promoted the idea that laughter has a symptom-relieving affect on patients in the short and long term. Since the late 1980s, a number of studies support the idea that laughter stimulates the immune system and counteracts the effects of stress hormones, although results are mixed about exactly how. In brief, there’s agreement that it’s another way to arrive at the relaxation response.

But then there’s this question—what if nothing seems very funny and you can’t find anything to laugh about? Apparently, we humans have another shot at getting laughter’s benefits without relying on a bedside clown act, a laughter coach, or a DVD of a comedy monologue. We can actually “fake it ‘til we make it”—in another words, just pretending to chuckle, giggle, and snort starts the process of full-blown laughter. So put down the cell phone, take a break from jumping to your next web destination, and watch the following video on “laughter yoga” with John Cleese:

May the farce be with you.

© 2008 Cathy Malchiodi

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