The Laughing Cure
For years doctors have wondered about the benefits of a
good laugh. Now researchers are suggesting that a hearty guffaw
may well be the best medicine.
By David Jacobson
WebMD Medical News
May 8, 2000 -- As a veteran television executive involved in sitcoms
like Roseanne and Home Improvement, Sherry Hilber watched weekly
as studio audiences writhed with laughter. "I'd see them leave
at the end of the show and think, 'Maybe for the rest of the night
something is happening inside their bodies.' "
Intrigued, Hilber boned up on the limited literature about humor's
effects on physical health. She found a mixed bag of upbeat anecdotes,
tantalizing small studies, and contradictory results.
Seeking to use her comedy knowledge for a larger cause, Hilber
established Rx Laughter (http://www.rxlaughter.org), a nonprofit
project dedicated both to helping the ill via humor and to supporting
more scientific research on the topic. Thanks to her fund-raising
efforts, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles
(UCLA) are set to begin exploring whether funny videos can promote
Sidestepping the Banana Peel
The UCLA/Rx Laughter researchers hope to sidestep some of the banana
peels that have tripped up previous researchers.
For instance, if comedy helps, is it laughing aloud or internal
amusement that matters most? No one knows. The UCLA/Rx Laughter
researchers will start by screening videos Hilber assembled for
100 elementary school children to determine what they find reliably
funny. Initially, they'll count how often each kid laughs and also
ask whether they thought the video was funny, looking for correlation.
(The researchers chose to focus on kids partly because they readily
respond to humor and laugh more easily.)
Next, investigators will examine the nervous and immune system
effects of laughter: heart rate, blood pressure, and the presence
of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva, before and after the funny
Eventually, the researchers expect to explore whether comedy changes
how kids perceive and respond to pain. Ultimately, they want to
see if humor can change the kids' actual health, not just their
stress hormones. For example, they may measure how fast wounds heal
after surgery and how fast white blood cells rebound to their normal
levels after being lowered by chemotherapy.
"You have to pass the 'so what?' test," says the study's
co-director, Margaret Stuber, MD, a UCLA professor of psychiatry
and biobehavioral sciences. "It may be very interesting to
us that we can change salivary cortisol, but does that actually
change anything that matters?"
The concept that comedy could improve health makes some medical
sense. Studies show that anger, depression, and pessimism impair
the immune response, increase surgical recovery and wound-healing
times, and can even contribute to higher death rates. And what better
way to counter a negative outlook than through a dose of comedy?
"Humor and distressing emotion cannot occupy the same psychological
space," says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist
and president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.
Cousins' Comedy "Cure"
It was Anatomy of an Illness, the 1979 memoir by late magazine
editor Norman Cousins, that put a potential humor/health connection
on the mainstream map. Cousins described how he recovered from a
usually irreversible and crippling connective tissue disease with
a regimen that -- among other therapies -- included laughing at
Marx Brothers movies.
Of course, Cousins' success by itself is no proof. And researchers
seeking to put medical laughter on more solid scientific footing
have faced serious obstacles -- from a shortage of funding to the
fact that guinea pigs don't laugh.
Lee Berk, DrPH, a pathology professor at Loma Linda University
in California, is among those who have tried. In a series of studies,
including one published in the December 1989 issue of the American
Journal of Medical Science, he examined before-and-after blood samples
from subjects who had viewed humorous videos and from a control
group who had not. He found significant reductions in stress hormones
and enhanced immune function -- including increased natural killer
cells -- in the video-watching subjects.
But the cost and logistics of such sophisticated blood analyses
limited those studies to small groups of five to ten people. Meanwhile,
a Japanese study published in the June 1997 issue of the journal
Perceptual and Motor Skills -- with all of eight people -- actually
found a decrease in natural killer cell activity after a group viewed
a comedy video.
Even research on pain relief has shown complex results: For an
Israeli study, published in the November 1995 issue of the journal
Pain, 20 people each watched either a funny, repulsive, or neutral
flick. Before and during the films, each underwent a standard test
for pain tolerance -- they had to keep one arm submerged in a tank
of icy water and rate the discomfort. Humor clearly helped (though
repulsion actually increased pain tolerance most).
The same researchers later found comedy videos worked best when
"taken" a half-hour before pain testing and with at least
a 45-minute "dosage."
While it will be several years before the UCLA study delivers its
first medical punch lines, it has already solved a key riddle: Who
will pay to see whether laughter really is, if not the best, at
least an effective medicine? After all, drug companies, which spend
billions to prove medications work, have little stake in investigating
Instead, Hilber turned to Comedy Central. The television home of
South Park will fund most of the study's initial phases with a $75,000
grant. "If in five years' time this study can determine that
comedy is good for you, we really have a marketing opportunity,"
says network executive Tony Fox. "[Forget] an apple a day.
Watch Comedy Central instead!"