Laughter Is The Best Medicine
These days Sherry Hilber's former colleagues aren't
laughing at her decision to leave primetime television production
for work on a potentially groundbreaking research project.
When Sherry Dunay Hilber left her high-profile job as one of prime-time
television's top executives to pursue a philanthropic project, people
laughed. But it was no joke. Now Hilber invests hundreds of hours
and boundless energy into an effort that could significantly impact
the way illness is treated in our society.
The project, Hilber's brainchild, is Rx Laughter, a unique five-year
study currently underway at the University of California, Los Angeles
School of Medicine. It looks at the potential healing effects of
laughter in children suffering from life-threatening illnesses like
cancer and AIDS.
Drawing on classic cartoons, films, and television programs, Hilber
and UCLA scientists are trying to determine what makes healthy kids
laugh. They screen video segments of the cartoons and shows for
children and measure such physical responses as heart rate, blood
pressure, and stress hormone levels. Ultimately, the videos will
be screened for ailing children to determine what effect, if any,
laughter has on their immune systems and on managing pain.
The idea that happiness positively influences the mind, body, and
spirit is not new. And there is research to support this notion.
Earlier studies reveal that laughter, in medical students at least,
can significantly alter stress hormone levels known to weaken the
immune system as well as directly boost the body's natural defenses.
In one small study, laughter increased the number and activity of
natural killer cells-the immune system soldiers that are constantly
on guard against viral and cancerous invasion.
Initially the goal of this project is to determine whether laughter
can be used as a complement to traditional medical treatments to
maximize healing, and to improve immune functions. Then Hilber intends
to implement a comedy entertainment viewing system at UCLA and other
hospitals. "The medical community is very skilled at treating
illness, but it needs to focus more on how positive emotions can
help," she says. "We need to find out how to use humor
and laughter in combination with other medical treatments. Conceivably,
we could offer a dose of a specific TV show or cartoon to ease their
pain and help them heal."
Rx Laughter is, in many ways, a reflection of Sherry Hilber. For
the past decade, she was a creative executive at ABC and CBS, overseeing
sitcoms such as Roseanne, Home Improvement, and Cybil. But despite
her career success, Hilber wanted to use her experience in comedy
for a greater purpose. "I loved what I was doing, but there
came a point when I knew I needed to do this," she explains.
Since leaving the world of television production two years ago,
Hilber has devoted herself full-time to Rx Laughter. After piquing
the interest of key researchers at UCLA, she single-handedly designed
the humor intervention (the videocassettes used) by choosing, obtaining,
reviewing, and selecting the segments for the research. She assembled
the project's advisory board - a somewhat uncommon combination of
showbiz luminaries and renowned scientists. And Hilber procured
the initial funding for the study, including a $75,000 grant from
the cable television channel Comedy Central channel.
"It wasn't easy to give up the stability of a dependable salary
and the wonderful benefits of being with my talented colleagues
in the entertainment industry on a daily basis," Hilber says,
reflecting her career change. But she has no regrets. "Sometimes,
in the middle of those long nights or after reading one of the many
rejection letters in response to my funding requests, I wondered
if I had made the right choice. But those moments were fleeting."
On many levels, show business has been an essential ingredient
in Rx Laughter, and Hilber credits her career with bringing the
idea to life. Learning about comedy from talented writers and producers
aided her in choosing the material for the video segments. Understanding
the inner workings of the entertainment world helped her know which
requests were appropriate and how assertive to be. Most importantly,
perhaps, Hilber learned the value of being empathic and keeping
her ego at bay. "Everyone comes to a project with their own
needs, point of view, and concerns, and all must be honored,"
she explains. "So here I am, an entertainment industry person
who brings this project to the medical world. I had to show them
I could see their point of view and understand their world and culture
and work within it."
This unusual partnership of the entertainment world and the medical
community is one of the many things that sets Rx Laughter apart
from other studies. Hilber, along with medical researchers Margaret
L Stuber, M.D., and Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., describe it as a cross-cultural
experience that has merges different terminology, expectations,
"When I first met Margi and Lonnie, I thought of them as scientists
and was intimidated," Hilber recalls. "But as time went
on, we talked about our stereotypical views of doctors and showbiz
people and were able to laugh about it and grow closer....Now, we
are three chicks on a mission, a united team that enjoys our differences."
It's difficult to measure the impact this project has had on her
life, Hilber says. "I am proud because I have started my dream
and know it is not for money but to give in the purest sense of