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American Association for Therapeutic Humor, January/February, 2000

By Patty Wooten, RN



Press Article


“Laughter serves as a blocking agent. Like a bullet-proof vest, it may help protect you against the ravages of negative emotion that can assault you in disease.”
- Norman Cousins

Soon after returning from the AATH conference in Nashville, I got several tips from AATH members about a rumor they had heard concerning some new laughter research about to begin. I immediately began to do a web search and phone journalists to confirm this rumor. Later that day, I interviewed both Kim Irwin, Director of Public Information at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center, and Sherry Hilber who not only had the original idea for this project, but also obtained some initial funding. After talking with them, I had a much clearer idea of the scope of the study, and I had some ideas about how AATH members can help this project to be successful.

I will invite the researchers to present their project at our San Diego conference next January. Until then, here are the details that we have at the moment.

Sherry Hilber has spent more than 15 years in the entertainment industry as an executive and as a creative Comedy Director for shows such as “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement.” A few years ago, she began wondering if there might be any measurable benefit to the laughter experience. She remembers her own adolescence, and how watching the Beverly Hillbillies the night before exams helped her to relax and worry less.

Sherry became involved as a Volunteer at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, working with schizophrenics in the Imagination Workshop. There, she met psychiatrist, Dr. Ian Cook. She discussed her curiosity about the potential benefits of comedy-induced Laughter. He introduced her to Dr. Margaret Stuber and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, who worked closely with her to develop the research plan. The study’s initial funding comes in part through a $75,000 grant from the cable TV network Comedy Central, thru Sherry Hilber’s fundraising efforts. However, more funding will be necessary to insure the success of this program.

Here is more information about the research study, the plans, and the people involved, taken with permission from the news release of Kim Irwin of the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center:

In a first-of-its-kind study focusing on ill children and adolescents with depressed immune systems, researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center will try to determine if laughter can help reduce pain, and prevent and treat disease. The study, called “Rx Laughter”™, initially will focus on what makes healthy children laugh, by showing them carefully-selected classic cartoons, television shows and classic comedy films, and gauging their reactions. Researchers then will use the programs that induce the most laughter to test immune responses in young patients with diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

Cancer Center researchers said that if a positive biological response to laughter is found, the cartoons, TV shows and films could be incorporated into the care of ill children during procedures such as blood draws and chemotherapy to alleviate stress and feasr and promote faster healing. “We ultimately hope to help children who are hospitalized and getting treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer and AIDS, where the immune ysstem is vital, and improving it could be life-saving,” said Dr. Margaret Stuber, a cancer researcher and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. Stuber and Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, a UCLA cancer researcher, professor of Pediatrics and Anesthesiology, and director of the Pediatric Pain Program at the Mattel Chidlren’s Hospital at UCLA, will head up “Rx Laughter” and conduct the five-year study. “We have a pretty good idea about the impact that laughter and humor can have on a person’s mental well-being,” said Zeltzer, who also serves as associate director of the Patients and Survivors section in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Research at UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center. “But no one has really looked with any depth at the possible biologic links between health, having a good sense of humor and even the act of laughter itself. We’ll study the impact that both humor and laughter have on the immune system and pain transmission and control.”

The unique study represents a cooperative effort between cancer researchers asnd the entertainment industry. “Rx Laughter” was conceptualized and founded by Sherry Dunay Hilber, an entertainment executive who has worked for both CBS and ABC. Hilber brought her brainchild to Stuber and Zeltzer. “I have often wondered, while watching an audience laugh, how they were possibly affected, both physically and emotionally, by their laughter, said Hilber, a UCLA graduate. “Did it relax their bodies, improve their immune systems? If so, could this help seriously ill people? I hope very much that this program will lead to new ways of helping people live happier and healthier lives.”

The Comedy Central grant is part of the network’s “Comedy Rx” program, designed to heighten awareness of the positive effects of laughter, said Larry Divney, president and chief executive officer of Comedy Central. Divney tells us, “We know our programming is entertaining, but to think that we may discover that comedy is literally good for you is as very exciting proposition.”

In collaboration with Hilber, Stuber and Zeltzer will study potential changes in the immune systems of ill children and adolescents in response to laughter. Stuber and Zeltzer said they plan to monitor physiological aspects of the stress response, such as heart rate, blood pressure, palm sweats, the levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol, along with various immune system factors, to determine if laughter really could be the best medicine. “It’s already been suggested that if you make people laugh, they don’t get aas anxious and they deal better with pain and do better in the hospital”,

Stuber said. “What we don’t know, and what we hope to find out, is whether laughter actually makes a physical difference in such things as speed of healing.”

“Rx Laughter” is scheduled to be conducted in three phases, the first of which will determine what healthy children and adolescents find funny. For the second phase, Stuber and Zeltzer plan to use non-invasive medical procedures to measure heart rate and other biologic functions to see if laughter has a measurable physiologic effect on healthy children and adolesccents. The final phase of the study will focus on testing physiologic responses to laughter in children and adolescents with cancer, HIV and other diseases that affect the immune system, Stuber said.

If indeed laughter and good humor do prompt positive physiologic responses, Stuber and Zeltzer hope to integrate them into treatment procedures for young patients. For example, children and adolescents undergoing chemotherapy or other frightening procedures could be shown humorous programming to help alleviate stress and fear, which can inhibit healing. Such integration of conventional medicine and laughter would represent “A philosophical and structural change” in the way that medicine is practiced at UCLA, Stuber said.

Previous studies have indicated that laughter may promote better health. According to a study of college students, for example, those with a good sense of humor had fewer colds and upper respiratory infections than students who did not. “It’s important that we know whether laughter and humor can be used as a targeted intervention during medical procedures,” Zeltzer said, “or if laughter has impact on the trajectory of disease.”

The greatest need at this point is to secure grants and funding for this project. If you know of any sources that could help finance this project, please contact Kim Irwin at the UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center at 310 206-2805 and she will contact Sherry Hilber. Because this study is so innovative, it may initially be difficult to obtain substantial governmental grants until some preliminary data can support the validity of an expanded research project. Let’s network and bring the research team some solid leads for potential funding.

For more information about UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center, it’s people and resources, visit: www.cancer.mednet.ucla.edu. and www.pediatrics.medsch.ucla.edu. To provide information about funding sources, please see either Rx Laughter.org (“Contact Us”) or contact Ms. Sherry Hilber at 310 825-0731 at the Dept. of Pediatrics.