Remember the movie “Patch Adams”? It was released in 1998 to mixed reviews and starred notable funnyman and acclaimed actor Robin Williams (may he rest in peace) as Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, a medical doctor whose antics and clown garb brightened his patients’ days while seemingly aiding in their healing/recovery process—a concept the real Dr. Adams has dedicated his life to. I mention this movie because when I set out to write this post, it was the first thing that popped into my head. It’s hard to forget those images of chronically ill children with smiles on their faces.
Is Laughter the Best Medicine? Research Indicates That …
Yes, it just might be. Several sources, from Web MD to yoga retailers, extol the virtues of a good laugh. Giggles, chuckles, guffaws—you name it—are credited with:
- Lowering blood pressure, which reduces a person’s risk for stroke and heart attack
- Reducing stress hormone levels, which in turn decreases anxiety and may improve immune system performance
- Improving cardiac health by increasing one’s heart rate (of course, it should not replace regular physical activity)
- Boosting T-cells—when activated, these immune system cells help fend off illness
- Releasing endorphins, which can help ease chronic pain
- Toning one’s abs since laughing causes the stomach muscles to expand and contract (there’s something to be said about laughing so hard that your stomach hurts)
- Reducing tension, hatred, anger, depression, insomnia, and dementia while improving memory and relationships
- Increasing one’s sense of well-being—those with a positive outlook on life tend to fight disease more effectively than those who are negative
In his book If Our Bodies Could Talk, author James Hamblin, MD (who’s also the senior editor for The Atlantic) says that laughter positively affects your blood pressure and mood even if you don’t find something particularly funny. We all can relate—the uncouth relative who insists on telling bad jokes at family gatherings, the work colleague who thinks he’s hilarious and isn’t. Instead of rolling your eyes, or perhaps in addition to, consider doing your body some good and faking a giggle (but not so loud that you’ll encourage the behavior).
Hamblin also emphasizes the word “healthy” when applied to humor and laughter and explains that laughing at something out of spite is not as therapeutic as good-natured laughing, which makes sense. What good could come or what could one possibly gain from reaping pleasure from someone else’s suffering?
Along that same vein, and a few decades earlier, the late, renowned Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins chronicled his own laughter-overcoming-illness experience in an article entitled “Anatomy of an Illness (As Perceived by the Patient)” for The New England Journal of Medicine. While lying in a hospital bed in 1964 with severe pain, high fever, and near-paralysis of the legs, neck, and back, he discovered that 10 minutes of good, genuine laughter enabled him to get at least two hours of pain-free sleep. Cousins fully recovered and ended up expanding his article into a book, “Anatomy of an Illness.” He also went on to become a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine where he studied the effectiveness of laughter on health.
There’s Even an Organization Dedicated to Healthy Humor
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH), formed in 1987 by a registered nurse, has been pivotal in the acceptance of humor in medicine. Its main purpose is to promote therapeutic humor as a means to improving a person’s health and helping them heal and cope, as well as conduct and identify the need for research that further explores the roles humor and laughter play in health and happiness. AATH members receive education, resources, and support to pursue their healthy humor practice, and anyone can join.
Real-Life Examples of Laughter’s Healing Properties
I’m fortunate to work for a company that employs a lot of talented, and funny, people. My one colleague, Erin, does stand-up at various local comedy clubs during her free time. When I told her about this post, she was only too happy to share a heart-warming story.
“In my own experience, I can recall two elderly friends who both lost their husbands. They had not ventured out in a long time, so they decided on a comedy show. At the end of the show, they said they laughed so hard they cried. The good news was for once they were not tears of sadness. They were so grateful for the evening. That in turn also made me feel fulfilled. I guess it was a good example of the domino effect.”
Another colleague, Miranda, is a social work case manager, so she spends the majority of her time on the phone or face-to-face with CDPHP® members who are dealing with chronic diseases and disabilities, as well as other challenges. She helps them manage their conditions, makes sure they eat right and take their medicines, and ensures that they see their doctors as needed. And I’m merely scratching the surface of what Miranda and her remarkable team does for our members, for they also serve as confidantes who are willing to lend a kind ear when a person just needs someone to listen.
Miranda relayed the story of a member with degenerative disc disease (and a whole slew of other medical conditions) who, after a long history of homelessness and ER visits, was finally placed in a skilled nursing facility to strengthen her back and legs so she could walk again. After only 24 hours, the member tried to leave against her doctors’ orders.
“I was asked to call her to see what was going on,” said Miranda. “She immediately became upset and explained that she has a difficult time dealing with change. So we had a discussion about all the change she had been through in the last year and a half and how this is the most positive change she has experienced. She was also happy because she progressed from a wheelchair to a walker and was to receive a motorized walker with a seat and large wheels. So we joked about how her new walker was the monster truck of all walkers. She instantly started laughing and her mood changed. By the end of the conversation, she was laughing and joking. She even agreed to stay at the nursing home and take it one day at a time.”
Julie, who’s also a case manager and is known for her humor, sent me a quick email about a member with cancer who looks forward to her phone calls because she makes him smile and laugh. “It was the one thing I always got in trouble for growing up,” said Julie in reference to her penchant for comedy. “And now it’s the one thing that makes me great at what I do and gives people joy when they’re surrounded by worry, even for just a minute or two. Laughter really does make a world of difference.”
Ready to Get Your Laugh On?
Even if you’re not sick or feeling blue, a good laugh can do wonders for your health, physical and emotional (see the bulleted list toward the beginning of this post). Fortunately, there’s no shortage of comic relief in our theaters, on TV, in bookstores, and even on the airwaves.
New York state is also brimming with comedic hot spots, so let the hilarity ensue!
Central New York
This is, by no means, a complete list. If I missed any clubs or venues that feature comedians and/or open mic nights, please leave a comment below.