A LONGSTANDING TRADITION
As early as the 13th century, surgeons used humor as a crude, anesthetic-like distraction for patients enduring agonizing procedures. Laughter or humor therapy really started gaining credibility in 1979, when Norman Cousins touted the analgesic properties of laughter in his book Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins, who suffered from a rare form of spinal arthritis, found that a 10-minute dose of jocularity brought him two hours of pain relief. Research suggests that Cousins was onto something.
Just like exercise, the physical act of laughing releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that function as the body’s natural painkillers and are also known to cause a “runner’s high.” Findings from a 2011 study conducted at the University of Oxford in England found that watching 15 minutes of a comedy program with others increases one’s pain threshold by as much as 10 percent. At the same time, these endorphins decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone that floods the body during periods of chronic stress.
“We know that chronic stress compromises the immune system, tenses muscles, slows digestion and elevates blood pressure. Laughing counteracts these negative effects,” explains psychologist Steve Wilson, founder of the World Laughter Tour, an organization that certifies laughter club leaders, including some of the ones at CTCA. Wilson was 20 years old when he lost his mother to ovarian cancer. “I learned you should never postpone joy,” he says.
Humor researchers at Loma Linda University in California have made other interesting discoveries. It seems that simply anticipating a funny occurrence, like waiting for a joke’s punchline, is enough to open endorphin floodgates. And for those suffering from memory problems brought on by cancer treatments, findings indicate that laughter may boost short-term memory by as much as 20 percent. A small 2010 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that laughter’s positive effects, including lowering blood pressure, can last up to 24 hours.TAPPING INTO THE LIGHTER SIDE OF LIFE
At Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care in Bronx, N.Y., patients and their loved ones swap jokes and humorous stories in a monthly support program called Strength Through Laughter. While the meetings have an educational component—covering topics like pain management, improved sleep or stress relief—people mostly come for the laughs.
“Joking around gives people a mini-vacation from the gravity of their situation. It’s a mental pick-me-up,” says Gloria Nelson, a senior oncology social worker who started the program in 2008. Nelson incorporates a fun theme into each meeting, such as a Halloween costume party or a summertime barbecue. “We try to focus on the positive, good things happening in people’s lives,” she says.
Aida Vega, of Bronx, N.Y., compares the Strength Through Laughter sessions to receiving hugs from friends. “People with cancer deserve to have a good time, too,” says the 77-year-old breast cancer survivor. “I might start a session feeling a little down, but I always leave with a smile.” Despite the positive powers of laughter, Nelson acknowledges that her sessions aren’t right for everyone. “People who are angry or struggling to accept their situations probably need a different type of support group or individual counseling.”
With Laughter Club, the weekly CTCA program that tickled Robinson’s funny bone, mental health specialists or social workers guide a series of amusing exercises. For example, participants start by placing their fingertips on their cheekbones while making “ha ha” sounds, their chests while making “hee hee” sounds, and their bellies while making “ho ho” sounds until they’re vibrating from head to toe with laughter. “It’s virtually impossible to not be truly laughing when you finish,” says Katherine Puckett, CTCA’s national director of mind-body medicine.
Puckett admits she worried about offending people when she started CTCA’s therapeutic humor program more than a decade ago. “By its nature, cancer is not a lighthearted topic. It’s serious business,” she acknowledges. What she discovered, though, is that a little bit of levity during tough times encourages people to be more kind to themselves and to others. It also helps patients and their loved ones to gradually become more accepting of their circumstances. “People say, ‘I haven’t laughed like that in months. I had forgotten how good it feels,’” she says. “The sessions are a reminder to live it up and enjoy yourself.”HUMOR ON THE HOME FRONT
The movement’s motto is “laugh for no reason.” “You don’t need to get the joke, feel good, or even have a reason to laugh!” explains the website for the American School of Laughter Yoga (ASLY; laughteryogaamerica.com).
Patients, survivors or caregivers may be able to find such classes in their areas by visiting the organization’s site and using the search function. And anyone, anywhere, can create a new community laughter club, described by ASLY as “social clubs run by volunteers where like-minded people get together just to laugh as a form of exercise.”
Don’t feel like joining an organized program? Look for a giggle on television or YouTube, in comedy clubs or comic strips, in the company of funny friends, children or pets, or on outings to fun places like bowling alleys or karaoke nights. Or, turn the tables and become the joke teller. Plenty of jokes can be found online at LaughFactory.com or Comedy Central, or try recounting embarrassing moments, which can be both funny and liberating.