Humor therapy is the art of using humor and laughter to help heal people with physical or mental illness.
The benefits of humor therapy were acknowledged as far back as the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, which contains verses like Prov. 17:22: "A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones." The earliest historical reference to humor therapy is from the fourteenth century, when French surgeon Henri de Mondeville wrote, "Let the surgeon take care to regulate the whole regimen of the patient's life for joy and happiness, allowing his relatives and special friends to cheer him, and by having someone tell him jokes." In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther used a form of humor therapy as part of his pastoral counseling of depressed people. He advised them not to isolate themselves but to surround themselves with friends who could joke and make them laugh. Many of Luther's own letters to other people include playful or humorous remarks.
Modern humor therapy dates from the 1930s, when clowns were brought into hospitals to cheer up children hospitalized with polio. In his 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, author Norman Cousins brought the subject of humor therapy to the attention of the medical community. Cousins, himself a physician, details how he used laughter to help ease his pain while undergoing treatment for rheumatoid arthritis of the spine (ankylosing spondylitis). The benefits of laughter in treating the sick captured the public's attention in the 1998 movie Patch Adams, starring Robin Williams as the real-life doctor Hunter "Patch" Adams. The movie is based on Adams' experiences treating the poor in rural West Virginia, as related in his 1983 book Gesundheit!.
It may seem difficult to measure the benefits of laughter in medicine, but a number of clinical studies have helped verify the adage that laughter is the best medicine. In general, laughter improves the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of individuals. Laughter appears to release tension in the diaphragm and relieve pressure on the liver and other internal organs. It stimulates the immune system, reduces stress, and helps balance the body's natural energy fields or auras. People who have developed a strong sense of humor generally have a better sense of well-being and control in their lives.
A strong advocate of humor therapy is Dr. Michael R. Wasserman, president and chief medical officer of GeriMed of America, Inc., a primary care physician management company for seniors. "A few years ago I came down with pneumonia , pulled out videotapes of I Love Lucy reruns and laughed myself back to good health," he said. "Clearly, humor and laughter have a positive effect on one's attitude and health overall. While we don't know all of the specifics, our immune system appears to benefit from these emotions."
Humor therapy is used in both mainstream and alternative medicine. It can take many forms, but generally it is simply the recognition by physicians, nurses, and other health care practitioners of the value of mixing humor and laughter with medication and treatment. It is especially important with children and the elderly. Patients can also help themselves to heal by adding more humor and laughter to their lives.
Hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and other medical care facilities can also turn to professionals for help in bringing humor to their patients. One example is the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which has programs in hospitals throughout the New York metropolitan area and major children's hospitals throughout the United States, including Children's Hospital in Boston. Professional clowns perform three days a week at the bedsides of hospitalized children to help ease the stress of serious illnesses. The clowns use juggling, mime, magic tricks, music, and gags to promote the healing power of humor. Instead of stethoscopes, thermometers, and hypodermics, the "doctors of delight" make their "clown rounds" with Groucho Marx disguises, funny hats, and rubber chickens.
No advance preparation is required, except possibly a good repertoire of jokes and gags for the therapist.
Not everyone will appreciate humor therapy. Some people may consider humor for the sick or injured as inappropriate or harmful. Therefore, it is important to know or sense when humor will be therapeutic and when it will be inappropriate. It should be used cautiously at first in situations in which the sensitivity of the person to whom it is directed is uncertain or unknown.
The only adverse side effect of humor therapy is that it can cause mental hurt, sadness, and alienation in persons who are not receptive to it, or if it is used insensitively.
Research & general acceptance
Humor therapy is widely accepted in the alternative health community and is finding growing acceptance with mainstream health practitioners, especially registered nurses. Numerous scientific studies done in a clinical setting support the benefits of humor therapy. Two 1989 studies done at the Loma Linda (CA) University School of Medicine showed that laughter stimulates the immune system, counteracting the immunosuppressive effects of stress. These findings have been supported by other studies at the UCLA Medical School Department of Behavioral Medicine, the Ohio State University School of Medicine, and the VA Medical Center in San Diego.
While several studies have demonstrated that humor therapy raises the level of salivary immunoglobin A, they have also been challenged. Other research focuses on the effects of humor therapy on natural killer (NK) cell assays, which are considered to give clearer and more replicable results. The general conclusion is that laughter has the potential to reduce stress and stress hormone levels, consequently reducing their effects on the immune system. Humor therapy may well be a useful complementary therapy for oncology patients.
Training & certification
Although no official training or certification is required, there are a few institutions that teach humor therapy. Further information is available from the American Association for Therapeutic Humor listed below.
Adams, Patch, and Maureen Mylander. Gesundheit!: Bringing Good Health to You, the Medical System, and Society Through Physician Service, Complementary Therapies, Humor, and Joy. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International Ltd., 1998 (Revised).
Klein, Allen. The Courage to Laugh: Humor, Hope, and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying. Boston: J.P. Tarcher, 1998.
Wooten, Patty. Compassionate Laughter: Jest for Your Health! Salt Lake City, UT: Commune-A-Key, 1996.
American Association for Therapeutic Humor. 222 S. Meramec, Suite 303. St. Louis, MO 63105. (314) 863-6232. <http://www.aath.org>.
International Center for Health & Humor. 2930 Hidden Valley Road, Edmond, OK 73013. (405) 341-8115. http://www.humorandhealth.com.
Humor and Health Journal. Bimonthly newsletter. P.O. Box 16814. Jackson, MS 39236. (601) 957-0075.
Ken R. Wells