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Laughter: The Ageless Prescription for Good Health

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Is the day coming when your doctor will tell you to watch 2 episodes of "The Simpsons" and call him in the morning? Maybe not, but more and more, humour is being recognized as a powerful force for maintaining good mental and physical health. The idea that laughter is good for you is nothing new, but now science is proving it.

Laughter is an age-old elixir that modern healers should both practice and prescribe, a growing number of humor-oriented health professionals maintain. Humor's assistance in modern medicine is no joke, says Dr. William Fry, a leading researcher into the psychology of laughter at Stanford University. He says the body gets a healthy "mini-workout" from a good guffaw.


Throughout history, philosophers and writers have noted the benefits of humor on the sick. Arnold Glasow called laughter "a tranquilizer with no side effects." Voltaire wrote, "The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease. Philosopher Max Beerbohm noted, "Nobody ever died of laughter," while present-day scholar Norman Cousins says he was healed of a diagnosed "incurable disease" by the curative powers of hard laughing, which he dubbed an exercise akin to "internal jogging.


Fry says 20 seconds of intense laughter, even if faked, can quickly double the heart rate for three to five minutes, an accomplishment that would take three minutes of strenuous rowing exercise. Studies also show that muscles in the chest, abdomen, shoulders, neck, face and scalp get a beneficial workout and that other parts of the body are more relaxed during a laughing session.


"We now have laboratory evidence that mirthful laughter stimulates most of the major physiologic systems of the body," said William Fry, M.D., psychiatrist, and leading expert on humour and health. According to Fry, a good belly-laugh speeds up the heart rate, improves blood circulation and works muscles all over the body. "It's an aerobic exercise," he said. "And after the laughter is over, you feel relaxed."

According to Fry, laughter may help ward off heart attacks by easing tension, stress and anger. It may also help prevent the circulatory sluggishness that leads to strokes, and lessen the discomfort of people suffering from cancer. Fry has suggested that laughter may even help prevent cancer by relieving depression, an emotional state that may make people more susceptible to the disease. Many experts credit the late author Norman Cousins as being a pioneering advocate for the health benefits of humour.


Cousins suffered from ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that afflicts the joints between the spinal vertebrae. He found that 10 minutes of belly laughter would give him two hours of pain-free, drug-free sleep. In his 1979 book, "Anatomy of an Illness," Cousins asserted that humour and a positive mental attitude had helped him overcome his condition.

Clinical research has indicated that humour may have a direct effect on the body's ability to fight infections. According to the American Association for Therapeutic Humour, laughter boosts the body's production of "killer" white blood cells that attack infectious agents in the body. "We now have proof that humour and laughter improve the chemicals in your body, in both the short and long terms." Researchers i California, found that laughter boosts the immune system by increasing the body's level of T cells, which attack cells infected by viruses.

In its role as a stress reducer, humour imparts both physical and emotional benefits, experts say. It helps us cope from day to day. "Humour is not just about laughing at a joke. It's a perspective about life. It's an emotional release and it also allows you to continue to function in stressful situations." One of the most important aspects of using humour as a stress buster is one's ability to produce it spontaneously. "That's really the key to the wonderful effects of humour, to using it as a coping strategy," she said.

According to Joel Goodman, director of the Humour Project, stress hormones are suppressed when we laugh. "Even though stress may be inevitable in life, it doesn't have to take a physiological toll on us," he said. That said, nothing beats a good laugh. "The beauty of humour is that it's accessible to anyone. People can do this on their own, without paying a lot of money, joining an health club or seeing a doctor."

"I recommend that people build a humour library of funny books, video tapes, props, whatever. If you're having a bad day, feeling down and want to boost your immune system, just go to your humour library and find the things that make you laugh."

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