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Volume 9, Issue 2: Medicus

Prescription Laughter

John Grauke

Norman Cousins during a hospitalization for a life-threatening illness is reputed to have poured his apple juice into his urine specimen cup. When his nurse commented on how brown the specimen was he said, "You know, you are right, I'll just run it through again," and he drank the full contents of the cup. Cousins cultivated his sense of humor to combat illness. He first called the attention of the medical profession to the potential therapeutic effects of humor and laughter in his landmark 1976 article in the New England Journal of Medicine which became the first chapter of his book, Anatomy of an Illness.[1] In the book Cousins tell how he used humor as an unconventional protocol for recovery from ankylosing spondytitis, a severe connective tissue disease. He followed Linus Pauling's advice on vitamin C, and combined it with a steady diet of "Candid Camera" and the Marx Brothers. He found that "ten minutes of genuineEAXW belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain free sleep." Corroborating his intuition that he was improving, his sedimentation rate (which measures the degree of inflammation) fell when tested immediately after a laughing spell or a dose of vitamin C. Cousins spent the last 12 years of his life at UCLA Medical School in the Department of Behavioral Medicine exploring the scientific proof of his belief. He established the Humor Research Task Force which coordinated and supported worldwide clinical research on humor.[2]

The word humor itself comes from the Latin root "umor" meaning moisture. In the Middle Ages, humor referred to an energy that was thought to relate to a body fluid and an emotional state. This energy was believed to determine health and disposition (i.e., "He's in bad humor"). A sanguine humor was cheerful and associated with blood. A choleric humor was angry and associated with bile. A phlegmatic humor was apathetic and associated with mucous. A melancholic humor was depressed and associated with black bile.[3] In modern usage humor is "the quality that makes something seem funny, amusing or ludicrous." The ability to find humor and to laugh at situations, especially those pertaining to one's own self, is healthy.
Stress has long been known to have an unhealthy effect on the human body. Recent research in the etiology of coronary artery disease and "heart attacks" indicates that stress and anger may have a greater role than any other independent variable. The connection between stress and high blood pressure, muscle tension, immunosuppression, and any other changes has been known for years. Research is now confirming that laughter creates the opposite effects. It has been shown to lower serum cortisone levels, increase the amount of activated T lymphocytes, increase the number and activity of natural killer cells, and increase the number of T cells that have helper/suppressor receptors. In short, laughter stimulates the immune system and counterbalances the immunosuppressive effects of stress.
Research is a "Johnny come lately" to the scene made evident by Proverbs which depict a thorough understanding of findings we are just now making in the scientific community. "A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken" (Prov. 15:13); "All the days of the afflicted are evil, but he who is of a merry heart has continual feast" (Prov. 15:13); "A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones" (Prov. 17:22). The writer of these proverbs alludes both to the beneficial effect of a merry heart and to the deleterious effect of its opposite. The body is not an independent machine like a truck. Our attitudes affect how we function, and we are not left without direction in how we are to behave in relationship to our attitudes. "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice" (Phil. 4:4); "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6).
We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). As research continues to uncover the vast extent of our physiology, we cannot help but be thankful to our Creator. The blessings of our makeup fall upon believer and unbeliever alike as part of God's common mercies. However, only the believer can truly experience the full benefit of this aspect of our design. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes teaches, only believers can enjoy the vanity. The thing that is really funny is that the battle has already been won, the price has been paid. What, me worry? You've got to be kidding!

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