Early on a glorious morning in Miami, the soft sun shone on the beach. Loose branches of palm trees swayed in the wind and waves rhythmically crashed against the sand. I was standing barefoot in a circle of people, excited and fascinated to try something absolutely new.
We shook hands while looking in each others’ eyes and taking deep breaths. Our leader told us to pull out imaginary phones and pretend that we heard the funniest joke in the world and laugh. Our laughter became contagious. When you see someone laughing, your reflex is to laugh also. Why were we doing these exercises? It was a Laughter Club.
Laugh no matter what
I always love to smile and laugh. My eyes have crow’s feet and I call them my “rays of fun”. They are a lovely reminder of the many happy and joyful moments I’ve had in my life.
What took me by surprise was that now, going through a difficult medical treatment, I began to laugh even more. It felt like my brain kept giving a strong and powerful command to me to reduce my levels of stress and tension. One time, telling a funny story to my husband, I happily started laughing and could not stop for several minutes. He laughed with me, and then exclaimed, “You had laughter therapy!”
“Laughter therapy, if it exists, it is probably the most wonderful treatment in the world,” I thought. To laugh in order to feel better, relax muscles throughout the body, trigger the release of endorphins (the body’s natural painkillers), relieve pain, balance blood pressure, improve sleep, enhance the quality of your life and create a healthier and more cheerful sense of wellbeing … what could be better?
I decided to find out if it is possible to cure illness with laughter.
Laughter as a remedy
In 1964, Norman Cousins, a journalist at the Saturday Review, suddenly felt severe aches and pains throughout his body. His temperature skyrocketed. A week later it was difficult for him to move. Even to raise his hands required great effort. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with a very rare and serious degenerative disease, ankylosing spondylitis, that was causing the breakdown of his collagen.
Norman’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Norman stopped talking and was lying in despair all day in bed, turned to the wall of the hospital room. His doctor told him that only one in 500 patients recover. Norman passionately wanted to be this one lucky person in 500. He promised himself, “If doctors can’t help me, I’ll find my own way of healing.’’
In search of a remedy, Norman turned to the Bible: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” (The Prophecies of King Solomon 17:22). He also discovered that the great philosophers placed great importance on positive emotions. In first place was laughing.
From pain to laughter
Over the protests of doctors, he discharged himself from the hospital. He decided the most important part of his healing programme would be to laugh throughout the day as much as possible. He bought a projector and started watching Marx Brothers’ comedies and hilarious “Candid Camera” shows. He watched and laughed despite his body aches. Then his nurse read him humorous stories again and again until a breakthrough moment. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” He continued his regime of laughter.
Within six months Norman was back on his feet, and after two years he returned to his full-time job at the Saturday Review. In 1979 he published the bestseller, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient where he shared the story of his remarkable recovery.