Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The new miracle drug: laughter!

Has anyone seen my new sweater?" yelled a "6-year-old from her upstairs bedroom. "You mean the one that cost $60?" shouted her father from the living room.
"You mean the stupid one that makes you look fat?" offered her brother from his adjoining bedroom.
"You mean the one with the low neckline?" inquired Grandma from the kitchen.
"You mean the one that has to be washed by hand in cold water?" demanded Mother from the laundry room.

If you fail to see the humor in that family situation, you may have a serious problem (pun intended). Dr. William Fry refers to laughter as stationary-jogging that benefits the entire body. Actually, there is hardly a system in your body that a good laugh doesn't stimulate. Norman Cousins, the famous editor of Saturday Review, cured himself of a serious collagen illness using massive doses of vitamin C and a tremendous amount of laughter every day. More than 60 years ago the world-famous physical culturist Bernarr MacFadden proclaimed laughter as a valid exercise and wrote about his laugh cure.

Most of us suffer from information overload concerning those things that we are powerless to change. Even a collection of one-liners read on a daily basis can lift one's spirits from the pits of despair. Laugh therapy is especially effective when shared with a friend or loved one. Your laughter ignites each other's funny bone and raises your level of hilarity.
Psychologist Alice M. Isen and colleagues recruited college undergraduates for a series of studies about how mood affects creativity. Given a book of matches, a box of tacks, and a candle, the students were asked how they would affix the candle to a corkboard so that, when burning, the candle did not drip wax on the floor below. Before attempting to solve the problem, some of the students watched a comedy film of television bloopers designed to put them in a good mood. The other group watched Area Under a Curve (a math film).

The researchers found that 75 percent of the students put into a cheerful mood by the comedy film correctly solved the problem. In contrast, only 20 percent of those who watched the math film came up with the correct answer. (If you are the curious type, the solution was to empty the box and tack it to the wall to make a platform for the candle.)

Another study indicates that a good belly laugh may actually make you less sensitive to pain. Using 20-minute segments, one group listened to a Lily Tomlin tape (remember "one ring-a-dingy"?), another listened to a relaxation tape, a third heard a lecture on ethics, and the final (control) group did not listen to a tape. Using a blood pressure cuff to create pain, they found that both the relaxation and laughter groups had significantly higher pain thresholds than the others.

To determine if the laughter had merely distracted the subjects, the researchers conducted a second study in which groups either listened to a Bill Cosby tape, an Edgar Allan Poe reading, or a lecture; performed a series of multiplication tasks; or heard nothing. This time the pain threshold was measured both before and after the experiment. Only those students who listened to the comedy tape showed a significant increase in their ability to withstand pain. On average, they withstood 20 percent more pain than the other groups. The researchers point out that laughter is a naturally occurring response and might be particularly useful against short-term pain of injections or recovery from minor surgery. Perhaps we should add another category of short-term pain--final exams!

"It is possible," writes one researcher, "that laughter releases chemicals in the brain, beta-endorphins and enkephalins, which are natural painkillers. These painkillers may be as much as 100 times stronger than any morphine or opium-based drug we can take." It is interesting to me that, according to the Bible, God revealed to humankind the power of laughter thousands of years ago "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (Proverbs 17:22, NIV).

According to at least one expert in the field of humor, your daily laugh total should equal at least 15 chuckles a day or you are underlaughed. Unfortunately, knowing you should laugh does not guarantee you will do it. Fortunately, for those of you with an undiscovered funny bone, researchers at the University of Florida discovered that a sense of humor can be learned and cultivated.

First, keep in mind that you don't have to have a reason to laugh. In fact, when you try to explain why you are laughing, it may not seem funny anymore. Initially you may feel awkward or even embarrassed by your laughter. If necessary, lock yourself in your room and practice laughing in the mirror. Before long you will have tears rolling down your cheeks as you learn to laugh at yourself. Once you make the decision that laughter is a priority in your life, then the awkwardness or embarrassment will be easier to tolerate.

You will notice a loss of muscle control when you really begin to laugh. That's why you bend over or fall out of your chair. Your diaphragm sets up a chain reaction in your body. As the diaphragm automatically convulses, it shakes up your stomach and other vital organs. You get an internal massage or, as one researcher calls it, internal jogging. Have you ever laughed until your sides hurt? That is caused by your diaphragm pulling on your side muscles with each convulsion.

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